Arsenal’s options at right centre-back: Is Ben White the answer?
The news that Arsenal were in for Ben White made a lot of waves across the fan base, particularly because of the young English centre-back’s price tag. Is he really worth between 40 million and 50 million Euros? Should Arsenal really be spending that much on a position where they’ve got promising young talent? It’s a difficult question to answer.
First things first: Before I try to get to the bottom of the centre-back issue, I’ll state for the record that I don’t support spending big on the position this summer unless ownership is willing to also spend big elsewhere. The solutions in house don’t feel perfect, but Arsenal are better at centre-back than they are in the midfield or in the number 10 position.
That tangent aside, I set out to analyze some data to find out just how Arsenal’s right-footed centre-backs stack up against their potential replacements, and whether some of those names linked to the club are really worth the investment. Here’s what I found:
Arsenal RCBs: Average at best
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? For this study, I analyzed 22 statistics that are all percentile-based. When putting them all together, David Luiz emerged as the man with the highest overall score among regulars at right centre-back from this past season. His average percentile score was 52nd, essentially showing that he was a very average centre-back this page season. Luiz won his aerial duels at a very encouraging rate, outpacing 93 percent of his contemporaries, was rarely dribbled past (92nd percentile). He also played more through balls than just about anyone (99th percentile) with a very high number of long passes completed (87th percentile). But he struggled to tackle ball carriers, ranking in the bottom five percent, while also putting little pressure on the ball and making few clearances.
Rob Holding’s biggest criticism among Arsenal supporters seems to be that he’s just not anything special, and that holds true when looking at his data. He ranked last among the four in-house options I analyze here. Holding failed to break the top 20 percent of backs from the top five leagues in any statistic I measured, and in fact ranked in the bottom half of 13 of 22 metrics, with tackling, pressuring the ball and aerial duels among his biggest weaknesses – kind of important for a centre-back, wouldn’t you say?
So what about the loanees? Let’s start with Konstantinos Mavropanos. He just had a very good season for Stuttgart, ranking in the 60th percentile on average across the 22 stats I looked at. He won more aerials than 95 percent of centre-backs, committed more tackles + interceptions than 98 percent of them, putting him among the elite and winning the ball. He ranked in the 92nd percentile for pass progression and 92nd in non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 (npxG+xA). There are some signs of promise. But interestingly, Mavropanos is in the cellar when it comes to a few key statistics: being dribbled past (first percentile) and successfully pressuring the ball (second percentile). Among the four in-house options, he also posted the worst aggregate score in terms of successful actions and loose balls and duels won, per Wyscout data. If he’s doing that against German clubs like Koln and Augsburg, there is certainly cause for concern when it comes to adapting to the Premier League.
Now, William Saliba. Data does favor him slightly over Luiz, putting him in the 53.6th percentile across 22 metrics, to Luiz’s 52.8. This season at Nice, he ranked in the 94th percentile among centre-backs for pass completion, 87th percentile in progressive passing and 92nd in progressive carrying. Several defensive stats were encouraging as well. He was 97th percentile in successful pressure percentage, and 95th in percent of dribblers tackled. Like Luiz, Saliba was also elite at not letting dribblers get past him, ranking in the 99th percentile. Only Luiz outperformed Saliba when you combine his duels, loose balls and successful actions.
But he did struggle in some areas. Data show that Saliba didn’t actually face much pressure from ball carriers. He registered a number of tackles that puts him in the second percentile and registered a number of ball pressures in only the fourth percentile. While he progressed the ball up the pitch, he rarely made a key pass (21st percentile) and did little to influence the attack (17th percentile in npxG+xA).
Can Saliba play the long pass that Mikel Arteta seems to need from Luiz? Somewhat. He averaged about 2.5 fewer long passes per 90 minutes this season, but posted a much better accuracy number, completing 54.7 percent of his passes compared to Luiz’s 45.2 percent.
Investigating the credible links
Arsenal lacked a standout presence at right centre-back this season. But would any of the credibly-linked options be a fix?
Let’s take a holistic look first. Using the 22 data points I collected, no one did better than Edmond Tapsoba. He ranked in the 99th percentile in long passes completed, 89th percentile in progressive passes, and 92nd in through balls, making him a potential new, better Luiz. Among the options I studied, Tapsoba posted the best long pass accuracy, per Wyscout, with 64.3 percent of his long passes completed. He averaged just over six long passes per 90, about two shy of Luiz’s rate.
Tapsoba won tackles more than 81 percent of centre-backs, while pressuring the ball more than 95 percent. His biggest weaknesses were being dribbled past (12th percentile) and fouls committed (20th percentile), so certainly some room to grow, but plenty to build on.
