Just days after Arsenal’s worst performance of the season, a shock defeat at Fulham in December, Mikel Arteta spoke of the importance of making his players feel “comfortable” with their directions and positioning.
“We have to play to the strengths of the players, that’s the first thing,” Arteta said. “I don’t want players to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.”
The Arsenal manager didn’t name any players specifically but, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now make an educated guess as to who he was referring to. In that game against Fulham, goalkeeper Jakub Kiwior was asked to play as an inverted full-back, in the mold of Oleksandr Zinchenko, and it didn’t go well.
Few jobs are more complex than the one Zinchenko has mastered. It requires a player to operate as a full-back at times, and a midfielder at other times. This player must be able to defend the back post, battle one-on-one against the wings, receive the ball under pressure and play incisive forward passes.
In short, it is extremely difficult – and it is clear that Kiwior did not have a pleasant evening in that “Zinchenko role”. He came on as a substitute at half-time, and he wasn’t happy with the ball at his feet.
Zinchenko’s continued fitness means the Kiwior has started twice at left-back since that Fulham game, against Liverpool in the FA Cup and then against West Ham United this weekend. However, he was not asked to come into midfield from his starting position.
Instead, Arteta is looking for alternative solutions. And on Sunday, in Arsenal’s 6-0 win at the London Stadium, he got one in the shape of Ben White, the £50 million defender who once again showed his versatility and technical ability.
Usually, Arteta asks his left-back – Zinchenko, when fit – to go into midfield. Against West Ham, with Zinchenko absent through injury, the Arsenal manager seemed to flip the system. For the first time, it was White who played the “Zinchenko role”, rolling inside from right back to sit in midfield.
It was a masterstroke. Arsenal controlled the ball, and White was excellent. In 77 minutes of action, before the game was replaced at 6-0, the 26-year-old had 81 touches of the ball and attempted 66 passes. Before the trip to West Ham, he averaged 79 touches and 61 passes per 90 minutes this season.
In other words, White played nearly 30 percent more passes per minute on Sunday than he averaged in previous games this campaign.
White’s role change helped Arsenal in two ways. Firstly, it allowed Kiwior to focus on defence, which is what he does best. Secondly, he released Bukayo Saka. With White moving into midfield, dragging his opponents with him, Saka was often found in one-on-one situations against Emerson Palmieri, West Ham’s left-back.
Usually, Saka is forced to play against at least two defenders. Here, he reveled in the space created by White. The England winger finished the game with eight shots, two goals, three created chances, four dribbles and 76 touches of the ball – despite being substituted after 67 minutes. Across the entire game, 47 percent of Arsenal’s attacks came down the right, compared to just 24 percent down the left.
It’s no surprise that White was able to handle this change in his role. Earlier in his career, he played as a defensive midfielder, at times, for Leeds United and Brighton. Indeed, the only real surprise is that Arteta has not chosen White in this position before, given his quality on the ball and his ability to read the game.
Sunday’s win was Arsenal’s fourth in a row since their mid-winter training camp in Dubai. That break obviously helped the teams, and White in particular. He was dealing with a knee problem before Christmas, playing through pain every week. Such is White’s willingness to put his body on the line, Arteta said earlier this season that the defender will try to “hide” any discomfort he feels from the club’s coaches.
On the pitch, White’s versatility and reliability make him fundamental to Arsenal’s hopes. His competitiveness and dedication to the cause is often shown as an example for others to follow. Little wonder, then, that Arsenal are keen to tie him down to a new long-term deal: after months of discussions, talks are now progressing.
If an agreement can be reached, as is now expected, the long-term futures of White, William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes will have been secured by Arsenal executives. They are three of Arteta’s four picks at the back, and the three key parts of a defense that have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season.