In the 76th minute of the Under-20 World Cup final in South Korea's Suwon World Cup stadium, Ainsley Maitland-Niles clapped the hands of the substituted Ademola Lookman and entered the fray of the most important football match of his young career thus far.
The question for Maitland-Niles (and for Arsenal fans) is, what happens next? The versatile youngster will return from his enormously successful international duties and slot straight into pre-season training with the Arsenal first team, as they prepare for their tour to Australia in mid July. In some shape or form he'll already be in Arsene Wenger's plans for the new campaign but Ainsley will be keen to make an impression, and should be confident in doing so, riding the momentum of his Under-20 World Cup success.
Arsenal have some stiff competition in central midfield, with Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Mohamed Elneny, Francis Coquelin and, when he returns from injury, Santi Cazorla all vying for a staring place, so Maitland-Niles will have his work cut out for him. However he does have a few factors working in his favour.
The largest of which is his versatility, which will bode him well in the near future. At just 19 years-old, he isn't expected to cement a position any time soon, but his flexibility across the midfield and even in defence will put him in good stead to fill in when injuries inevitably take their toll on this Arsenal squad. He can operate in central midfield, on the right wing, and even at right back if needed. Maitland-Niles must capitalise on any opportunity he gets over the course of the next 12 months.
During the 2016/17 season he spent most of his time playing for the under-23s, operating almost exclusively in central midfield. Maitland-Niles made seven senior appearances, featuring three times in the EFL Cup, three times in the FA Cup, and making a late cameo in the Premier League against Sunderland in late October. I was particularly impressed with his performance against Southampton in the 4th round of the FA Cup, when the Gunners routed the Saints 5-0 and young Ainsley put in a dominant 90 minute shift in the middle of the park. He was so composed and assured in possession, and combined effectively with Jeff Reine-Adelaide to cause Southampton a host of problems, never letting them have a sniff of the ball.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Maitland-Niles has ahead of the new season is the level of expectation resting on his shoulders. As in, the general football-going public and your casual Arsenal fan won't expect anything from him at all. This will benefit Ainsley as he can go about his business and continue his development at the right pace, honing his craft in first team training sessions and hopefully be rewarded with a run out in the first eleven from time to time. That would be the ideal situation for Maitland-Niles in 2017/18; anything else is either a bonus, or the rest of the squad have been so decimated by injury that Ainsley simply has to play (great news for him, but not so great for the club if they have to throw the 19 year-old in the deep-end every weekend.)
I don't expect I'll be the only fan keeping a watchful eye on Maitland-Niles' progress and I certainly hope to see him feature for the first team a bit more often in the new season. Best of luck to him.