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Arsenal Is Climbing To The Top, Starting From The Back

Ben White of Arsenal battles for possession with Joshua King of Watford FC during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Watford at Emirates Stadium on November 07, 2021 in London, England.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

To a certain generation of soccer fan, Arsenal is synonymous with beautiful, attacking soccer. For nearly the entire two decades that Arsène Wenger led the club, you could guarantee that the Gunners were going to play very well and very attractively. And though the latter stage of the Wenger era was rough, and the post-Wenger years haven’t been any better, Arsenal does appear to be on its way to once again playing very well consistently. It’s just that the club’s return to goodness might not also include a return of the prettiness of old.

The Gunners are presently riding a 10-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, which has them steadily rising up the Premier League table. Surprisingly, it’s the club’s defense that is doing most of the carrying, not the attack. On that end of the pitch, everything starts with Ben White. The former Brighton center back, brought in by Arsenal this summer for an eye-popping €58 million, had an inauspicious start to life in London after a truly horrid debut against Brentford in August. Since then, White—who apparently prefers to be called Benjamin rather than Ben—has shown why so many Premier League clubs were competing for his signature over the last year.

The 24-year-old had his best match in an Arsenal kit in Sunday’s 1–0 win against Watford, where he shut down a multitude of attacks with a game-high numbers of interceptions, blocks, and clearances. The best of those stoppages came in the 56th minute, both because of how it represents White’s value and what it led to.

After an Arsenal attack sputtered, Watford looked to turn on the jets on the counter, only for White to intercept a Juraj Kucka pass extremely high up the field. I’m talking “40 yards from the Watford goal” levels of high up the field. White then shook Kukca with a nifty side dribble and charged at Moussa Sissoko. Though Sissoko took the ball from the defender’s feet, it bounced to Emile Smith-Rowe, who slotted a nifty bouncing ball into the net:

There are not a lot of center backs in the Premier League who can do what White did on that play. Off the top of my head, only Liverpool’s Joël Matip does it with any kind of regularity. White is free to charge up the field to either intercept the ball or carry it forward, and he takes advantage of that freedom. It helps that White’s partner in central defense, Gabriel, is a perfect complement. Whereas White is a modern type of center back, comfortable with the ball at his feet in dangerous positions, Gabriel is more of a traditional stopper. And in terms of Premier League stoppers, there are few better right now at holding down a defense single-handedly.

Elsewhere, former Sheffield United goalie Aaron Ramsdale has overtaken Bernd Leno in the pecking order, and Arsenal is better for it. He didn’t have much to do against Watford, but he has been one of the better keepers in the league over the last month. His five clean sheets are only behind the six of Édouard Mendy and Ederson, who’ve both played two more matches than Ramsdale. White may not always get a key interception-turned-game-winning run, but the fact that he has the freedom to do so, knowing that Gabriel and Ramsdale are covering well for him, is a major boon.

The team’s newfound defensive rigidity has helped them overcome some rough attacking performances that would have sank them in recent years. There was nothing particularly impressive about Arsenal going forward against Watford, and its goal was more about White’s solo move and Smith-Rowe’s finish than anything structural, but it was just enough. Soccer history is riddled with teams that lock down opponents and sneak by them with just a few moments of individual brilliance. (One needs look no further than the top of the Premier League, after all, to find Chelsea, the current masters of the 1–0 win.)

Change is hard in soccer, where clubs tend to have identities that trickle all the way down to the youth academies. But it’s a credit to Arsenal and to Arteta that the club is rebuilding its image on the fly, thanks in large part to White and company. Through 11 league games, and especially through the last ten unbeaten across all competitions—a run that began following a 6–0 demolition by Manchester City that had some town criers yelling about relegation—Arsenal’s defense has gone from a meme to a legitimate strength. There are tougher tests ahead for the Gunners, starting with Liverpool after the international break. But for a team that started the season with so little hope, this run is already worth savoring. There are certainly worse things for Arsenal to be in 2021 than a brick wall.

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