Ainsley Maitland-Niles: I'm still learning to defend, admits Arsenal utility man

England U21 international believes criticism of his defensive displays has been unwarranted

Arsenal's Ainsley Maitland-Niles insists midfield is his natural position despite starting every game for the Gunners at right back this season

Ainsley Maitland-Niles has vowed to improve on his defensive displays as the versatile Arsenal midfielder prepares for renewed competition for his place in the side.

The Gunners began the Premier League campaign with two wins, but defeat against Liverpool was followed by back-to-back 2-2 draws.

Unai Emery's side embark on their Europa League campaign with the trip to face Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, while Hector Bellerin is back in training following a long injury lay-off.

Maitland-Niles hopes to retain his place and insists supporters need to be patient as he continues to learn the art of defending.

"If I was a defender as a kid, and my defending was poor, I would understand where the criticism is coming from, but I'm trying my best for the team."
Ainsley Maitland-Niles

When asked about Bellerin's return to action, the England U21 international told Sky Sports: "Only time will tell and of course I want to play as many games as I can.

"I want to stay in the team, but if the manager chooses to pick him over me, that's something I will have to live with. I'll just have to keep training and working hard so that I get picked instead.

"I'm a midfielder by trade, either central or on the wing, it's all the same to me. I'm not a defender so I do get a lot of stick about my defending being poor, but it's something I'm learning and have been learning for a couple of years now.

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"It's not going to come overnight. If I was a defender as a kid, and my defending was poor, I would understand where the criticism is coming from, but I'm trying my best for the team and for the manager.

"It's not where I would choose to put myself in the team, as I'm an attacking player by trade. That's all I can try to bring to the team. I'm still learning the defensive side, so when players are running at me, and they're throwing skills at me, I'm still learning how to deal with that.

Hector Bellerin is back in training and close to a return to action
Image: Hector Bellerin is back in training and close to a return to action

"It's always nice to have one main position where you play, and everyone else gets to play in their main position, so hopefully it's just a matter of time before I can do that too."

Maitland-Niles admits he prefers playing as part of a back five due to the greater width the system provides the team, but accepts the manager often changes to a diamond in midfield based on the opposition.

The right wing-back has urged Arsenal supporters to stick with the side "as a family" after the implosion against Watford at Vicarage Road.

preview image 2:44
Highlights from Watford's 2-2 draw with Arsenal in the Premier League

Having reached the Europa League final last season, losing 4-1 to Chelsea to miss out on a Champions League berth, Maitland-Niles says the priority remains returning to Europe's premier cup competition - but the rigours of playing Thursdays and Sundays may take its toll.

"It does [have an impact on Premier League form] because you don't really get enough time to recover from the games properly," he added.

"But we've been through it before, two seasons in a row, and all we can do is keep on trying to get the hours in to recover, sleep and then get our tactical side ready for the next game.

Graeme Souness says Arsenal's players weren't taking responsibility for themselves or learning from their mistakes in their 2-2 draw with Watford

"The Premier League is our main competition that we want to solidify our place in. The top four would be brilliant, and anything outside of that would be unexpected for us.

"We'd been in the Champions League for so long, but we have to get back into it. That's the main aim."

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