Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Ben White exclusive interview: Arsenal's versatile defender thriving under Mikel Arteta and eyeing long stay – Sky Sports


Ben White speaks to Sky Sports about proving his doubters wrong, helping Bukayo Saka shine and his hopes of a long-term future at Arsenal; watch Chelsea vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm
Comment and Analysis
Saturday 21 October 2023 20:00, UK
There were plenty of moments for Arsenal supporters to savour during their long-awaited 1-0 win over Manchester City. William Saliba’s bodycheck on Erling Haaland; Gabriel Martinelli’s emphatic winner. Ben White’s nutmeg on Jeremy Doku was another.
The piece of trickery, in the penultimate minute of normal time at the Emirates Stadium, was celebrated as a show of impudence and composure under pressure. But in conversation with Sky Sports two weeks later, the player himself remembers it differently.
“I was so tired, I just wanted to waste a bit of time, but he caught me up so quickly,” smiles White. “I turned and he was right on top of me. The pass I was going to play was cut off. It just came to me, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I got rid of it as quick as I could after.”
It is a typically matter-of-fact description. “I’ve been on the other end of it too,” he adds. The defender is sporting newly bleached hair. You won’t miss him at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. But in a small meeting room at London Colney, his humility shines through.
That temperament has helped him become a key player under Mikel Arteta, moving from centre-back to right-back without complaint. White is known around the place for being a model professional. He rarely has an off-game and is always available.
There is talk of him becoming the next Arsenal player to be rewarded with a new contract and, now in his third season at the club, and as happy off the pitch as he is on it, the prospect excites him.
“Yeah, of course,” he says when asked if he is eager to extend his deal. “I want to stay at Arsenal for as long as I can, stay at the highest level and push this club back to where it needs to be.
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“Whenever that’s spoken about, it’s an amazing feeling that someone wants you. I’ve still got a few years left on my current contract, so even to be speaking about it is a nice feeling.”
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Those discussions are progressing positively and, on the pitch, White continues to go from strength to strength. He has started every Arsenal game bar one this season. The one he missed, against Lens in the Champions League, happens to be the only one they have lost.
He puts his progress down to feeling more settled. “Arsenal is the only team I’ve been at for more than a year. It definitely helps. Obviously, I’m getting older. I’ve got a wife now which is slightly different to when I was younger. Things have changed in my life.
“My wife is from around here, so it’s ideal for her, and it’s just an amazing club to come into every day. I think I can take things from all the clubs I’ve been at, but this is by far my favourite.”
Before Arsenal there was Brighton. And before his breakout season on the south coast, there were loan spells with Newport County, Peterborough and Leeds, a gradual ascent of the football pyramid which demanded no shortage of patience and perseverance.
White proved himself at every juncture. He then had to do it all over again after his £50m move to Arsenal. Those who doubted him after a difficult debut against Brentford in 2021 are quiet now. His quality is clear, albeit perhaps not to those in the England set-up.
“I think every year you have to prove yourself,” he says. “Every game. There are obviously so many good players here. They will just take your spot if you’re not at 100 per cent. It’s my job to do the best I can to stay in the team and help as much as possible.
“I don’t really know how I’m seen outside the club, but I know that the people that matter have their opinions and that’s all that really bothers me. It’s the manager’s decision to play who he wants to play and luckily, at the moment, I’m on the team sheet.”
White is not an avid football watcher in his free time. That much is well-known. But few players take their job more seriously.
Arteta says he trains every day like he is playing in the Champions League final. He describes him as having “the character of a fighter” and loves his willingness to push himself to his limits.
“I think I’ve always been like that,” says White. “I don’t think anyone feels 100 per cent going into every game, especially when you have three in a week, but once you get into it, in a big stadium and you hear the crowd, you forget about the pain and just get through it.”
His work ethic extends to the rest of his preparation.
“Not being injured and looking after myself is probably the biggest key to how I’ve progressed through the years,” he explains. White has a gym at his home and uses it every evening. “Not for any particular reason, just because it makes me feel better, and more ready for what comes.”
Still, though, he is careful to ensure separation between his professional and personal lives. “Mentally, I check out when I leave training, so I’m completely resting whenever I’m away from it,” he says. “That doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.”
