Free Ben White. Or so the Leeds fans’ slogan last year went when they hoped Brighton would sell him to them.
A year on, one indisputable fact about Ben White is that, if he leaves Albion now, he won’t be free. A proposed £50-million move to Arsenal would give him a place on the list of the most expensive centre backs in history.
It would continue his habit of annual upgrades, from League Two to League One to the Championship to the Premier League to the status of Arsenal’s costliest defender. He has been evidence of Marcelo Bielsa’s transformative powers and of Graham Potter’s ability to create value in players, whether or not his methods produce enough results.
White is the prototype of a modern central defender: unruffled, versatile enough to have played at right back and in midfield and excellent on the ball, whether carrying it forward or as a passer. He appears Mikel Arteta’s chosen distributor in defence. Arsenal’s policy of passing out from the back backfired at times last season, but White’s errors in Albion colours were altogether rarer.
He looks the designated replacement for David Luiz, preferably without the pratfalls, the penalties and the red cards, and definitely without the outsize personality. He seems a vote of no confidence in William Saliba, whose third season as an Arsenal player will be spent on loan at Marseille and end with him still yet to make his Gunners debut. It is increasingly likely that, assuming Arteta stays in charge, that the £25m Saliba will be an oddity, the most expensive Arsenal player never to play for Arsenal.
It also reflects that, well as the unheralded Rob Holding has done, he retains the air of the perennial understudy, the reliable stopgap. White and Gabriel Magalhaes look the long-term partnership.
But White’s probable arrival also highlights an aspect of Arsenal’s transfer strategy under Arteta. Arsenal’s uneven past trading, allied with injuries, ageing and change of management, means they often appear to need both quality and quantity, which can be mutually exclusive without unlimited funds.
Arteta has been willing to commit a sizeable chunk of his budget to one player. Last summer that was Thomas Partey. Now a £50m midfielder will be joined by a £50m defender. Partey’s injuries last season sometimes left a void in the centre of the pitch, given the gulf in class between the first choice and the deputies. Now a similar policy is being pursued. Arsenal may have two-thirds of a top-class team, with the complication that Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s footballing dotage is not too far away.
But in Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney, Gabriel and White, there is a group whose best days should lie ahead, who have the potential to stay together for years and who could create the situation that future windows begin with Arsenal only needing quality, not quantity. Admittedly, that feels a Wenger-esque promise of a better tomorrow and Arsenal’s past should teach them that they do not always arrive.
But White seems to encapsulate Arteta’s vision, the young passer who responds to fine coaching and progressive ideas. The Arteta project requires belief he is building a better Arsenal and White will be in charge of the buildup from the back.
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