Few newly promoted players from the Championship were as highly sought after as Ben White, who attracted significant interest from Manchester United and Liverpool after his impressive loan spell with Leeds United. Rather than rushing to one of the league’s powerhouses, White continued his development under the auspices of Graham Potter at Brighton & Hove Albion.
A year on, the 23-year-old has gone from strength to strength, and is now reportedly on the verge of completing a £50 million move to Arsenal.
White is undoubtedly a talented central defender who should suit Mikel Arteta’s brand of methodical, possession-based football. After all, his standout attributes are in possession. White is an accomplished ball-carrier, and is often able to break an opposition press himself. The benefit of being able to break a press through a single player’s dribbling is that the rest of the team can take up more advanced positions rather than having to stay deeper to pose as a short passing option.
That offensive impact was demonstrated at Brighton, where White — playing as a right-sided centre back in a back three — allowed wingback Tariq Lamptey to push extremely high and wide down the right flank and either take players on or cross from more threatening positions. Arsenal lack a right-back of the same attacking dynamism, so White’s capacity to carry the ball forwards may not affect their attack as dramatically. Still, having a player who can disrupt an opposition press from central defence will be a useful asset for Arsenal’s offensive play.
The England international is also composed on the ball, comfortable at receiving it over and over to recycle it. Even when under pressure, his instinct is to find a short pass if possible rather than booting it long. White’s tendencies in possession should suit Arteta’s tactical instructions well.
Defensively, White is not a particularly physical defender. He is capable in defensive duels, but much of his defending is predicated on positional awareness and an ability to read the game. It’s one of the reasons he’s been able to adapt from playing in a back four, a back three, and even as a defensive midfielder during his career.
He is especially good at recognizing when to cover across for his fullback, something he was routinely tasked with doing when defending behind Lamptey at Brighton and Luke Ayling at Leeds. White is somewhat vulnerable in the air, but Gabriel is sufficiently dominant in those situations to compensate and deal with teams’ aerial threats.
Perhaps most important of all, White has thrived in teams that defend similarly to Arsenal. He is used to playing in a high defensive line with attack-minded fullbacks and has displayed that he is capable of playing in that type of aggressive defensive system. That should aid his transition in North London tremendously, more so than any one of his attributes in isolation.
Despite White’s ability as a defender and his suitability for Arsenal, his transfer to the Gunners is still something of a quandary. Ostensibly, Arsenal didn’t need to strengthen in central defence this season. They conceded the third fewest goals in the Premier League last season and the fifth fewest expected-goals against, even with injuries to the likes of Bernd Leno, Gabriel, and Kieran Tierney throughout the course of the season.
With the promising William Saliba seemingly primed for first-team opportunities, it may have been more sensible to devote resources elsewhere in the squad to resolve Arsenal’s main deficiency: their attack.
Yet Saliba, who himself moved to Arsenal for a hefty fee of £27, has yet to make a senior appearance for the club in three seasons. As a teenager, the Frenchman was sensational in Ligue 1 for Saint Etienne and he continued to be for OGC Nice last season. It is utterly baffling how a player who seems to fit perfectly with the profile of defender Arsenal need has been thrust aside.
Saliba’s loan is disappointing on many levels.
1. Luiz’s departure has created a natural gap in the squad for a ball-playing CB like him
2. His style of defending meshes well with Gabriel’s aggression
3. Most importantly, the way he reads the game means his ceiling is very high
— Premier League Panel (@PremLeaguePanel) July 16, 2021
For whatever reason, though, Arteta seems adamant in his refusal to use Saliba, and Arsenal consequently required a long-term partner for Gabriel in central defence. In that context, it’s fairer to interpret White’s signature as a £50 million solution to a self-imposed problem rather than a smart, long-term signing.
It speaks to a broader issue of how Arsenal are trying to build their squad and the problems that can arise in modern football when the manager is given so much power to make recruitment decisions.
Maybe if they can continue to produce the funds to wash over the mistakes it won’t matter. Even so, given Arsenal’s limited resources and existing talent, it’s hard to see why Ben White needed to be purchased at all.