The next highest ranking, although after a solid drop-off, belonged to Sevilla’s Jules Kounde. Like Tapsoba, Kounde is an accurate long passer, completing 62.6 percent this past season. He won 73 percent of his duels, among the best of the players I looked at. He ranked in the 67th percentile in key passes and the 85th percentile in passes into the penalty area. Those data, combined with his 87th percentile rank in npxG+xA, signalling someone who can help the attack.
He didn’t pressure the ball as often as some of the other options I studied, but when he did, he was successful. His rate bests 99 percent of the centre-backs in the top five leagues. Similarly, he didn’t tackle many dribblers, ranking in just the 19th percentile. This lack of pressure on the ball helped keep the ball in front of him: He was in the 86th percentile when it came to being dribbled past.
Tapsoba and Kounde were the two best options I studied. But if there was one who really surprised me in a good way, it was Fulham’s Joachim Andersen.
Start with the good: Andersen is the only player on the list who averaged more long passes per 90 than David Luiz, with 8.97. But he completed them at a much better rate: 57.5 percent. Andersen ranked in the 82nd percentile for key passes, 86th in shot-creating actions and 68th for progressive passing. That’s encouraging if you need a back who can get things moving up front.
Andersen won his aerial duels at a high rate, ranking in the 97th percentile. But he won just 60.1 percent of his defensive duels, a number that ranked above only Mavropanos. I also worry about Andersen’s ability to pressure the ball. He registered few successful pressures this season, ranking in the 13th percentile, and committed lots of fouls, putting him in the 14th percentile.
His data points to a pretty good player, and certainly an upgrade over David Luiz. He also did a lot better than everyone’s man of the hour, Ben White.
Now, I’m just saying what the data tells me here. I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of White to say definitively whether he’s a star or a dud. But keeping in mind his price tag, here’s what data says about his season:
Among backs I studied, White ranked last. Lower than Luiz. Lower than Holding. Why? Certain data points just hated him.
Here’s what dragged the 23-year-old down:
- npxG+xA (25th percentile)
- Pass completion % (24th percentile)
- Long passes completed (25th percentile)
- % of dribblers tackled (19th percentile)
- Dribbled past (7th percentile)
- Clearances (1st percentile)
- Aerials won (11th percentile)
Per Wyscout, White won a decent 65.8 percent of his defensive duels this past season, putting him just below Luiz and Holding. He won just 44.7 percent of loose balls, last among backs I studied. He posted a 71.7 percent successful action rate, better than only Mavropanos. His 4.75 long passes per 90 minutes were more than only Jules Kounde.
Does that paint the picture of a 50M-Euro man? It’s certainly not encouraging.
Scouring the market for other backs
If Arsenal won’t spend 60M on Tapsoba or 50M on White, are there other options out there? The data certainly seem to think so. I’ll share three of my finds.
Willi Orban, 28, RB Leipzig: Orban is certainly on the older side here, but he could provide some leadership for a very young group of defenders (assuming the upcoming RB signing is also under 25). And the data loves him. Here are stats where he bested the 90th percentile:
- npxG+xA (99th percentile)
- Passes into the final third (99th percentile)
- Progressive passing (97th)
- Progressive carries (96th)
- Successful pressure % (94th)
- Fouls committed (94th percentile)
In only two key areas did Orban post below-average scores: number of long passes completed (42nd percentile, and dribbled past (19th percentile). He won 68.9 percent of his defensive duels, 61.2 percent of his loose balls and was successful in 79.3 percent of his actions, all ranking near the top of my researched group. Although he didn’t make the long pass that often, he did do it at a 60.2 percent accuracy rate, among the best in this group as well.
Transfermarkt values Orban at $17.6 million, meaning he could be a great backup option for Arsenal.
Jean-Clair Todibo, 21, Nice/Barcelona: Another cheaper, more youthful option, although Arsenal would have to wrestle him away from Nice, where he spent the past season on loan and is rumored to be contemplating a permanent move. Todibo doesn’t represent the offensive punch that a lot of my options here do, but he can progress the ball (84th percentile in passing, 95th in carrying), and is a sure tackler (88th percentile in tackles + interceptions). He consistently pressured the ball for Nice and won most of the time (84th percentile in both number of pressures and success rate). He presents a great ball-playing profile.
Harold Moukoudi, 23, AS-Saint Etienne: A little farther from the beaten path here. Moukoudi just wrapped up a very strong season at ASSE, where he ranked in the 86th percentile in tackles + interceptions and the 96th percentile in successful pressure rate. He only averaged 2.5 long passes per 90 minutes, but he made his impact felt on the attack through set pieces with three goals and an assist, which was a flicked-on header. He’s got potential to play at a higher level, and would probably be cheaper than 10 million so worth a look.
Knowing the above, would Ben White really be worth 50 million Euros or more? Is there something about him as a player that the data just doesn’t catch? Or would it be smarter to roll with a cheaper option like Andersen, or even stick it out for at least a bit with Saliba and Mavropanos? If the data is to be believed, that could be the way to go.