Ben White scout report: The £50m defender with an “old school mentality” bought to replace David Luiz
Mikel Arteta continues his Arsenal project and has been rather active in the summer transfer window. After the left-back Nuno Tavares and the midfielder Sambi Lokonga, the club announced their third most expensive signing, Ben White. A highly anticipated transfer – although looking at their last season’s defensive record, bringing another centre-back wasn’t the biggest necessity for the team.
With much more underlined problems in the attacking phase, Arsenal are pressurised to bring in new signings to help them in their forward ventures. While at first glance it seems like signing a defender wouldn’t fulfil that need, White’s arrival seems like a logical next step of the manager’s rebuild.
While the central defence has more depth than some of the other positions, the Gunners needed a versatile ball-playing defender who is solid under pressure to help Arteta implement his possession-based style of football.
And that’s a profile that the Englishman fits perfectly. His professional road hasn’t been easy but the multiple loan spells early in his career helped him gain experience and confidence. That led to him becoming an important figure both for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds and for his owners Brighton Hove & Albion in the last couple of seasons.
The 23-year-old finally tasted some Premier League action in the 2020/21 season, playing in 39 Brighton games and showing his huge potential. His performance led to an England call-up and joining the squad for the Euros.
What is the purpose of his arrival?
As mentioned, Arsenal’s attacking struggles seemed way deeper than their defensive ones last season. They achieved the third-best defensive record in the league by conceding only 39 goals, a result that would’ve been unimaginable in the previous campaigns. The manager started the season with the aim to implement his possession-based style of play but quickly realized that he doesn’t have the players for this yet. After a disappointing start, he focused better on the team’s performance out of possession, which included both their pressing strategy and their defensive challenges.
While they improved in that area, they were struggling a lot in possession and the lack of good connection between the lines really made it difficult for them to progress the ball efficiently and create goalscoring opportunities.
While many will agree this comes from the attacking players’ performance, it is their whole build-up process that needed reassessment. That’s where the need for a versatile centre-back appeared. Arteta needed someone to fit his vision and meet the expectations both defensively and in attack. In order for the team to employ a possession-based approach and be comfortable on the ball, they needed players that are comfortable with the ball and could progress the ball under pressure.
Beating the opposition’s pressing structures has been difficult for Arsenal as they often failed in comfortably retaining possession at the back and in opening the passing lanes successfully. That’s why they needed a ball-playing defender to help them in building up from the back and in finding the best passing solutions whenever pressurized.
The Londoners also needed someone who could constantly keep the opposite attackers under pressure and doesn’t hesitate to dive into challenges. Reading the game well and having an increased awareness is also much needed as it will help them in ball recovery and in intercepting passes.
Does he fit the profile?
White is a versatile defender, having played in different positions and roles for each of his clubs. Having experience as a centre-back, right-back and even a defensive midfielder has built his confidence both in and out of possession and has made him easily adaptable to different strategies and formations.
His most valuable qualities are his positioning and passing range, while his awareness and anticipation skills make him even more beneficial for his teams. His spatial awareness and passing allow him to successfully support ball progression as he transforms into an efficient ball carrier who can help in breaking the press and advancing the ball to key areas.
Something the Gunners are missing is a player who is focused on ball progression and likes to move into the midfield and deliver the ball to the advanced areas, supporting the attacking actions. With his technical skills and pace, White could be a successful addition in possession.
He reads the game well which has developed his decision-making, helping him in finding the best solution for bypassing the opposition’s press using his movement and dribbling, initiating attacking movement. That attribute helps him in being efficient defensively too as he can quickly identify any threat and intercept or tackle whenever needed.
His spatial awareness and composure on the ball help him in advancing the ball could help Arsenal in their offensive transitions and in building a better connection between the lines. The team were lacking a player who could place well between the opposition’s lines and combine with his more advanced teammates.
While the Londoners have midfield struggles too, signing this type of defender was a much-needed step in the right direction. White has a lot of experience in a back-three both with Leeds and Brighton, which suits Arteta’s intentions. He tried implementing a back-three formation on multiple occasions in effort to control the game through possession and methodically build-up through positional play. The 23-year-old would allow the team to take a more advanced position and break through the high press in order to control the game in the opposition half.
As a right-sided centre-back in a back-three formation, his movement with the ball allows the right wing-back and the other midfielders to move up the pitch so the team could overload the more advanced areas and increase the explosiveness in attack. The RB/RWB position is another problematic area for Arsenal as they currently only have Héctor Bellerín and Cédric Soares available, and both of them are unable to provide the needed attacking threat from the right.
White’s awareness and understanding of the game are crucial defensively too. While he is more efficient thanks to his positioning and anticipation skills, rather than his physical duels. His ability to cover depth, especially whenever the full-back/wing-back has failed to drop back in a timely manner is very important. His tendency to close out space is beneficial against teams that tend to play with width and rely on crossing.
His work under pressure and confidence could be crucial for the team’s defensive actions as they need a player who can step up and take responsibility in dangerous situations.
Ben White’s fitness record has been impressive so far, with no injuries that have sidelined him. This is very important for a team like Arsenal that often suffer because of injuries and lack of depth in certain positions. As our analysis showed, the 23-year-old could fit well in Arteta’s strategy and fill in the gaps both in and out of possession with his composure, passing and understanding of the game. The former Chelsea and Manchester City player Shaun Wright-Philips discussed the Englishman for TalkSPORT and said “He’s got old school mentality but he can play football as well” as he agreed that Arsenal missed a defender like him.