Sunday, October 2, 2022

White Room

Upon returning from Selhurst Park on Friday evening, I was surprised to see that the performance of Ben White had divided opinion and was even more surprised to find that many thought he had endured a tough game. Now, by bemusement should be taken in these twin contexts. Firstly, I sank about six pints before the match.

Secondly, the view from the away enclosure at Selhurst Park is comfortably the worst in the Premier League, seeing the perimeters of the pitch in particular is nigh on impossible. Nevertheless, when I rewatched the game my impression was much the same as it was through the Selhurst Park letterbox with my beer goggles on- I thought he had an unfussy, solid performance against one of the trickiest customers in the division.

Saliba’s performance stole the headlines in the way that a highly anticipated debutant often does. I felt protecting the right side of Arsenal’s defence and, more to the point, the left-side of Palace’s attack was a tandem effort between White and Saliba. White had the responsibility of facing Zaha up on the ball, Saliba of defending the channels as Palace looked to play into that area with cross-field passes.

It made me reflect on the role Ben White has played in Arteta’s system since he arrived from Brighton for £50m last summer. It is rare that such an expensively acquired defender slips under the radar but White has been a hitherto undiscussed part of the team’s improvement in 2021-22. He has started the 2022-23 season at right-back in the absence of Takehiro Tomiyasu but that hasn’t changed his role an awful lot.

The video below from Tifo Football does a really good job of explaining Arsenal’s 2-3-5 shape in possession so I won’t waste my wordcount explaining it here. In Arteta’s Arsenal system, which is becoming very defined now, I think it’s more accurate to talk about players in areas rather than positions. Whether White plays at right-back or centre-half, he does a lot of similar things in similar areas of the pitch.

The same will be true, I think, of Zinchenko who, whether he plays at left-back or left eight, will do a lot of the same things in the same areas. Essentially, what players like Xhaka, White and Zinchenko can do in this system is to move one ‘lane’ over or across and perform roughly the same tasks in the same approximate area.

Prior to joining Arsenal, White had played for Bielsa’s Leeds and Graham Potter’s Brighton and that’s significant because those two coaches have a very defined style of play that relies on being the ‘protagonist’ on and off the ball. White had played as the right centre-half in a back three, in a back four, as a right-back and in defensive midfield and, really, for Arsenal he operates in all of those areas depending on the phase of play.

I must admit that it took me some time to warm to White when he joined, I worried that Arsenal had bought a good footballer but an average defender. I have subsequently revised that view and his performance up against Zaha on Friday night further convinced me of my revised position. He wasn’t spectacular in the technical sense but he showed that he could do the dirty work defensively.

Against an opponent like Zaha, it really is a case of reducing his influence by hook or by crook. Zaha has won four penalties against Arsenal since returning to Palace in 2014 but he extracted very little change on this occasion. He managed one shot (he averaged 2.02 shots per 90 last season) and only completed two of his six attempted dribbles, a success rate of 33% (he averaged 52% dribble success last season).

White got his hands dirty in this game but it’s true that Arteta instructed the club to meet Brighton’s asking price last summer because of what he provides in build-up. One of Arteta’s key aims last summer was to have the team spend more time with the ball in advanced positions. Arsenal’s build-up from the back was slow and laboured during his first 18 months in charge.

Per this excellent piece in the Analyst, Arsenal averaged fewer passes per match in 2021-22 compared to 2020-21 but had more possession in the final third. The additions of Ramsdale and White were key in this respect, the team still plays out from the back but it does so in a far crisper fashion and with the ability to pass long when required.

White was also part of a network, or pod, on the right-hand side of the team. Tomiyasu and Odegaard also joined the club last summer and they, White and Saka became a sturdy network for ball progression, creating a solid block of passing angles between them. Arsenal allowed David Luiz to leave the club during the summer of 2021 and the Brazilian was, I think it’s no exaggeration to say, one of the best long passing defenders in the modern game.

The trouble was that Luiz was too often tempted to sag back towards his own goal when the team came under pressure, causing the defensive line to drop. White preserved Luiz’s ability to progress the ball out of defence but with the physical (and mental) attributes to keep Arsenal’s defensive line nice and high. Just look at his pass to Gabriel Jesus for the second goal against Sevilla in the Emirates Cup and note his position with Arsenal in possession, essentially in right central-midfield.

Now, it ought to be noted that Arsenal’s defensive record did get worse in 2021-22 compared to 2020-21, conceding 39 in the former campaign and 48 in the latter. Some of that is due to some heavy defeats in big games. White did not play in the early season defeats to Chelsea (0-2) and Manchester City (0-5).

The team conceded 39 goals in the 32 games that he played. White played the full 90 minutes in all 32 Premier League games that he featured in, demonstrating his importance in Arteta’s 2-3-5 build-up. In a 2-3-5, the areas where you leave yourself most vulnerable are in the channels behind the full-backs.

White did a good job of defending long balls into this area last season when Tomiyasu tucked inside to create superiority in the middle of the field. The centre-halves are the ones given the most ground to cover in this setup when teams decide to play long passes into those channels. Gabriel and White showed good nous and athleticism to cover these areas.

It’s part of the reason that White has been able to move to right-back relatively seamlessly and why he’s a far superior option to Cedric in that role. It’s not so much an ability to play different positions that makes him valuable to Arteta’s system, it’s his ability to perform the same actions in similar areas regardless of where he sits on the formation graphic.

In retrospect, I view the signing of White as one of the first pillars in Arteta’s refreshed Arsenal side, if we consider the summer of 2021 as a kind of line in the sand for the manager’s ‘project.’ Now 24, he has plenty of time to develop but it’s not just the age profile that made him an important capture for the coach. He symbolises a lot of the technical and adaptive qualities Arteta required as he reimagined the tactical apparatus of the team.

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