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The reasoning behind Arsenal's big money move for White
Posted on July 19, 2021
Arsenal are not messing about this summer. As they gear up for their first season without European football in 26 years having laboured to an eighth-placed finish, ending the campaign one point behind rivals Tottenham, the Gunners are seeking to bolster a squad that is arguably stronger than their disappointing domestic finish suggests.
Albert Sambi Lokonga is expected to join before too long, the 21-year-old arriving from Belgian side Anderlecht, as a replacement for Dani Ceballos, who has returned to Real Madrid after his loan deal came to an end. However, it's the impending £50m move for Brighton's Ben White that has raised eyebrows.
Surprisingly, only Manchester City (32) and Chelsea (36) conceded fewer goals than the Gunners (39) in the Premier League last season despite their poor finish, which raised questions as to why Arsenal are spending so much to strengthen in defence. The loan departure of William Saliba, who has returned to France with Marseille, and departure of David Luiz means Arsenal need to add another centre-back to the ranks or run the risk of being caught short of defensive options ahead of a crucial season.
Despite not being given a look in under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal fans are saddened by Saliba's exit, particularly as he suits the style and approach the Gunners boss looks for in a centre-back. To then spend £50m on White is a surprise as the money could, in theory, be better invested elsewhere.
However, White matches Arteta's demands for the centre-backs to play the ball out from defence to set Arsenal on the frontfoot from the back. Of Arsenal outfield players to make more than 10 league appearances last season, Luiz (36.2%) played the highest proportion of his passes forward and in the Brazilian's absence, this need to get the ball upfield as regularly as possible was found wanting.
White, though, brings this progressive approach to getting the ball out from defence into midfield. While a team with less possession will of course see a higher proportion of passes played forward, the difference in possession average between Arsenal and Brighton last season was just 2%, which makes White's proportion of forward passes of 40.1% a key reason behind Arsenal's big money investment in the England international.
There's also the 23-year-old's impressive reading of the game, the trait that any seasoned pro would be proud of. Only Southampton's Jan Bednarek (84) made more interceptions than White (62) of defenders in the Premier League last season and was a key reason for that high proportion of forward passes. The Brighton defender would use his impressive positional awareness to deny opponents a goalscoring chance and then maximise his vision to pick a pass to the wing-back or midfield and quickly turn defence into attack for the Seagulls.
Given his age, White is an inexperienced head and on the back of his debut Premier League season, it's clear that improvements can be made to his game, though these will be made in time and with the right coaching. A tackle success rate of just 59.8% can be worked upon, while White was dribbled past more times (33) than any other Premier League centre-back last season. He was fortunate in that he often operated on the the right of a three-man defence, so this wasn't pounced upon by opponents, yet is an area of weakness that would be exploited in Arsenal's four man backline.
Nevertheless, White has the recovery speed to ensure these chances amount to little, but still highlights that work needs to be done for the player to develop into a top quality centre-back. Spending £50m on a player on the back of his debut top-flight season is a risk, yet White has the tools of the trade to take his game to the next level and establish himself as the perfect centre-back to help Arsenal return to Europe.
"I was impressed the most by Ben White because obviously I haven’t seen him a lot this season. Coming here and playing with him I’ve been impressed with him," Arsenal hero Bukayo Saka said of White during their time together with England at Euro 2020 and that in itself is a ringing endorsement for the Brighton man. Alongside Gabriel, the Brazilian joining from Lille last year, the pair have the potential to forge a long-term partnership that will be both difficult to break down and able to move the ball forward on a whim to aid the north London side in the final third.