AINSLEY MAITLAND-NILES is trying to shut out thoughts of his Arsenal mates being on a title charge.
He and Southampton have a battle to win at the other end of the table — and he is confident they can do it.
Maitland-Niles, on a season-long stay at St Mary’s, is keeping in touch with fellow graduates of Arsenal’s academy like Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson.
He said: “We don’t speak about what is happening at each other’s teams.
“It’s more like, ‘Hi, are you good? Hope you’re well and I’ll see you soon’.
“I’m just staying focused because I’m trying to help the team and get us out of this relegation battle.”
Maitland-Niles has tasted the pain of the drop while on loan before, two years ago with West Brom.
An FA Cup winner with the Gunners in the Covid-disrupted 2019-20 season, he won five England caps in the first half of the next campaign before going on loan to the struggling Baggies.
And in a cruel twist, West Brom’s fate was sealed by a 3-1 defeat at the Emirates, with Premier League rules preventing the utility man from playing against his parent club.
Maitland-Niles, 25, said: “It was strange. You just have to sit there and try to rally the boys before the game and during the training sessions.
“It was a difficult situation. It’s always hard when you are at the bottom.
“You just have to have self-belief as a team. There’s always talent in the room.
“As long as the man next to you is willing to fight with you, you should be fine.”
When asked why he is confident there will be a different outcome for rock-bottom Saints, Maitland-Niles said: “The positive energy coming from the manager Ruben [Selles], through the changing room, then from player to player.
“The mood is really good. Players are fresh back from internationals, the vibe is high, the spirits are high.
“Training sessions are looking absolutely amazing right now.
“We don’t even look as if we are worried about anything. That’s a good sign.”
And ahead of today’s crunch clash at drop rivals West Ham, Maitland-Niles gives much of the credit to Selles, Saints’ third boss of the season after the sackings of Ralph Hasenhuttl and Nathan Jones.
He sees similarities between Selles and his fellow Spaniard Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal boss.
Maitland-Niles added: “The way he lives and breathes football and looks at the game is second to none, like Arteta.
“Maybe that’s the Spanish mentality, the love of football they have.
“He’s a very straightforward person. He tells you what he wants and needs.
“From day one, he said, ‘This is the way we are going to move forward. This is what I want everyone to do’.
“Everyone has jumped on board and is happy to do ten times what he is asking for. You can see that in recent performances.”
Not least the 3-3 draw against Spurs before the international break.
A lot of teams, especially one in Southampton’s situation, would have thrown in the towel after going 3-1 behind with barely 15 minutes to go.
But Selles’ side equalised through a stoppage-time penalty by James Ward-Prowse, awarded for a foul on Maitland-Niles.
He said: “The captain has showed what he’s capable of multiple times this season. It was fantastic.
“He is absolutely amazing. He’s a warrior, he’s a soldier, he’s Southampton through and through.
“He’s what you would want from every player on the pitch.
“He gives 100 per cent, he works very hard in training, he’s a stand-up guy. He’s perfect.
“It almost felt like a win in the stadium. It has brought a lot of confidence.”
Southampton still have it all to prove — but at least they have time to prove it.
Yet it remains a big ask for the Saints to stay up, whose squad is the second youngest in the Prem behind Arsenal.
Maitland-Niles said: “The experienced heads are now coming together with the youth and talent that we have — and I’m sure we will be all right in the end.”