It’s been something of a whirlwind 12 months for Brighton & Hove Albion central defender Ben White.
The 23-year-old returned to the Seagulls after a hugely successful loan spell with Leeds United, which saw the Whites and Marcelo Bielsa try in vain to secure him on a permanent basis.
Instead, White ended up playing 36 times in the English Premier League (EPL) for Graham Potter’s Brighton, helping them to comfortably avoid relegation to the EFL Championship.
The form displayed by the composed, ball-playing centre half saw him called up to the England senior squad for this summer’s EURO 2020 finals. Although he didn’t feature during the tournament, his involvement in Gareth Southgate’s squad en-route to the final will have stood him in very good stead. His rapid development has not gone unnoticed by the EPL’s leading clubs either.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta has been a long-time admirer of White and made three transfer bids to Brighton for his services after the end of EURO 2020. Offers worth £40m and £47m were both rejected, with the Gunners and Seagulls eventually reaching agreement at £50m, with the inclusion of a sell-on clause.
Ben White: A direct replacement for the departed Luiz
Ben White is likely to be the long-term replacement for veteran Brazilian defender David Luiz, who was released by the Gunners at the end of the 2020/21 campaign.
Luiz has long held a reputation for his erratic displays, with Arsenal requiring someone they can truly hang their hat on week in, week out instead. Luiz, who turned 34 in April, looks set to prolong his career in the Turkish Super Lig with big-spending outfit Adana Demirspor.
The club secured promotion to Turkey’s top-flight for the first time in 26 seasons last term. If Luiz agrees terms with the ‘Blue Lightnings’, he will team up with former Manchester City and Liverpool enigma Mario Balotelli. The Italian has long been considered one of the most eccentric figures in professional sport, with his off-field antics capturing almost as much media attention as his displays on the pitch.
White should provide a steadier, calming influence on the Arsenal back line compared with Luiz. White was part of the meanest EPL defence in the bottom half of the table, with Brighton shipping only 46 goals last term.
Some Gunners fans have questioned whether the £50m transfer fee could have been better spent in other positions in the squad, but it goes deeper than attempting to improve Arsenal’s goals conceded column.
It’s true that Arsenal’s defence had the third-best defensive record in the EPL in 2020/21, but Mikel Arteta expects much more from his central defenders than simply keeping the ball out of the net.
Ben White’s remit will be to help retain possession and move the ball quickly and accurately through the phases to the Gunners’ creative outlets to do damage on the counter in the final third.
William Saliba forced to bide his time to make Arsenal breakthrough
Many Arsenal fans expected William Saliba to be given the chance to stake a claim for a regular start in the absence of David Luiz.
However, after returning from a loan spell with Ligue 1 outfit Nice, the 6ft 4” defender has returned back to the south coast of France for 2021/22 with a season-long loan to Marseille. It’s clear that Arteta prefers Ben White to Saliba for now, although the pair could be an intriguing pairing for the Gunners in the long-term.
The fact that Marcelo Bielsa was prepared to spend £25m to bring White to Leeds United following their promotion to the EPL in the summer of 2020 should underline the qualities he possesses. Positionally, White is also incredible adaptable.
Arsenal and Arteta will know full well that he is equally adept at playing at right back and in a central midfield berth. Both Graham Potter and Marcelo Bielsa have utilised White in midfield at times, due largely to White’s outstanding vision and range of passing.
That flexibility could prove invaluable to Arsenal during a gruelling season, battling on multiple fronts.
Statisticians will point to the fact that David Luiz averaged more passes per game than Ben White last season, but it’s important to delve beneath the surface.
Ben White posted a significantly higher percentage of completed forward passes than the Brazilian. 40% of White’s completed passes were forward, compared with 36% of Luiz’s passes. This suggests White is a more progressive ballplayer than Luiz, with a focus on building new attacks instead of merely recycling possession.
White also fares better than the rest of Arsenal’s defenders in terms of interceptions per 90 minutes, averaging 1.75. Gabriel is the next highest Gunner, posting 1.17 interceptions per 90 minutes.
A £50m transfer fee represents a sizeable outlay for an Arsenal whose purse strings have been tightened of late. However, the opportunity to buy a well-rounded English defender with very few flaws does not come around every day.
Arteta will now turn his attentions to White’s fellow England senior squad teammate, Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale. The Gunners have already had two bids rejected by the Blades, who were relegated to the EFL Championship in May.