It works for Arsenal too. White has become one of their most consistent performers. It is all the more impressive given he is not even playing in what is considered to be his natural position.
Was it a challenge adapting to right-back? “Definitely, especially with this manager. I could play full-back, I could play anywhere across the backline or in centre mid, but playing full-back the way he wants is, I think, completely different to any other manager.
“To play full-back for him, you’ve got to be a centre mid, a centre-back, a winger, a No 10. So, it’s been about developing the whole of my game, rather than just as a full-back or a centre-back.”
The result is a player with few obvious weaknesses. White is more exposed defensively at full-back – “playing full-back is more about the individual,” he says – but he relishes his one-on-one battles. According to Opta, he has only been dribbled past three times in eight Premier League games this season.
“I think most of it is mental. It’s mentally tough when you know the winger you’re coming up against is going to be quicker than you but it’s about working out how you can best be yourself and win. You need to find something that is going to stop them.”
White manages to do that more often than not and fondly recalls his duels with Wilfried Zaha in particular.
“That’s a good one because he’s obviously so good,” he says. “When he gets the ball, he is expected to do the most. You know he is probably going to go past you a few times but if you can stop him a few times too, it’s great.”
Another testing individual battle awaits against Chelsea on Saturday. Is he preparing for Mykhailo Mudryk? For Raheem Sterling? “You can pick any of them,” he says with a grin.
“What I joke about is that you can know who you’re playing against before the game, and then, at 60 minutes, when you’re absolutely knackered, someone else comes on who is just as good. That happens against every top team. You’ve got to deal with it.”
Keeping opposition wingers at bay is of course only one part of his job. White, a potent attacker in his own right, is also required to provide service for Bukayo Saka. The pair have developed a near-telepathic understanding on Arsenal’s right side.
“It’s easy, to be fair,” he says of playing behind the 22-year-old.
“He makes it so much easier than it should be. We just kind of know. I don’t really understand why, but, when I look up, I know what he’s going to be doing or where he’s going to be.”
White’s role in the partnership requires selflessness.
When he is not tucking into Arsenal’s defensive line, he is usually charging forward on the outside to drag defenders away from Saka and give him more space. Tracking data shows White has made more overlapping runs than any other Premier League player this season.
“I’m doing all his running,” he jokes when that statistic is put to him.
“That’s what I’m there to do. I’m there to help him get into positions where he can do what he is so good at. If that means I have to do more running, then that’s what it is.
“If I do it 10 times, there’s probably going to be one where we end up scoring. But also, by doing that, I’m taking away a winger who should be up the pitch, and is most dangerous there.
“He is going to have to run all the way back with me and I’ll take my chances that I’m probably going to be fitter and able to do that extra run and get there first. I think that’s key.”
Saka is not the only player with whom White has struck up an effective relationship on the pitch – “there’s also Martin (Odegaard) inside and (William) Saliba behind me,” he says – and it is all choreographed by the man in the dugout.
White has watched Arteta transform Arsenal in his two years at the club. What is it that makes him a special manager? “His consistency, I think,” he says, “every day, pushing to the highest level.
“We’ve got such a young group, so talented, but they need guidance because, with lots of talent, you need someone that’s going to push you in the right direction.
“I think he does that with each individual player in different ways. I think he’s getting the most out of every bit of each player and that’s probably the most important thing about him.”
The Spaniard has switched the emphasis after falling painfully short of the title last season. Arsenal, although less fluid at times in an attacking sense, are more solid, more streetwise. They are yet to concede a goal away from home in the Premier League.
“We reviewed last season,” explains White. “You see the games when you don’t pick up the points when you probably should. Those games are so important because they get you to the top and mean it’s not so nerve-wracking going into the next games.
“I think it’s what Manchester City have done for a few years now. They win the hard games, the grinding games. They get three points no matter how they’ve played or how it’s gone.
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“That is what we’re aiming to do. I think it will make a big impact.”
It is a tantalising prospect for supporters dreaming of a first Premier League title in 20 years and White feels the excitement. “Definitely,” he says. “With the players we have added, it’s massive.”
Both this season and beyond, you can be sure their nutmegging centre-back-turned-right-back will have a vital role to play too.
Watch Chelsea vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm
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