Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Tactics Column: Ben White’s trademark pass

When Ben White started the season at right-back, we all assumed it was just until Takehiro Tomiyasu was fit again. After years of inconsistency in defence, Tomiyasu instantly won Arsenal fans over as a tough, no-nonsense, reliable right-back. We had no idea that Ben White, signed as a centre-back, would offer so much more.

White tucks into midfield well when needed, he offers the option to turn the backline into a makeshift three-man defence when building up, when defending deep, and when counter-attacks are launched. But more than anything else, he is a phenomenally good passer of the ball and he makes Arsenal, and Bukayo Saka in particular, so much more dangerous down the right.

One of the few criticisms that could be levelled at Tomiyasu is that he doesn’t do enough going forward from right-back. He is technically sound but a little clunky or wooden, sort of like Kieran Tierney on the other side. And he is preoccupied with being in position, rather than venturing too far forward and being caught out. If nothing else — and it can be an asset — he is just a bit safe.

White isn’t. White wants to do his job on the pitch but he also wants to have fun. He is a playmaker. And it is one specific pass, over and over again, that he finds Bukayo Saka with that makes that combination down the right so dangerous.

The first time he considered playing it on Sunday, it wasn’t quite on. Saka darted in behind the backline and had the jump on Tyrick Mitchell at left-back but Wilfried Zaha was blocking the channel and White, after considering the through ball, went wide to Martin Odegaard instead.

It’s that doubling up on the right that allowed Saka to dart in behind in the first place and it was his run that gave Odegaard plenty of space to control the ball and cross. Even when the trademark White pass isn’t the option taken, the threat of it can provide someone else space to impact the game.

Seconds later, the right-back didn’t pass up the opportunity a second time and Saka spun on the ball, receiving on his back foot like he did to score against Everton, before crossing.

The cutback found its way through to Gabriel Martinelli at the back post and he worked the ball out of his feet to score.

Sometimes something is so difficult to stop, that it doesn’t matter if you’re prepared for it. Teams must know this pass is now coming, and Palace were repeatedly undone by it in the first half, but none of that helped them prevent it. Odegaard’s movement was key again the next time White had the chance to slide Saka in, with the Arsenal captain moving in the opposite direction and catching the attention of at least two Palace defenders.

One in front of Saka moves to follow Odegaard and the one behind Saka, tracking the England man, stops as he wonders if he should do the same.

That split second gives White the chance to slide Saka in behind again and his cutback almost led to another goal, eventually landing with Odegaard who shot wide.

The second goal did arrive before half-time, though, and it did so from … the classic White pass through to Saka. With the ball played back to White, Saka checks he is onside and makes his run across the pitch. With White on the ball, Mitchell goes to close him down and is pulled out of the space Saka wants to exploit.

Zaha, turning in response to Saka, is playing catch-up and Mitchell leaves a gap as White shapes to play the ball infield before shifting his body at the last moment to slide the ball into Saka’s path instead.

Saka received the ball almost exactly where Mitchell was stood two seconds earlier and takes one perfect touch to get the ball out from under him before slotting it into the far corner.

It was the goal and assist combination the first half deserved and it was by no means a one-off: Ben White is a superb passer.

The defender has now played 168 passes into the final third in the Premier League this season. Only four players, all holding midfielders (Rodri, Thomas Partey, Declan Rice, Ruben Neves) have recorded more and none of them have completed as many passes into the opposition penalty area.

When it comes to passes into the opposition penalty area, White ranks 17th in the league with 33. Only four of the players above him — Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joao Cancelo, Oleksandr Zinchenko — are full-backs and the first two have their numbers hugely helped along by the fact they take set-pieces.

Only three players (Rodri, Martin Odegaard, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg) have played more than White’s 190 progressive passes in the league this season.

With all that in mind, I am left with two closing thoughts.

Firstly, those numbers highlight the incredible passing Ben White offers Arsenal from right-back and maybe it isn’t so strange that we saw Thomas Partey end the game there. If we want (or need) to play White at centre-back at some point without losing what he gives us on the right, Partey might be the answer. Secondly, Gareth Southgate choosing not to use this English right-hand side that is excelling at club level is madness but England’s loss is Arsenal’s gain over the next fortnight.

Rest up, Benjamin! We need you fit for the run-in.