Arsene Wenger, beset on all sides like an oyster at an otter convention, has raised his defenses – literally and figuratively. In the Caribou Cup first leg at Stamford Bridge Arsene told the fullbacks “play fullback tonight” and sure enough they did, venturing forward on only the rarest of occasions.
Bellerin was the more conservative of the two. He made just one cross on 11 passes in the Chelsea final third. Maitland-Niles on the other side was much more adventurous, two crosses, four dribbles, and 22 passes in the Chelsea final third.
Perhaps owing to the fact that he got forward or the fact that his forward was playing more center forward than left wing, Chelsea spent much of the night getting deep into Maitland-Niles’ side of the pitch. Of their 32 tackles, 17 of them were in the left back 1/3, and of their 28 crosses 18 were whipped in from that side.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles was hung out to dry on the left but it was a good thing that he did well enough to help keep the clean sheet. Playing with Welbeck supposedly in front of him but in reality carrying the entire left side of the pitch on his own, Maitland-Niles was Arsenal’s best player by miles. And I don’t care what Whoscored’s metric says.
After the match Wenger tipped the 20 year old to eventually play defensive midfielder for Arsenal. A role which is a crowded graveyard of derision at Arsenal. And we shouldn’t forget that this is a line Wenger often trots out about young players – before AMN, Chambers was going to be that guy.
Arsene Wenger’s track record developing defensive midfielders since about 2006 is highly suspect. Wenger has tried nearly every player imaginable in that role up to and including Eboue in a cameo that nearly destroyed his Arsenal career. His last full-time DM was Coquelin – another player he forced to play the fullback role on occasion. Coquelin is now the object of ridicule at Arsenal, a player who is somewhere between clown and footballer in the minds of many Arsenal supporters. A short trip through twatter reveals alternating videos of glowing praise and derision.
Guardiola described his time as a defensive midfielder and how it taught him to think about the game. DM isn’t just a destroyer, the best ones are master manipulators, pulling the opposition into blind alleys with a direct pass, receiving the return pass, and then moving the ball to the real target on the other side after the opponent’s team has lost its shape. Young players need to learn to pass and to read the opposition, they need to learn how to open up a team with a simple move, and yes, also how to tackle, how to control in tight spaces, and when to be smart in taking the yellow card for your team. Arteta could do it, Gilberto before him, but those two came ready made to Arsenal.
Watching Chelsea pour over Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ side of the pitch targeting him as the weak link, like every team is doing right now, makes me fear for his career. I’m happy that Arsenal kept a clean sheet last night and that there were no incidents on his side of the pitch – none of those brain-dead kickouts which result in a penalty.
But if Maitland-Niles is serious about playing defensive midfielder he may consider asking for a transfer (or just holding on for Wenger’s replacement this summer), playing left back in a broken system where teams like Chelsea target you for 90 minutes while the forwards in front of you run around like headless chickens isn’t good training. Good training is actually playing for a manager with a track record of developing defensive mids.
But Wenger made the right call on the night. Arsenal kept the clean sheet and Maitland-Niles had a great game. So, perhaps Arsene Nose.
In two week’s time Arsenal get to host Chelsea and perhaps win a date with Man City at Wembley for a League Cup showdown.