Game of Numbers #7 – Ben White’s Right-Back Revolution

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In our latest analysis series: Game of Numbers, we break down the various tactical undertones of the modern game, most notably the roles that individual players hold on the pitch to help their teams explore avenues for greatness. This is Issue No. 7, currently featuring the following:

  1. Ben White’s Right-Back Revolution
  2. Leandro Trossard’s Two-Footedness

Let’s jump into Game of Numbers Issue No. 7!

BEN WHITE AS AN INVERTED FULLBACK

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Ben White has been one of the understated members of Arsenal’s revolution into one of the Premier League’s supreme outfits in 2022-23. The Gunners currently sit top of the table after their formidable win against a dissolute Spurs side, with Ben White performing a pivotal role in the big win.

The British defender has always been a standout in possession of the ball, and so positioning him at right-back allows that exuberance to take center-stage in advanced areas on the field. He can now showcase his steady possession habits closer to goal and in closer proximity to other standout progressors like Saka and Ødegaard, linking up with both in Arsenal’s right-sided combinations and overloads.

This is where he flourished on Saturday, using Tottenham’s incessant attempts to double-team Saka against them. Throughout the first half, as part of Spurs’ attempts to compact their low-block in a 5-4-1, Heung-Min Son would race toward Saka as he dilly-dallied on the ball, freeing up space for Ben White to receive at the top of the box. This created an insurmountable amount of chances for the Gunners, most notably, the opening goal of the game.

As Son went all in on defending Saka alongside Perisic, White was left free and exposed at the top of the box, where he could then easily slip in Thomas Partey for the first-time finish. While it’s true that Højbjerg and Bentancur also collapsed too much into the penalty area, this is a natural response to defending in one’s own third. The typical approach is to cover the areas of the field most worth compacting in the moment, and then pressure if the ball finds its way to the spaces the opposition may in theory be less likely to hit. So while you can place partial blame on the central midfielders, or even Kane for not tracking Thomas Partey at the top of the box, the ultimate failure comes down to Son’s decision (or instruction) to leave White wide open.

Unfortunately for Spurs, it took quite some time to correct this. Not even five minutes later, I thought I was witnessing a replay of the opening goal, until I realized that it was a carbon copy of the exact same situation. This time, Ødegaard nicely held off Bentancur to stop the Uruguayan in his tracks, but Højbjerg ultimately recovered position as Partey delayed his decision. But again, the decision was a strange one, in that it constantly allowed White to receive in position.

In the second half, Son hadn’t a clue where to situate himself. The instructions had clearly changed, and he found himself too slow to enact pressure on Saka, which consistently allowed two Arsenal automatisms to take central stage. Saka would drive inside on his left foot into the open space, and Ben White would overlap him, attracting the attention of Ivan Perisic in the process. This ultimately led to the second goal of the game early inside the second half, a Gabriel Jesus tap-in from a yard away.

Spurs couldn’t contain the former Leeds and Brighton man and the variety of his movement. As he overlapped or hung out in that inverted full-back position, he consistently wreaked havoc. Sometimes it allowed Saka space to strike or cross, other times he’d hang low and play a progressive pass into space for Gabriel Jesus or Saka to receive, and vitally, his involvement in that right-half-space led to many of Arsenal’s best chances on the night.

Arsenal’s use of a Pep Guardiolan-like 2+3 build-up with ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ nicely pulled Spurs’ compaction out of shape, where the likes of Rodrigo Bentancur stepped up to pressure Zinchenko.

This consequently left space for Gabriel Jesus and Martin Ødegaard to receive in between the lines, and create chaos within their rotations. While Zinchenko will garner all the plaudits for the ease at which he sprays passes about the pitch, Ben White performed the role to equal effect, allowing Arsenal ease of access in defensive transitions down Heung Min-Son’s side.

What’s more is that the Arsenal man has continued the ‘Wide Warrior’ mentality of Takehiro Tomiyasu in that position before him, consistently coming up with the best defensive numbers on the night. He was excellent in defending Wilfried Zaha on the opening night against Crystal Palace, and the ‘Inverted Fullback’ role he’s given in possession means he’s ready to immediately defend and compact central channels upon losses of possession. Excellent in 1v1 situations and in defending high balls, White has all the makings of a complete defender.

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Evidently not exactly the most dynamic of full-backs going forward, Ben White’s understanding of space and sound habits in possession of the ball have allowed him to completely make the right-back position his own this season. He helped to play a pivotal role in Arsenal’s big win on Saturday, as Arteta’s men now top the table for another week inside the Prem.


