Arsenal’s pursuit of Ben White has puzzled some supporters. For a team with the third best defensive record in the Premier League last season, wouldn’t Â£ 50million be better spent elsewhere?
But for Mikel Arteta, like many coaches in modern football, the role of a central defender is not simply to keep the ball out of his own net. It’s about getting it back as accurately and efficiently as possible, and thus becoming the starting point for the team’s attacks.
Arteta considers playing from the back a key tenet of his philosophy, but advancing the ball across the pitch has been a persistent problem during his tenure – especially when he’s been without David Luiz, whose departure this summer left a gap in the game in the heart of Arsenal’s defense.
Many supporters had wanted William Saliba’s return to have a chance to fill this void, only for the defender to join Marseille on a one-season loan, but Arteta obviously favors the Whites and there can be no challenge to the caliber. of the 23-year-old. .
He showed it at Brighton last season, starting all but two of their Premier League games under Graham Potter after making an equally positive impression on Marcelo Bielsa a year earlier.
The Leeds manager was desperate to sign him for good after playing every minute of their winning league campaign, but the club’s offers – worth up to Â£ 25million – were pushed back. White’s value has since doubled.
Potter and Bielsa, like Arteta, have pledged to play from behind and the same goes for Gareth Southgate, who accelerated White to the England squad ahead of Euro 2020 and would see him as a key figure in the future. of the national part.
White’s burgeoning reputation has a lot to do with his exceptional technical abilities.
He’s excellent with the ball and has a great range of passing. His composure and self-confidence are such that Potter and Bielsa even used him in central midfield. He is also capable of playing right-back or winger-back.
That versatility is another part of the appeal for Arsenal – as well as for Southgate, who cited his “flexibility” after calling him – but it’s in his natural position, as a right center-back in a three-or-a-half back. four. , that it will be necessary for the Emirates.
Arsenal had previously looked to David Luiz to launch their attacks from this position, playing through opposition lines and selecting attacking players in dangerous areas. But it will now be up to White to take on that responsibility and he is well equipped for the task.
In fact, despite averaging fewer passes per game than his Arsenal counterparts last season, White has played a significantly higher percentage of his forward passes. This reflects his willingness to send his team on the attack rather than just recycling possession.
In the first half of last season at Brighton, his serve helped Tariq Lamptey shine as a right-winger. Then, following the youngster’s injury, White created a supply line for midfielders Pascal Gross and Yves Bissouma and even Leandro Trossard ahead of them.
But White offers much more than a cutting edge distribution.
In fact, one of his most eye-catching qualities, and one which is practically unique among Premier League center-backs, is his ability to dribble the ball out of defense.
Last season, White managed more dribbles than any other center-back in the division, and his run counts, defined by Opta as moves with the ball five yards or more away, were even more impressive.
Indeed, White has ranked first in the catch races, according to Opta, with his total of 18 almost twice as high as any other center-back. By engaging players in his own half, he is able to destabilize his opponents and create space for others to exploit.
White’s dribbling is facilitated by his athletic profile as well as his technical skills. The defender is strong in the duel and displays impressive pace and acceleration. Along with his close control, these attributes help him outsmart his opponents.
They will also call on Arsenal in a defensive sense. Arteta favors a high line, much like his mentor Pep Guardiola, but a lack of pace among his existing center-back options leaves Arsenal vulnerable behind. The speed of white recovery could change that.
The same goes for his ability to read the game. White is relatively inexperienced at 23, but he is always alert to danger – he averages more interceptions every 90 minutes than any center-back in Canada. Arsenal last season – and still aware of what’s going on around him.
Another crucial difference with Luiz, the man he will replace at Arsenal, is that he rarely makes mistakes.
In fact, in 82 league appearances for Brighton and Leeds over the past two seasons, White hasn’t made any mistakes leading to an opponent’s shot, according to Opta. Luiz, on the other hand, made four of 53 appearances in the same time frame.
White is a decidedly modern center-back, but he’s also tough – “he’s got that athleticism where he can just play, play, play,” Potter said last season – and uncompromising in tackling.
His loan periods helped him develop these physical attributes. Prior to Leeds, White spent time with Peterborough in League One and Newport County in League Two, climbing the football pyramid, experimenting with different styles and approaches of play and impressing everyone he worked with.
It’s not uncommon, of course, for former coaches and teammates to say that they’ve always seen a player’s rise to power as an afterthought.
But it is telling that Newport manager Michael Flynn was defending White as a future England international just weeks after starting his loan at Rodney Parade in 2017.
“I don’t like to put pressure on people, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t get a full international selection,” he said at the time. Flynn later described White as the best loan signing in club history. “I wish I could clone it,” he joked.
White’s loan spells strengthened him for the challenges ahead and when he finally returned to his childhood club early last season he was more than ready to make an impact.
Brighton finished 16th in the Premier League, but defensively they were one of the best teams in the division, keeping 12 clean sheets – the same number as Liverpool and Arsenal – and conceding 46 goals – just two more than Manchester United, second. All with White playing more minutes than any other player.
From Arsenal’s perspective, there is of course an element of risk in the deal. The Â£ 50million fee is a huge expense for someone with only one season of top-tier experience behind them.
But at only 23, White already looks like something close to the full package. Arteta hopes that his exciting development will continue on the same trajectory in the Emirates.
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