This article first appeared on ESPN on Feb. 21, 2021, and has been edited.
At 23, Brighton’s Ben White has become one of the most highly rated young centre-backs in England. Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have all been linked with the defender in recent months, but it was the Gunners who spent £50 million to land the England international as United moved for Raphael Varane, Liverpool for Ibrahima Konate, while sources have told ESPN that Chelsea want Sevilla’s Jules Kounde.
Having taken a few years to reach the top level, White now looks comfortable in the Premier League and should strengthen Arsenal’s backline after the exit of David Luiz. Here’s the lowdown on a defender who idolised Rio Ferdinand and who could become a star for club and country in the future.
Where has he come from?
Born in Poole, White is a product of the Southampton academy. After not making the grade there, he was picked up by Brighton at age 16. After a few years in the youth teams, he spent the entire 2017-18 season on loan at Newport County in League Two, where he showed signs of things to come with an outstanding performance to hold off Harry Kane in a 1-1 draw at home against Tottenham in the FA Cup fourth round in January 2018, although he was less impressive in the replay as they lost 2-0. He then moved up the ladder with a League One loan spell at Peterborough the following year.
Something of a late bloomer, his proper breakthrough came during his loan spell at Leeds United in 2019-20. During their successful promotion campaign, White didn’t miss a single minute in the Championship, which prompted efforts from the club to secure his services on a permanent basis with three offers, the last which was reportedly £25m.
However, having kept a close eye on the player’s development under Marcelo Bielsa, Brighton knew better and wisely rebuffed any interest. White signed a new four-year contract with Brighton last September and went from strength to strength in the Premier League before the club eventually accepted a huge offer from Arsenal.
Versatility is certainly a factor in why the 23-year-old is held in such high esteem. During his spell at Leeds, Bielsa mainly played White as a centre-back in a back four, although he did make a few cameos as a holding midfielder in the Championship.
With Brighton this season, he’s started to appear more frequently further up the pitch, shielding the back three (or back four, on the rare occasion) from a defensive midfield position. Especially impressive was his performance in the 1-0 win away at Elland Road (ironically) a few weeks ago, in which he delivered a mature display; picking up loose balls, intercepting potential danger and distributing efficiently.
“I have taken all the knowledge from the games I played in central midfield for Leeds and tried to fit it in for Brighton,” he told The Athletic. “It’s obviously a different team, different players, different league, but the basics are the same. You need to run, put pressure on people, get people’s heads down and try to turn the ball over for your team.”
While Brighton manager Graham Potter has recently seemed to favour White as the right centre-back in his back three, he also possesses the attributes to easily fill in at right-back.
White offers a happy marriage between an old-school centre-half and the modern-day sophisticated centre-back. On the one hand he’s one of the most eager tacklers in the Premier League and he does not shy away from the physical dimension of the game, while on the other he’s mobile, quick at changing direction and moving around the pitch, calm in possession and a measured passer of the ball (the latter two qualities being useful in escaping pressing from opposing forwards).
Added to that he’s aggressive, regularly wins the ball high up the pitch (obligatory in a Bielsa team and another reason why the Argentinian boss values him) and is confident enough to bring the ball out of defence, often dashing past a couple of opponents before releasing it.
White also plays with a high level of focus; he rarely “switches off,” which is backed up by his penchant for spectacular goal line clearances.
He is still a young, developing centre-back with just half a season’s experience at the top level, so inevitably there’s room for improvement in certain areas. Having said that, it seems that there are no severe shortcomings to his game, which is impressive, given his age. He already looks set to enjoy a fine future in the game, having been called up for England at Euro 2020.
Being mainly a proactive and aggressive centre-back — who commits relatively few fouls for a player with his set of characteristics — White is probably better off playing alongside a partner with a more calculated approach to defending (Lewis Dunk clearly fits this description at Brighton), as he can still appear overly eager to regain possession or take individual gambles.
At 6-foot-1, his lack of height is also a matter of trade-offs; if he were a few inches taller, he’d obviously win a higher percentage of his aerial challenges (he’s in the 65%-70% range, somewhat on the low side for a centre-back), but he would not be as efficient at recovering the ball or winning challenges on the ground.
As a quick, adaptable, alert centre-back who is good on the ball and keen to recover possession high up the pitch, it’s no surprise that Arsenal moved for him. Having rendered himself so useful for Bielsa (albeit at one tier down), Mikel Arteta clearly appreciates the same skills that the Argentinian fell in love with, and White’s mobility and pace should come in handy at the Emirates. Though whether he provides a return on the club’s £50m investment remains to be seen.
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