Ben White: Flying Under the Radar?

What I find so comical about this, whether it’s true or not, is just how difficult I find it to believe any aspect of that man is capable of ‘flying under the radar’. I mean, just look at him. Everything about him… stands out. The haircut, the facial hair, the full smile of incredibly white teeth, the angsty scowl, the full chest of tattoos, and the knack for little bits of shithousery or dark arts just about every game. It just feels like this Love Island, English international would live with the microscope or spotlight trained in on him.

Yet people seem to still be questioning Ben White. Never mind his fee of £50m that was the subject of significant discourse last season, some people are stuck on questioning if he carries any value whatsoever.

This whole blog comes with an overarching disclaimer of “no disrespect to Tomiyasu”, but this line of questioning boggles my mind. Maybe first impressions truly matter and Ben White’s are working against him entirely, as his very first match against Brentford last year was a disaster and this year his first match at right back was probably his worst of the season, but with each game Ben White seems to become more comfortable and confident in his new role.

What I find possibly funnier than the idea of Ben White being able to go through life unnoticed, is that this success may have been born out of stopgap solution — whether Arteta with admit it or not.

Arsenal started the year needing to find a competitive solution for Tomiyasu’s injured beginnings. And while that solution seemed relatively obvious, the results have probably surpassed expectations. I think many had high hopes for Saliba, but did anyone expect him to not only lock down that center back starting job, but establish himself as one the best center backs in the world… in eight matches?

Well he has, and Arsenal are playing great meaning it won’t change, and Ben White has quietly become one of Arsenal’s most effective role players in the squad. He’s not the all-action striker like Jesus, he’s got the comfort of a stellar Saliba next to him, but when it comes to Arsenal’s demonstrated ability to control the ball, sustain pressure, dominate space, his profile has proved instrumental. His growth in that right back spot makes the whole endeavor even more promising.

Ben White Season Heat Map. Source: SofaScore

From his heat map we see the spaces he occupies. Of course it is more aligned with where you would expect a right back to play, but the interesting aspect is that concentration of red that juts out into the right half-space.

When Arsenal transition into the attacking area with the ball, they shift into their 2-3-5 attacking shape in which the two fullbacks often invert and join Thomas Partey in the midfield-three. This layer of Arsenal’s structure provides easy passing opportunities as the front-five fluidly exchange spots, they provide cover should opposition teams look to leak players out for an outlet pass, they distribute the ball, they sustain pressure and pen teams into their own zone, they overlap and underlap their wingers, and they clean up any loose balls as recovery machines.

Within this role, we see Ben White’s athleticism, versatility, technical skills, and defensive abilities allow him to thrive. Here a few stats to really highlight his ability in these areas of the pitch.

All stats are “per 90” and Premier League only

The first area I want to focus on is White’s defensive actions.

  • 2.22 tackles – 3rd behind Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu*
  • 1.53 tackles won (meaning the tackle turned into a change of possession) – 3rd behind Emile Smith Rowe* and Thomas Partey
  • .83 tackles in the Middle 1/3 of the pitch — 3rd best behind Thomas Partey and Thomiyasu
  • 1.11 tackles in the Defensive 1/3 of the pitch – 4th best behind Emile Smith Rowe, Thomas Partey, and Takehiro Tomiyasu

When it comes to pressures, Ben White isn’t as impressive from a team perspective, but he ranks well in comparison to other defenders, fullbacks, and midfielders (sans Ødegaard).

  • 9.72 pressures — Better than every central defender, fullback, and Xhaka, but worse than Partey
  • 40.1% pressure success rate — better than all other full backs, worse than Thomas Partey
  • 4.72 pressures in the Middle 1/3 – better than every defender and midfielder except Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu
  • 3.47 pressures in the defensive 1/3 – better than every defender and midfielder except Thomas Partey
  • 4.17 tackles + interceptions – better than everyone except Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu

* Emile Smith Rowe (0.6 90s played) and Tomiyasu (0.9 90s played) are shown but have unreliable sample sizes due to minutes

What do these stats show us besides the fact that Thomas Partey has a case for being the best player on this Arsenal side and that Tomiyasu is defensively outstanding in his extremely small sample size?

It shows just how capable Ben White truly is in that role. He is producing better per 90 numbers than both Tierney and Zinchenko, and while he is worse than Parte, he’s in the mix. All of these stats put together show a guy making plays happen in the middle-third of the pitch. He makes tackles, he has interceptions, he pressures players, and all of these combine into a dominant right-side defender that can step into the midfield, sustain pressure, and control teams the way Arsenal want. His heat map plus these stats also show a defender capable of handling the right side and relieving Bukayo Saka of having quite as much defensive responsibility.

Which all makes sense. Bukayo Saka started the season slow, but has come into form much in line with expectations. It isn’t coming with a bang, it seems nothing on that right side is, but ‘under the radar’ like White, he’s producing some of Arsenal’s most effective numbers. Much of this has come as Ben White has expanded his understanding and comfortability with his role, and embraced the opportunities to overlap or underlap to create space.

Unlocking Arsenal’s ability to create and beat teams on either side of the pitch — versus the left sided dominance we saw in early matches — will be crucial to Arsenal’s success. not only because it keeps opposition guessing, but because Arsenal need Saka to be a major contributor.

Now, I know SofaScore or player rating apps are far from scientific or a reliable way to judge a player but it is worth noting that Ben White has a higher average player rating than every defender and left back besides William Saliba — not bad company to keep.

Now who knows, will this setup be the way forward? Will it be something we see every game? The season is long and Tomiyasu will get his opportunities to shine. But for now, Ben White as been a fantastic contributor and consistently one of Arsenal’s best. And we barely touched on what he offers Arsenal as a ball-playing defender — which is an aspect he probably trumps Tomiyasu in. SO maybe he has flown under the radar. Maybe his contributions are struggling to be as noticed as one would perceive given how good they have been, Saka is in the same boat, but as the kids say, “he’s been low key elite”.

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