Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes: Arsenal's new long-term central defensive partnership?
By Jahid Islam
Hello, readers of We Love You Arsenal! It’s Jahid (@MadAboutMari on twitter) with a different kind of piece for you this week. The focus of this article isn’t on a single midfield target as I usually do, but rather on two Centre-Backs we already have on the club’s books. A bit different, init?
Our recent coup of Brighton defender Ben White for a princely sum of £50million, in tandem with last summer’s £22million signing Gabriel Magalhaes, might just be some of the smartest business we’ve done in a while. Here’s some of the reasons why I think that combined £72million outlay is a fantastic deal.
Firstly, let’s talk about Ben White. Ben Blanco. The Brighton Baresi. White attracted a lot of attention during his impressive season at Bielsa’s 19/20 Championship-winning Leeds side, where he played all 46 games. That’s some serious undertaking considering the high-pressing, unrelenting, and draining murder-ball that Leeds are now renowned for.
In fact, Bielsa was so enamoured with White that Leeds offered £35million for his services, an offer which Brighton swiftly rejected. If Bielsa was willing to part with that much money for White before he played in the Premier League, then it makes his £50million fee kinda bearable. What followed his loan at Leeds was a decent debut season in the Premier League for Brighton, where he played 36 matches for Graham Potter’s side. For a more comprehensive background on Ben White, check out Max Mishcon’s article on the player. It’s a belter.
Then there’s Gabriel Magalhaes. A physically-imposing and aerially-threatening centre-back who played well during spells in his first season at the Emirates. Despite a campaign plagued with COVID-19, which he was hit rather hard by, language barriers, and a rotating door of defensive partners, it’s hard to include Gabriel in the players that underperformed last season. And it’s quite an extensive list. His transfer from Lille was a bit of a gamble, but it’s one that’s paid off so far. A calculated punt that’ll probably turn into one heck of an investment when he’s partnered with another talented centre-back. That’s the ‘art of the deal’ for ya.
The two centre-backs make perfect sense in a defensive partnership. One’s strengths masks the other’s shortcomings, and vice versa. A bit like Mario and Luigi, but Luigi gets carried in the family plumbing business. For instance, Gabriel’s a much more cautious defender in comparison to Ben White, who’s proclivity to overcommit has been a liability in the past. White’s 11.54 pressures per 90 rank him in the 82nd percentile, whilst Gabriel’s 6.81 per 90 pales in comparison. Moreover, White’s 1.81 Dribblers Contested per 90 is again emblematic of a more confrontational defender, as opposed to Gabriel’s comparatively restrained 0.77 per 90.
Gabriel’s also much more imposing in the air. Granted our set pieces last season weren't remarkable, but Gabriel’s always a threat from a corner or in-swinging free-kick. He’s bagged a few goals this season because of his noggin. Hopefully he’ll bag a few more thanks to the work that our new set-piece coach will be doing in training.
In stark contrast, Ben White’s head seems to be used almost exclusively for thinking. He can obviously head the ball, but his high defensive iQ means that his ability to read the game, identify, and then address potentially offensive scenarios is superb. If you saw our pre-season game against Chelsea, White made a few brilliant goal-line clearances, among other defensive actions, in his brief cameo at the Emirates. He’s more than a pretty, Love-Island-esque face, you know! He’s got the skills to pay the £50million bill.
Where White differs from Gabriel, quite significantly actually, is his temperance on the ball. There’s loads of footage of him on the ball comfortably dealing with rival attackers’ attempts at pressuring him. Deft drops of the shoulder, snazzy step-overs, and ball-rolls are all a part of his repertoire. He’s a defender that can break the monotonous sideways passing that we’ve come to expect under ‘Teta.
White’s adept at taking players on, and he successfully dribbles past 0.87 players per 90 which puts him in the 97th percentile for centre-backs. With 1.16 Dribbles attempted per 90, again in the 97th percentile, White’s technical ability on the ball juxtaposes Gabriel’s physical, marauding ball carries forward. That’s not to knock Gabriel’s ability. He’s been solid on the ball this season, but Ben Blanco’s willingness to dribble is truly out of the ordinary. It’s probably one of the main reasons we had to pay so much for him.
With David Luiz leaving the club, we lost our most experienced central defender. A player who had immense long-passing abilities which helped us going forward. You could visibly notice our side lacking that attacking threat when he was absent. Whilst his long passing stats, and passing stats in general, are weak in comparison to Luiz, there is room for growth and optimism.
With through balls per 90 stats which rank him in the 88th percentile and passes per 90 into the penalty area in the 94th percentile, he is a more progressive and optimistic passer and will help us going forward. I mean optimistic in the sense of always looking to get forward, not just kicking the ball sideways with a smile on his face. The vision is there, and just needing to be honed and refined. That’s Mikel and the coaches’ job. We’ll see how well they do. If they’re worth entrusting the process to, then they’ll transform White into one heck of a player.
There’s also the longevity factor. At only 23, both Gabriel and Ben White have several seasons left before they hit their prime. They’ll only get better and mistakes will get ironed out. White’s proneness to overcommit can be cured with coaching, and his passing honed on the training ground. His track record of playing nearly all of his clubs’ games speaks volumes to his fitness. His regular appearances at the back should go some way in helping forge a partnership with Gabriel or Saliba.
Though we said the same thing about Thomas Partey, and look how that turned out! Oh shit. Let’s hope I didn’t jinx him. Moreover, if in the unlikely scenario that White routinely underperforms, he’d still be young enough to retain some resale value. But let’s hope that as the relationship builds between Gabriel and White, our defence becomes a scary proposition. But not for us…
I’ve been Jahid (@MadAboutMari) for We Love You Arsenal! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you soon for more bad puns and interesting takes! Ciao!