It was a lack of convincing defensive options that was widely considered to have undermined the last years of Arsène Wenger’s reign as Arsenal manager as well as the entirety of that of Unai Emery. Gabriel Magalhães was one of the first major signings Mikel Arteta oversaw, and yet in the summer of 2021 his priority remained a new central defender, so Arsenal agreed to pay Brighton £50m for Ben White.
“Ben is an intelligent defender who is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and his style fits perfectly with us,” said Arteta when the signing of White, then 23, was confirmed in July 2021. “His age and profile fits with what we are building here. We are all looking forward to Ben being central to our future long-term plans.”
White is a right-footed defender whose versatility makes him capable of not only featuring anywhere in a back four, but also of deputising at the base of midfield. He, regardless, is most convincing as the right-sided central defender in a back three or four, where he can demonstrate his ability with the ball at his feet.
He defends with aggression when pressing from behind (below) and following opponents moving towards the ball. He is effective at negating passes into the feet of those opponents, when he correctly times stepping ahead to intercept the ball, and at assertively defending one-on-one, even if there are times – mostly when he is further forwards – when his enthusiasm means he concedes free-kicks.
He is proven at preventing opponents from turning, particularly when they have received with their backs to goal – a valuable asset in the defensive third. His mobility means he is also capable of advancing from his defensive line to follow an opponent, and of duelling with and pressing both powerful strikers and nimbler, agile forwards.
He complements those abilities by willingly blocking shots at goal, and by offering cover (below) if not the defender closest to the ball, when his recovery runs can stop opponents attempting to attack infield or diagonally across goal with the ball. It is when deployed as the first defender to compete for headers that he is less authoritative, and when his limited aerial abilities can lead to him becoming exposed.
He is instead at his best with the ball at his feet. He advances into midfield (below) by dribbling past opponents, disguising touches across his body to feint opening passing lanes to his right, and then playing with his left foot and advancing into the space opponents have vacated. His passing range is also impressive. White plays direct passes, switches of play to the left, and penetrative, forward passes with accuracy. Driven passes with power, back spin and minimal backlift are also executed without sacrificing much of that accuracy, and often follow him playing off few touches to work possession away from pressure if play is not being built with short passes.
His off-the-ball movements can then contribute to attacks being built. He willingly advances into wider territory or, if selected as a defensive midfielder, drops off the shoulder of an opposing midfielder to play passes from different areas of the pitch.
Role at Brighton
White excelled for Brighton throughout 2020/21, during which he was most commonly the right-sided central defender in a 3-4-2-1 that featured two number 10s. His switches of play towards the left (below) were regularly significant in Graham Potter‘s team progressing the ball forwards; if Dan Burn was his target, he posed an aerial threat; if instead targeting Solly March or Jakub Moder, he played passes in front of them so that they could run on to the ball and penetrate forwards from what often evolved into a 3-4-1-2.
Brighton were considerably more fluid and versatile towards the right, where when possession was being built they offered an increased number of rotations. White regularly dribbled from central defence into midfield, and supported their right wing-back Tariq Lamptey from central territory, in turn encouraging one of their defensive midfielders to advance and to operate between the lines. If Pascal Gross or Joël Veltman instead featured at wing-back, their desire to move infield was complemented by White offering overlaps to the right (bottom); he advanced further forwards and demonstrated his ability to run with and cross the ball.
There were also occasions when White was selected as Brighton’s right-sided defensive midfielder. He quickly moved the ball from defence to attack, or across to the wing-back outside of him, but continued to offer support to that wing-back or to move to free up an attacking teammate in the knowledge that his absence from central defence meant that those movements were no longer being made from there.
At the base of midfield his positioning, anticipation and versatility was more regularly tested owing to the different areas of the pitch he was operating from, the cover he was required to provide ahead of their back three, the defensive support he offered against counters to their right-sided wing-back and, when required, the cover behind teammates who advanced out of central defence. His positioning was particularly influential in preventing counters through the centre of the pitch and in contributing to the counter-press that kept opponents inside their defensive half. Alongside Yves Bissouma he contributed to an effective double pivot that was important in the press they applied, at delaying opposing counters, and at making regains via their counter-press.
That he was so effective in their back three owed much to the fact he was most consistently selected alongside two of Burn, Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster, who are all strong in the air and therefore likelier to compete at the first phase of an aerial attack. White provided cover behind them, and the potential to advance to challenge opponents withdrawing to between the lines – and therefore to ensure that his less mobile central defensive partners could remain compact.
The cover he provided inside their right wing-back was similarly essential. He effectively covered balls into the right inside channel, and pressed forwards to encourage that wing-back to do the same and defend in advanced territory. White’s presence, and the areas in which he would provide cover without requiring support, also gave them the flexibility to both defend with a mid-block and in more advanced territory.