There were 11 passes that led to the goal, however, all but one player featured in the build-up. It was the same story when Arsenal scored two more goals of startling similarity – against Liverpool in the Community Shield and in the semi-final of the FA Cup versus Man City – to add to the most recent, the third in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Fulham in the new 2020/21 season. They were all flowing team goals, yet, despite not being involved in any of them, Ainsley Mainland-Niles has still seen his stock rise from bit-part player to a crucial member of Mikel Arteta’s new Arsenal.
Practice makes perfect. pic.twitter.com/RR1uIyN1TN— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 14, 2020
Watch the goals again, and you’ll see that Mainland-Niles has an underrated role, a sort of a high-class decoy, by taking up positions to allow Arsenal to progress the ball freely. Against City, he acts as the extra midfielder, occupying De Bruyne to make sure he can’t press high up the pitch. Whilst against Liverpool and Fulham, two which goals are very alike, he makes runs beyond Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Mainland-Niles’ spacial awareness is very evident in those two goals, as he starts in a central position, but then bursts up the pitch to take runners away with him opening up the space for Aubameyang to shoot.
It’s this role which has made Mainland-Niles indispensable to Arteta recently, because his positioning, more than others it seems, allows Arsenal’s system to readily morph between a back 3 and a back 4, or rather, a 3-4-3, to a 4-3-3/4-2-4. (Though Kieran Tierney also lays a good claim to that because he flits in between a left-sided centre-back and a wing-back, but then again, you can pinpoint others who have amibiguous, and amorphous roles – Aubameyang for example constantly switches between winger and a striker, whilst Bellerin and Willian can be seen stepping inside). AMN’s positioning is perhaps more extreme. In the game against Fulham, I observed 5 different functions he undertook at various moments, depending on where he moved on the pitch.
AMN is 1. Wing-back 2. Spare central midfielder in build-up 3. Another player between-the-lines 4. Extra attacker (often making runs beyond Lacazette/Auba – see first goal) 5. Target man to bounce passes off pic.twitter.com/Aq72A4UMfJ— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) September 13, 2020
Rio Ferdinand gave a good breakdown on this on BT Sport: “Maitland-Niles is a wing back and when you speak about wing backs you’d expect him to be in the wide areas, coming out consistently throughout the game. He’s done anything but that, he comes in, passes the ball and his first run after that is to run inside and create an overload in midfield. He comes straight into the midfield area and what that does is it causes confusion and causes them to have more numbers in there than they’d usually have.
“After that you’ve got the width being created by Aubameyang, your main goalscoring threat, and the left-sided centre-half, Tierney, he’s the man who creates the width. It’s so different to what you expect from a three at the back. You normally see it being quite rigid and you know where people are. When you’re a player out there and you don’t see players in the positions you expect to see them in, that is a confusing element. That’s what Arteta seems to be doing and we see are they a well-drilled team.”
Yet, despite this multi-pronged role, Mainland-Niles seems both there and on the fringes at the same time. At Craven Cottage, he only completed 36 passes which is quite low for a wing-back (compared to Bellerin with 55). In fact, Tierney is the usual outlet on that side. What AMN does well if he doesn’t get the ball, is assume the role of facilitator by either overloading the flank, or moving inside to make the extra man. Arsenal can then do a number of things from there; go wide, hit Aubameyang early (or even play the ball to AMN spin a pass around the corner) or give space to Xhaka to come to the ball. Against Fulham, Arsenal favoured the left side from deep because they knew they out outnumbered their opponents there, and then after drawing them to one side, were able to switch the ball across. Goals one and three were expertly crafted in such a way.
The presence of Gabriel further allowed to build on that left-side bias as he naturally shaped to go down that flank.
It’s to be seen whether Arteta can make the adjustments that still make Arsenal effective in the same system without a player like AMN. Saka can feasibly play that role, although, the manager has said the aim is for the team to have more tricks up it’s sleeves. He said that he would like to have more “versatility. We will be more difficult to control if we are able to master two or three different formations without driving the players crazy. Always with the same principles, but being able to change system, and to attack and defend in different ways.”
Unai Emery also wanted the same thing, however, Arteta has shown better signs of being adaptable because for a start, his base is always a “4-2” shape with the 4 attackers ahead. This makes it easier to transfer between systems.
Certainly, the team has shown they are just as comfortable getting back into a defensive block as they are building play from the back. “Total domination”, as it was when he was assistant manager to Pep Guardiola at Man City, seems less of an obsession for him right now, but instead, he is more concerned about dominating in the moments when the team does have the ball – probably because he knows he doesn’t have the personnel to play that way all the time.
Indeed, that would be the next step for Arteta to improve as last season, it felt as if the team drew too many games because they couldn’t rise above the system and what was asked for them. The goals they scored in the opening day show that they do that part very well, but 13 shots overall is probably a only par return. Of course, Arteta realises this therefore he says his aim is to get the team “to arrive in better positions as many times as possible for them to be able to create as many situations as we want. We have to have the play sustained behind them, to tie everything together.” Creativity need not just be from an obvious central source. There are many ways he can cultuvate it. “Some teams do it differently,” he says.
“Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way, without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It’s an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it.”
At times against Fulham, Arsenal attacked with 4 or 5 players in the box. By the looks of it, Arteta is totally set on building an intrepid and unpredictable Arsenal.