Exclusive: Ainsley Maitland-Niles planning to leave Arsenal this summer

Ainsley Maitland-Niles has resolved to leave Arsenal this summer, with the on-loan midfielder accepting that prospective Premier League clubs see him as a right-back at the very top level.

The 23-year-old was left out of Gareth Southgate’s most recent England squad, having figured in five of the previous seven internationals including the last camp in November, and will play for loan side West Bromwich Albion against Chelsea on Saturday in midfield.

Nevertheless, there is recognition on his part that higher up the Premier League he is regarded as a right-back, and it was to play in that position that Wolverhampton Wanderers offered Arsenal £20 million for him last summer.

That was rejected although with two seasons remaining on his current Arsenal deal, and no extension being offered by the club, this summer is accepted as the natural break-point with a club he joined at the age of five.

There is expected to be interest from Wolves, Leicester City and Southampton although there is a chance Maitland-Niles could attract inquiries from higher up the Premier League – especially with homegrown status. Manchester United are among the top clubs looking at strengthening their right-back position.

Maitland-Niles considers himself principally as a midfielder, and expects to demonstrate his ability in that position against top opposition when West Brom – 10 points from safety – visit Stamford Bridge on Saturday lunchtime. He has been played as a No 8 by Sam Allardyce since joining the club on loan in January, although the tendency has been for the West Brom manager to switch Maitland-Niles to a wider position in the closing stages of games.

The season started strongly for Maitland-Niles at Arsenal after the rejection of the bid from Wolves although concerns about failing to hold down a regular place at 23 prompted the move to West Brom.

Since then Arsenal have begun preparations to recruit in the right-back position this summer, with interest in Inter Milan’s Morocco international Achraf Hakimi. Should Hector Bellerin leave then the club would look to sign a first-choice right back – Hakimi or another – and either way the door would be closed on a return as No 1 for Maitland-Niles.

The question of his position has been a major factor throughout his senior career with both Arsene Wenger and his successor Unai Emery seeing Maitland-Niles as a full-back – with Emery even playing him at left-back against Mohamed Salah at Anfield. His adaptability has come to be a strength and with few saleable assets this is the final summer in which Arsenal can expect a large fee for the player.

Verdict

Maitland-Niles offers a level of versatility that many Premier League managers trying to operate lean squads will prize. He can play in midfield and at full-back and that will make him attractive in a pandemic-hit market where clubs want value for money more than ever.

As for the player himself, he could have cruised through this season playing a handful of games at Arsenal but that had never been his intention. The loan to West Bromwich Albion has signalled to interested parties that he is ready for his move away from Arsenal at the end of the season.

Academy graduates at the leading English clubs have increasingly had to accept that, for all but a handful of them, a first team breakthrough might come relatively late. Maitland-Niles has no desire to hang around playing an understudy role into his mid-20s.

The right-back position is arguably the strongest of any when it comes to the senior England team with Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Kieran Trippier all senior internationals. Maitland-Niles looked comfortable in his five England caps won over the course of last year but to be in contention for the World Cup finals in 20 months’ time he needs to be playing first team Premier League football.

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