Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Faith

In recent years, Arsenal have enjoyed a glut of cult hero right-backs. Lee Dixon begat Lauren, begat Bacary Sagna, begat Hector Bellerin, begat Takehiro Tomiyasu (briefly), begat Ben White. The latter has been such a firm fixture at right-back over the last two seasons, it is difficult to picture an Arsenal formation graphic without him.

Full-backs are primed for cult hero status since it is such an unheralded position, even in this day and age when the role of the full-back has evolved to the extent that it has. Over the course of the last week, White, whose value is not lost on Arsenal fans, has become national football news, which is unusual.

It has been clear for some time that his situation with the England National Team has not been entirely public information. He was in the 26-man Euros squad without kicking a ball in 2021. In the winter of 2022, he was initially selected for the World Cup squad before returning home ‘for personal reasons’ after England’s second game of the tournament.

White has yet to be selected since; but England’s clutch of right-backs prevented it from being a bigger story. Until now. His new Arsenal contract, together with emotional club video, was announced the same day as the England squad, another squad from which he was omitted.

Given his Arsenal contract was agreed some time ago, it is difficult to believe the timing was a coincidence. Gareth Southgate’s (poorly) choreographed answer to questions around his continued omission was clearly prepared and turned a river into an ocean. I imagine Arsenal knew this would be a topic of conversation and decided to ‘get ahead of the story.’

The announcement video featured vignettes from his teammates about the character and professional that Ben White is, which seemed almost custom designed to rebuke the public perception of a man who doesn’t like football and whose commitment to it can somehow be called into question as a result.

As a fellow introvert (at least, my perception of White is of a slightly introverted character, at least) I relate to the mischaracterisation of White. Introverts are often mischaracterised as aloof and disinterested, maybe even a little arrogant. From the well sourced reporting around his England omission, it sounds a little like England assistant coach Steve Holland also mistook White’s introversion as something more sinister.

I accept that might be an ungenerous interpretation on my part and, clearly, I am biased by my club allegiances. But I thought Southgate’s decision to both publicly deny any disagreement and publicly exonerate Holland (clue Gareth, you can only really do one or the other, you either deny or exonerate, you can’t do both) and lay the situation at White’s door so publicly was misguided to say the least.

Southgate has long been accused of harbouring favourites in the England setup and his bemused defence of the likes of Jordan Henderson (whose public criticism was easy to understand, even if you don’t agree with it) and Harry Maguire stands in stark contrast to his cold shouldering of White.

We are probably reaching an age where elite clubs like Arsenal invest so much in backroom staff and provision for players that National Team environments and the support they offer are of an inferior quality. White has been loved and adored by Marcelo Bielsa, Graham Potter and Mikel Arteta, all of whom are incredibly thorough coaches.

Bielsa is legendary for his attention to detail and the demand he places on players, Arsenal fans will fully appreciate and understand Arteta’s reputation as ‘a steely little fucker.’ If White can not only impress but flourish under coaches who are this demanding, it is difficult to believe that White’s professionalism is anything other than exceptional.

His durability and commitment on the pitch for Arsenal are obvious to Arsenal fans. Fortunately, I think the extent to which taking a sly kicking from the England manager permeates the public consciousness is limited in Premier League terms. I suspect most of the supporters regularly frequenting Premier League stadiums probably couldn’t tell you who England are playing during this international break without the assistance of an internet search engine.

Harry Kane missed a crucial penalty for England during their most recent World Cup elimination and that tournament happened in the middle of the domestic season, yet there were next to no recriminations from opposing fans inside stadiums. Even ten years ago he would have been subjected to a round of ‘you let your country down’ from an ungenerous stadium public.

I don’t think the fallout from this episode will translate to much in terms of recrimination or abuse for White because I just don’t think the England National Team drives much in the way of discourse any longer. It might leave a stain on his reputation though, which would be unfortunate given his form and his obvious commitment to his craft in recent years. But I do think much of the more acidic criticism for his exile emanates from yesterday’s men (*cough* Harry Redknapp *cough*) whose cultural reach has been revised.

Recently, White spoke about how his lack of a football background helped his career. He explained that his dad has next to no interest in football, therefore he did not have to deal with additional paternal pressure when he played. His dad was and is happy to watch his matches, cognisant that his ignorance of the game means he can’t intervene with advice even if he was minded to do so.

Arteta also spoke about needing to check in with the club doctor when it came to Ben White’s aches and pains because his commitment to playing has often caused him to hide injuries. White is also not the first footballer to say he doesn’t really watch the game outside of his job. David Batty said much the same, as did Gabriel Batistuta of all people.

I still think introverts get a tough time and a harsh press in the ultra-macho environment of men’s football and I suspect White has been miscast by the coaching staff of his National Team and a good deal of the general public at the same time. White clearly knows his own mind and as George Michael once sang,

‘I need some time off from that emotionTime to pick my heart up off the floorOh, when that love comes down without devotionWell, it takes a strong man, babyBut I’m showin’ you the door.’

However, he and Arsenal and Arsenal fans can draw on that fallout to create a closer bond. A lot of Arsenal’s fan base is not English, for a start and at the risk of generalising, many of those that are English are pretty apathetic about the National Team outside of major tournaments.

It could just be that Ben White didn’t fit with England the same way many players don’t fit at many clubs and it could just be one of those things. From the outside it looks like Southgate and his staff didn’t take much time to assess the player or the character. Arsenal clutched him close to their bosom and understood the player and the man. Ben White has rewarded his club for their faith.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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