While most eyes were on Euro 2020 and Copa America earlier this month, Arsenal were fully focused on new signings, with the club agreeing a £50m deal with Brighton for the signature of Ben White.
According to reports, Arsenal have already agreed personal terms with the centre-back, and he is set to undergo a medical when he returns from a short post-Euro 2020 holiday in Greece. Unlike previous Arsenal sagas, the Gunners appear all-but certain to get this deal over the line sooner rather than later.
Arsenal are in need of a centre-back with David Luiz having left the club at the end of his contract and William Saliba sent back out on loan again, this time to Marseille. Some fans have been put off by the £50m fee White that has commanded, preferring that amount to be spread across a number of signings rather than be splashed on one 23-year-old centre-back.
But is he actually worth that amount? We’ve taken a look at White’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what the deal would mean for the rest of the Premier League.
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Bringing the ball out from the back
In modern-day football, centre-backs are required to do a lot more than just defending, with one of their main selling points (depending on the team) being how they move the ball. With so many teams looking to play out from the back, the clamour for defenders who are calm on the ball has grown, and Arsenal are in dire need for a ball-playing centre-back.
In David Luiz last season, they had a player that was so calm on the ball, confident in his ability to pass around the back and bring it forward himself (albeit sometimes to the detriment of his side). But with Luiz gone, Arsenal do not have that anymore, until White comes in.
In the Premier League last season, White averaged 49.23 passes per 90 minutes and completed 40.94, ranked 50th and 48th respectively among centre-back to play at least 660 minutes in the division. Although that pales in comparison to completed passes for Rob Holding (55.17 completed per 90), Gabriel (59.89) and Luiz (53.7) at Arsenal last season, that is in part due to the different systems and teams, as the Gunners attempted 20,126 passes to Brighton’s 18,185.
What’s more impressive about White, however, is his passes completed in the final third, which comes in at an average of 6.65 per 90 minutes in the Premier League. With White in the team, Arsenal will have a player who can penetrate opposition defences from a deeper position if the more creative forward players aren’t having any luck.
White can also bring the ball out from the back with his feet, capable of playing in a similar role to Harry Maguire at Manchester United. If Arsenal are pressed high up the pitch, as we expect them to be due to their perceived inability to deal with the pressure on the edge of their own area, then White has the confidence and skill to play the Gunners out of danger. In the Premier League last season, no centre-back completed more take-ons than White’s 24, and only six did across Europe’s top five leagues.
Despite all we’ve just said, centre-backs still need to be able to defend, so it’s good that White can do that too. Despite being just 23 years old, White has excellent reading of the game and has already made a name for himself in being able to cut out attacks through his interceptions. For clarity, an Opta-defined interception is where “a player reads an opponent’s pass and intercepts the ball by moving into the line of the intended pass”.
At Brighton last season, White made 62 interceptions in the Premier League, with only four players managing more than the 23-year-old across the rest of the division. His closest rival at Arsenal was Dani Ceballos on 35, while Gabriel (26) was the Gunners centre-back with the most interceptions. Of course, this will in part come down to playing style, but Arsenal need someone like White to be able to defensively read the game and intercept when required.
These interceptions not only prevent an opponent’s attack but, depending on where they are on the pitch, can allow a team to break on the counter. An interception in the right area of the pitch for Arsenal could be the difference between going 2-0 down, and equalising (just as a random scenario). So many times in football do we see games changed on these small moments, and to have a defender that can do this is crucial.
When White doesn’t manage to intercept, he can still stop opposition attacks by tackling. Although he is not the biggest defender in terms of stature, White is deceptively strong and this, combined with his reading of the game and an opponent’s movement, makes him tough to beat.
Last season White made 49 tackles in the Premier League, ranking him 11th among centre-backs in the division. Again, this was higher than any Arsenal defender, with only Granit Xhaka (50) managing more across the rest of the club. But what makes White’s tackling so good, and so crucial to the way he plays, is that he knows when to commit and when not to.
For Arsenal specifically, fans have had to get used to defenders choosing to tackle at the wrong time or from the wrong position, leading to dangerous free-kicks and penalties – whether they were harsh or not. White isn’t perfect here, committing 30 fouls last season at an average of 0.85 per 90 minutes, but again he outranks Arsenal’s three main centre-backs, with a lower fouls per 90 ratio.
Arsenal are obviously signing White as a centre-back, and that’s where he should play. But if Mikel Arteta’s side ‘do an Arsenal’ they’ll be thankful to have someone with White’s ability to play across a few positions. That ‘do an Arsenal’, by the way, refers to their knack of picking up injuries to key players at big moments of the season, seemingly every season.
If White isn’t the one to fall, he can play at right-back or right-wing-back, having done so for Brighton on a few occasions last season. White can also deputise in midfield, protecting the defence with his tackling and interceptions that many a defensive midfielder would be jealous of. And this won’t be the case of a player so obviously playing out of position. White is more than capable wherever he has played and will do a job for Arsenal. Heck, he’d probably be a good False No.9 if Arteta needed him to be (that’s a joke Mikel, don’t actually do it).
So, here’s this 23-year-old centre-back with so many strengths but he must have a ton of weaknesses too? Surely? Well actually, not really.
White’s only real obvious weakness is his aerial ability. Standing at 6ft (or 1.82 metres), White isn’t the tall centre-back many teams desire to be at the heart of their defence. Although his qualities are desirable as a ball-playing centre-back, teams will often want those attributes in a taller defender so they can deal with aerial threats, or an imposing centre-forward.
In the Premier League last season, White took part in 99 aerial duels and won 49 of those. While the number of aerial duels he contested came down to the way teams tried to get at Brighton, his success rate of 49.5% is not something Arsenal fans will like to see.
What this means for the Premier League
So, even with the aerial weakness, White signing for Arsenal could be a game changer for the Gunners. Although they finished eighth in the Premier League last season and missed out on European football altogether, Arsenal weren’t too far from the top four, with just six points separating themselves from Chelsea in the final Champions League spot.
Those six points, and then some, were lost during Arsenal’s horrible period in November and December in which they lost five and drew two of their seven games. Although it started with a 3-0 reversal to Aston Villa, three of the defeats came by a one-goal margin as the defence were beaten by minor moments.
White won’t be Arsenal’s Virgil van Dijk, immediately turning them into title contenders, but it’s a step in the right direction and the Gunners should now be challenging for a Champions League place if this isn’t their only signing, though some pundits question whether Arsenal are even good enough to challenge.
In a mildly controversial take produced this week, Danny Mills referred to White as “better” than Arsenal, a player he expected “bigger clubs” to come in for.
“I’m just a little surprised Manchester United, who are looking for a centre-half, haven’t come in for him,” Mills told TalkSport.
Setting any disrespect that may have been shown to Arsenal from these comments, and regardless of whether you think he’s right, this deal helps the Gunners close the gap on the “bigger and better” clubs Mills is referring to.