How Ben White became a fundamental part of Arsenal's title challenge

Ben White - Reuters/John Sibley
Ben White - Reuters/John Sibley

There are many aspects of professional football that do not interest Ben White, who does not watch the sport on television and does not pay much attention to the various off-field dramas that define the modern game. “My profession just happens to also be a lot of people’s hobby,” he recently told the Arsenal website.

It would be wrong to say that White does not like his job, though. Quite the opposite. The Arsenal defender loves to play the game and, as part of that, he loves the competitive side of top-level sport: the battles, the tackles, the one-on-one duels and the fight against an opponent.

It is this innate competitiveness, perhaps, that explains why White seems to so enjoy playing against Wilfried Zaha. The Crystal Palace winger’s style is confrontational and spiky, with each match becoming a gladiatorial contest against his opposing full-back. White relishes that contest and, for a few years now, he seems to have savoured his tussles with Zaha.

This was obvious a few seasons ago, when White met Zaha at Selhurst Park in October 2020. He was playing in midfield for Brighton at the time, and he and Zaha bickered and battled throughout the game in south London. Zaha is a demonstrative character on the pitch but, on that occasion, White was more than happy to give as good as he got.

On Sunday, the two foes met again at the Emirates Stadium. They were in direct opposition, with White playing at right-back and Zaha starting on the left wing, and not for the first time this season it was the Arsenal defender who won the duel. White was aggressive and physical from the first moment, often jumping in front of Zaha and then running off him to join the attack.

It was perhaps White’s finest individual performance of the season, with the 25-year-old playing a starring role in Arsenal’s impressive 4-1 victory. Zaha was largely shut out of the game, losing the ball 17 times (no Palace player lost the ball more), while White regularly contributed to Arsenal’s moves in the final third.

White got the better of Wilfried Zaha during Arsenal's 4-1 win at the weekend - Reuters/Peter Cziborra
White got the better of Wilfried Zaha during Arsenal's 4-1 win at the weekend - Reuters/Peter Cziborra

The Englishman’s assist — a measured pass to Bukayo Saka — provided further proof of the strength of his relationship with his winger. With Martin Odegaard joining White and Saka to create a formidable triangle in that area of the pitch, Arsenal’s right-hand side is the source of much of their joy.

“Ben was incredible today,” said Saka after Sunday’s win. “He has been incredible all season. We are building a great partnership, with Martin on that right side.”

As the most defensive of the three, White has been the least heralded this season. That is only natural, given the goalscoring exploits of Saka and Odegaard. But any regular observer of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal will know that White is essential to the team’s style of play.

Sadly for White, he is not quite so crucial to England. Having left the World Cup in Qatar for personal reasons last year, he has not been recalled by Gareth Southgate for this month’s international break.

Ben White and Bukayo Saka - AFP/Justin Tallis
Ben White and Bukayo Saka - AFP/Justin Tallis

It is tempting to wonder how Saka views White’s omission. Their on-pitch connection is so powerful at Arsenal, where White’s careful passing helps to bring the best out of the winger, but they have not yet had the chance to replicate it in an England shirt.

The obvious counter-point is that England are not short of quality right-backs, with Southgate selecting Reece James, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker in this latest squad. All of them play the role in a different way to White.

It seems safe to say that Arteta will be quietly pleased by White’s current international situation. The Arsenal manager has lost Takehiro Tomiyasu, his backup right-back, to injury and desperately needs White to remain fit and available for the final 10 games of the Premier League title race. The sight of Thomas Partey at right-back in the final moments against Palace, after White had been substituted, was proof that the new Plan B is not a plan that Arteta wants to see.

Perhaps the best measure of White’s quality is his development as a player since joining Arsenal. He arrived from Brighton as a centre-back, and played there for the whole of last season. But since moving to right-back at the start of this campaign, he has gradually evolved from a more deep-lying defender into a genuine attacking, overlapping force.

Few players in the league can offer such quality in so many different roles, and White was fully deserving of the applause he received from the Arsenal supporters at the Emirates on Sunday. If they do go on to win the title, those fans will rightly regard him as a fundamental part of that success.