LEANDRO TROSSARD’S LEFT-FOOTEDNESS

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Fun Fact – Leandro Trossard is actually right-footed. You wouldn’t know it, as he has a natural knack for scoring left-footed goals. In Roberto De Zerbi’s first match in charge of Brighton, the Belgian forward scored a stunning hat-trick, through three left-footed strikes.

Anyone who’s read either our Graham Potter – Brighton – 2022-23 Tactical Analysis or ‘Undervalued Talents’ article on Leandro Trossard will know that the Belgian is an exceptional dribbler of the ball and a master of disguise. He made Trent Alexander-Arnold look like a fool on Saturday on both of his first-half goals, largely in part to this level of deception and disguise.

Here he is on his first of the night, appearing as though he’s about to take a touch with his supposed stronger right foot. Alexander-Arnold responds by positioning his body in that same direction, at a decent distance away from the Brighton man to give himself reaction time. But instead of taking the ball with his right, Trossard quickly shifts his body to caress the ball into space with his left, setting himself up for the thunderbolt.

The shimmy of footwork forces Trent to get caught up in his own feet and stumble to the floor, before Trossard blasts the ball in with his ‘weaker’ left-foot.

But an incredibly astute player, Leandro Trossard understands which foot to use in different moments. This depends on the weight of the pass into his path, and the urgency of the situation based on the positioning of defenders, particularly when he’s not able to wiggle himself out of trouble on his own omission. Here he strikes with his right foot, in what appears to be an open shot on goal.

Unfortunately for the Seagulls, Alisson nicely smothers the situation, even despite Trossard’s tremendous power behind the strike.

Here’s another great example, where Trossard correctly assesses the space available in a quick amount of time, allowing the ball to roll onto his left foot. At the moment that Solly March receives the ball, Trossard’s body orientation would allow for him to nicely take a touch with his right foot and then strike. But the space available makes that the less advantageous option.

He recognizes that Van Dijk is more likely to close that space, so he lets the ball roll across his body, away from any unwanted attention. Unlike the last example where he had to take the shot on quickly, he also recognizes that the flight of the ball has enough pace to give him time if he makes this decision, where he can then set his body up for the shot. Now Van Dijk has no chance of catching up, and the Belgian’s even able to catch Alisson at a time where he’s needing to shuffle across his goal.

As the keeper shuffles to the near-post, he’s no longer in a strong stance to suddenly move to the far-post, where Trossard loves to aim.

His sound decision-making when selecting what foot to use extends beyond just his shot-striking, all the way to attacking transitions. As one of the first outlets in transition, Trossard’s decisive dribbling and demonstrative speed allows him to completely undo an opposition defense all on his own. In these moments, the 27-year-old loves to drive with his right-foot, and then slow the situation down by bringing the ball over to his left. Here’s an example where he saw the space available on the right side, and prioritized his stronger right-foot in escaping Fabio Carvalho.

Once he wins the race, he slows the situation down to allow his teammates to catch up, by bringing the ball over to his left-foot. He does this through a careful recognition of the defender’s body positioning and the touchline behind him, which are rather simplistic aspects when considering how to win a 1v1 out wide. But by bringing the ball over to his left foot, Fabio Carvalho may naturally then expect Trossard to cut inside. He then relaxes his stance knowing he’s done well to catch up in the transition. This is where Trossard again makes his move. As he pauses on the ball (see La Pausa) to relax the defender, he then immediately bursts past him again at the vital moment.

The Belgian wing wizard then tries to go in for the left-footed nutmeg on Trent Alexander-Arnold, and instead, wins his team a throw-in.

Overall, Trossard’s insane two-footedness simply means that you never know which way he’s going to turn.

From his own perspective, it allows him to set himself up for the finish in the ways that are most appropriate to the moment, without having to relinquish space in favour of his stronger foot. When watching Trossard, you could easily be confused into thinking he’s left-footed, for all the wonderful feats he pulls off on that side. Having now scored 4 of his 5 goals this season with his left, it’s hard not to imagine a host of writers and journalists coming to the table and describing the Belgian as genuinely left-footed.

But this is actually in stark contrast to last season, where he scored just 1 of his 8 goals with his left. It seems as though since the 2022-23 season kicked off, Trossard’s been making more of an effort to bang the ball into the back of the net with his left when the time is right, prioritizing that side for both club and country. Whatever the reason, Leandro Trossard is an immensely impressive two-footed player, and could be set to flourish all the more under Roberto De Zerbi this season.


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