Goals are coming from everywhere for Arsenal at the moment, and Ben White is contributing in the final third in part thanks to a small tweak to his role by Mikel Arteta.

Arsenal have made many headline-grabbing improvements this season. There’s no doubt they’re a better outfit than they were a year ago, even if their points total with 10 games to go this time around (64) is worse than at this stage of 2022-23 (69 points).

From the astonishingly good defensive record built on the foundations of one of the best centre-back partnerships in the league to the free flow of goals across the team that 2024 has brought, Arsenal have become frighteningly effective, and have stormed to the top of the table. Having become just the fourth team in Premier League history to win each of their first eight games to start a calendar year, from front to back they are looking stronger, smarter and a whole lot better than a year ago.

One improvement that has gone rather under the radar is that of Ben White’s performances, with some subtle changes to his role having a stark effect.

White is no stranger to having to adjust his game according to the demands of his manager. He has proved himself capable of playing in a few different positions over the years, playing at centre-back in a back three or back four, at right-back and in defensive midfield in his single season of first-team football at Brighton. And White has also previously insisted he can play “anywhere across the backline,” although he has never played a senior game at left-back at Championship or Premier League level.

His versatility has helped him settle in at Arsenal. Having reportedly been keen to play at centre-back when he joined and seen his future there, he shone last season as a tucked-in right-back – one who plays on the right side of a back four when the opposition has the ball, but forms a back three when Arsenal are in possession while the left-back moves into midfield.

“To play full-back for [Mikel Arteta], you’ve got to be a centre mid, a centre-back, a winger, a number 10,” White said near the start of the season. “So, it’s been about developing the whole of my game, rather than just as a full-back or a centre-back.”

This season, his role has developed further, and he has been asked to do more than before when Arsenal are going forwards.

Last season, Arsenal’s build-up shape was a 3-2-5. That came about as they adapted their 4-3-3 starting formation with Oleksandr Zinchenko – one of the best inverted left-backs in the world – moving into central midfield, and the two number eights moving forward to form a front five. White was left at the back alongside centre-backs William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães.

Building that way ensured Arsenal always had an extra player in their first line, whether up against one or two centre-forwards, which should have, in theory at least, ensured they could always find a route into midfield.

This season, however, they have adjusted to build in a 2-3-5, with White joining the left-back and single pivot in central midfield. This means Arsenal sometimes have a two vs two with their centre-backs when they bring the ball out of defence, but someone can always drop into the backline if need be – usually Jorginho – to form a three.

And if Saliba or Gabriel can find a pass into midfield, Arsenal already have an extra man in there to try and overload the opposition. It leaves them with fewer men at the back, but Arteta trusts the individual defensive ability of Saliba and Gabriel, even against the best forwards in the game.

White is good enough on the ball to play the inverted full-back role, and is having more touches in central midfield areas in the middle third than last season as a result, and fewer touches out near the touchline.

ben white open-play touches 2022-23 vs 2023-24
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Another benefit of this new shape is that Arsenal are better set up to counter-press in central areas if they lose the ball. There has been a relentlessness to their attacks this season and the pressure they have been able to build by winning the ball back quickly and launching a new attack will at least be part of the reason they have ground so many opponents down late on.

Saturday’s win over Brentford was another example of them scoring a late goal; no side has scored more than their 12 Premier League goals between minutes 61 and 75 this season, while they rank second only to Liverpool (24) for goals in the final 15 minutes of games, with 16.

Their league-high 54 high turnovers leading to a shot will have played a decent part in them tiring their opponents out to score late.

arsenal high turnovers 2023-24

White is playing a key role in Arsenal’s in-possession game and, particularly in recent weeks, the results of his slightly more advanced role have been especially apparent.

Just about everyone at Arsenal has been contributing more in the final third of late – Arteta’s side have scored 70 goals already, the earliest in a league season they have reached that milestone since 1963-64.

It is nonetheless still noteworthy that White has a goal and three assists in Arsenal’s last five Premier League games, having registered one goal and one assist in his previous 22 appearances this season.

Part of the reason for that is with Zinchenko suffering a series of calf injuries that have seen his game time limited significantly since the turn of the year, White has more responsibility when Arsenal have the ball.

As can be seen from his touch-zone maps from Premier League games this season, White stays out wide more and gets into the attacking half less when Zinchenko starts compared to when Jakub Kiwior, a better defender but less technical player, is at left-back. White is needed more in central areas when Zinchenko isn’t around, and he has risen to the occasion.

ben white touches when Zinchenko plays
ben white touches when Kiwior plays

White would be the first to admit that his main duty with the ball is getting it swiftly and safely to Bukayo Saka or Martin Ødegaard, and to support those players with an out ball if they end up down a blind alley on the Arsenal right and possession needs to be recycled.

White has always been that option, but he is now being encouraged to get into advanced positions more and to put more balls into the box, as he showed with his two match-winning assists against Brentford.

White’s touches in the opposition box have increased from 1.47 per 90 last season to 1.81, while he is averaging 0.97 chances created in 2023-24, up from 0.76 in 2022-23. They are small increases, but significant ones that back up the eye test. White is clearly more of an asset to Arsenal when they are trying to break opponents down than he was last season.

So, when Saka draws a couple of opponents in down the right flank, realises there is no route for him towards goal and no pass on to Ødegaard, and so passes the ball back to White, the opposition should know – even more than previously – that the threat has not passed.

He is of course still going to submit to Saka or Ødegaard wherever possible, but White has become an attacking weapon in his own right.

Arsenal are dangerous in so many ways at the moment, and White is only adding to the headaches they are giving their opponents.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.