Can we really compare Ben White to Rio Ferdinand?
Ben White arrived at Leeds United in June to relatively little fanfare. Announced alongside fellow loanee Jack Harrison, who was returning for his second spell at the club having spent the 2018/19 season at Elland Road, the highly-rated youngster was assumed to be joining as backup to first-choice centre back pairing, Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson.
In the previous season, Marcelo Bielsa had been unwavering in his view that Leeds didn’t need another centre back: he had Gaetano Berardi, Luke Ayling and Kalvin Phillips all able to play in the role, as well as the aforementioned starting duo. It seemed, with the signing of White, that Bielsa had learned from what many thought to be a naive attitude regarding squad depth.
What nobody saw coming was that Leeds would ship Jansson out to Brentford at the beginning of July and that the Brighton loanee would be Liam Cooper’s partner in the heart of Leeds’ defence in their opening Championship fixture. White has subsequently played every single minute of the league campaign for the Whites and is drawing such high praise that he is inviting comparisons to Rio Ferdinand.
It might seem ridiculous to equate a world-class performer like Ferdinand to a 22-year-old playing their first season in the English second tier. However, it’s hard to ignore the similarities when watching White play:
Confidence on the ball
For a player who hadn’t played above League One before stepping onto the pitch at Ashton Gate for the opening fixture of Leeds’ season, White possesses a remarkable confidence on the ball. In the eighteen league matches that followed, he has never once looked nervous to follow Bielsa’s instructions to pass the ball out from the back, even under pressure.
As the video above shows, when sold short by Berardi, most would expect White to simply be first to the ball and look to clear the danger. Instead, he, ‘sent McClean for a hot-dog,’ for lack of a better phrase.
Moments such as this set White apart as a player that has such confidence in his own ability and an awareness of what’s happening around him that turns what for a lesser player would be a high-risk move that could result in a chance on goal for the opponent, into an opportunity for White to progress the ball up the field. At Championship level, Leeds haven’t had a centre back capable of such things for a long time. Rio Ferdinand is the one who jumps straight to mind.
In the player report card above, we can see that all but one of White’s passing stats are above the median for Championship centre backs. His passes per 90 and pass accuracy are particularly impressive, but this is to be accepted playing Bielsaball. Only Romaine Sawyers and Fulham’s centre back pair of Tim Ream and Alfie Mawson have made more passes in the Championship this season.
His range of passing is particularly striking when moving from the numbers to the eye test. White is not simply a centre back making 5-yard passes to Liam Cooper. The Fulham centre-halves have each made 1,311 passes, compared to White’s 900. This is largely because the overwhelming majority of their passes are made between each other.
White is not restricted to playing like this; he looks to pass through the opposition where possible and is capable of searching balls into the channels as well as crossfield passes.
This pass for Patrick Bamford, taken from Leeds’s 1–1 draw against Nottingham Forest, shows the quality that White can bring and is something Leeds would not have expected from Pontus Jansson.
With players around him, White was able to get his head up and spot the run of Patrick Bamford, dropping the ball into the perfect spot for the striker to get a shot on goal. Unfortunately, Bamford didn’t fancy taking a first-time shot on his weaker right foot and his touch took him a little too wide, making the save easier for the Forest goalkeeper. Otherwise, White would likely have picked up an assist for this pass.
This pass map shows every successful long pass White made in Leeds’ home game against Derby. 6 out of 7 of them are made into the opposition final third, including some very dangerous balls into the channels.
In the 2018/19 season, Liam Cooper would often make raking passes from the left centre back position. But with White in place on the right, Leeds now have centre backs who are both capable of making direct passes into deep areas, as well as passing short into Kalvin Phillips in his defensive midfield position.
Stepping out of Defence
When Rio Ferdinand was coming through at West Ham, he was playing in the centre of a 3 man defence, bringing the ball forward as a modern-day libero. At Leeds, and later Manchester United, he had to play in a 4-man defence. However, his ability to carry the ball up the field remained intact.
White ranks in the 70th percentile for progressive runs, which is very impressive for a player who plays in a team that generally progresses the ball through passing.
He seemed to have been given a particular tactical instruction to drive forwards from the back in Leeds’ most recent fixture against Blackburn, where he attempted his most ball carries in one game, picking up four in the process.
In the clip above, with Blackburn’s forwards reluctant to press, White strode into their half and played a line-breaking pass into the feet of Bamford, who touched it back to Tyler Roberts. He was able to put a cross into the box from a dangerous position.
The move didn’t end in a shot on goal on this occasion, but with teams content to sit in a mid or low block against Leeds, White driving into the midfield and passing through the lines is a very helpful option to have, rather than simply trying to pass around a through rigid defensive structures.
Anticipation & Awareness
The stand-out metric on the player report is ‘defensive duels’. White is ranked first in the league for centre backs, with only Kalvin Phillips and Kevin Stewart of Hull City posting a higher number in the entire division.
‘Duels’ seems to be a rather generic term that Wyscout uses to put a lot of different defensive actions under, but these are all when the defender has to challenge the attacker closely for the ball, such as this example below.
Many would call this an interception, but Wyscout doesn’t code this event that way. As a result, White makes many defensive duels, yet ranks poorly for interceptions on the player report.
It is notable that Opta codes events like this differently. They would call this an ‘interception’ and thus Whoscored.com, which uses Opta data, has White as the top interception maker in the league.
Whether we’re calling these events ‘interceptions’ or ‘duels,’ one thing is clear: Ben White is exceptional at them. He consistently seems to beat his opponent to the ball, showing excellent anticipation as well as speed and tenacity to get in front of his man. Wyscout recorded a season-high 10 interceptions for him in the Blackburn game, mapped below.
Against Blackburn, with White dominant on the right and Cooper (and later Berardi) holding down the left, Leeds stopped starting centre forward Sam Gallagher and substitute Danny Graham from making a single touch in their penalty area.
As well as knowing when to get in front of his man, White’s awareness of when he needs to sweep in behind his partner is that of a defender far beyond his years. Once again, it is a quality that Ferdinand possessed.
In this clip, with Cooper off the field injured and Bradley Dack finding himself free of his own personal shadow, Kalvin Phillips, White’s awareness was key. He was already heading to see off Dack’s run before the pass was released and any danger that Leeds could have found themselves in with Blackburn’s most dangerous player on the ball deep in the final third was nullified.
It’s easy to run out of superlatives for a player like Ben White. Even with just a third of the season gone, it doesn’t feel a stretch to say that he could be playing in European competition within the next two years. In fact, it might even be conservative.
White certainly should be playing in the Premier League next season. Leeds fans will be desperate for that to be at Elland Road, but it will surely be extremely difficult to persuade Brighton to let him go.
The only thing that is sure right now is that Leeds fans need to enjoy having a player of such class at the heart of their defence, just as they did with Rio Ferdinand. Players like this don’t come around very often.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
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