Right-back popped up in central midfield positions at West Ham as Mikel Arteta adapted skilfully to Oleksandr Zinchenko's absence
: Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane
A few days after Arsenal’s worst performance of the season, a demoralising defeat at Fulham in December, Mikel Arteta spoke about the importance of his players feeling “comfortable” with their instructions and positioning.
“We have to play to the strengths of the players, that is the first thing,” Arteta said. “I don’t want players to do things that they don’t feel comfortable doing.”
The Arsenal manager did not name any players specifically but, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now make an educated guess as to who he might have been referencing. In that match against Fulham, centre-back Jakub Kiwior was asked to play as an inverted full-back, in the mould of Oleksandr Zinchenko, and it did not go well.
There are few positions more complex than the one Zinchenko has mastered. It requires a player to operate as a full-back at some times, and a central midfielder at others. This player must be able to defend the back post, battle one-versus-one against wingers, receive the ball under pressure and play incisive forward passes.
In short, it is extremely difficult — and Kiwior evidently did not have an enjoyable afternoon in that “Zinchenko role”. He was substituted at half-time, and never looked happy with the ball at his feet.
Zinchenko’s ongoing fitness issues mean that Kiwior has twice started at left-back since that Fulham game, against Liverpool in the FA Cup and then against West Ham United this weekend. On neither occasion, though, was he asked to come into midfield from his starting position.
Instead, Arteta has sought alternative solutions. And on Sunday, in Arsenal’s 6-0 victory at the London Stadium, he found one in the shape of Ben White, the £50 million defender who once again demonstrated his versatility and technical ability.
Usually, Arteta asks his left-back — Zinchenko, when fit — to tuck into midfield. Against West Ham, with Zinchenko absent through injury, the Arsenal manager appeared to flip the system. For the first time, it was White who played the “Zinchenko role”, rolling inside from right-back to sit in midfield.
White’s touchmap vs West Ham, with Arsenal attacking from right to left
It proved to be a masterstroke. Arsenal dominated the ball, and White excelled. In 77 minutes of action, before he was substituted with the game at 6-0, the 26-year-old had 81 touches of the ball and attempted 66 passes. Before the trip to West Ham, he had averaged 79 touches and 61 passes per 90 minutes this season.
In other words, White played almost 30 per cent more passes per minute on Sunday than he has averaged in his previous matches this campaign.
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