Ben White interview: People think I don’t like football, but I love playing

Ben White
Ben White's ultra-competitive streak extends throughout his life - David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

There is a common misconception that Ben White is a footballer who does not like football. It has been repeated so often over the past few years that, over time, it has simply become accepted as fact by the outside world.

It is not true. Well, not entirely. White does not particularly like watching football, but he certainly likes playing it. He loves the sport, the competitiveness, the battles on the pitch, the feeling of winning and of pushing himself, day after day and session after session.

Everything else around the game? White is not overly fussed. But the ferocity of elite-level competition? That is his passion. “He trains like he is playing the Champions League final almost every day,” Mikel Arteta once said of his £50 million defender.

“I know people say I don’t like football,” says White. “I go home and football is not on my mind. I can just be a normal person, relax. [But] when I am in here, it is intense.”

Within Arsenal, White is adored by the coaching staff for his relentless desire to win. It is the contest that puts fire in his belly, the thought of duelling an opponent and coming out on top. Even at home, he says, his competitive streak takes over.

“I want to win everything that I do,” he says. “My missus and I play a lot of games at home and I won’t be letting her win. I remember being young and always wanting to win and play aggressive and do as much as I could to win.”

Among those competitions with his wife, Milly, are the card game Uno and bat-and-ball contests. If he starts losing, he jokes, “the ball gets lost”.

For Arsenal, White is one of Arteta’s warriors. He regularly plays through pain – “it is so important to be there [and] I am there every week,” he says – and on the pitch he is the player who brings a much-needed streetwise edge.

Arteta spoke recently about training his players in football’s dark arts. White, a master of the sneaky trip and cynical foul, is perhaps the one player who does not need extra homework. An example would be if he suddenly loses his runner. Rather than let him go, the 26-year-old will happily bring him down.

“If I don’t do that, they will probably score,” he says. “It comes back to doing anything to win. I know I am not going to stop everyone and I know I am not the best one-v-one defender, but I can do things to help the team in game situations against their winger.”

Last weekend’s thrashing of Newcastle United, when White was up against Anthony Gordon, was an example. “Before the game we have instructions of what processes they have to be able to hurt us and he was one of them. My job was to stop him rolling inside, so I had to get as tight as possible, otherwise foul him. He’s going inside if not.”

Ben White fouls Anthony Gordon
Ben White makes sure Anthony Gordon does not get past him - John Walton/PA Wire

White’s cunning extends to set-pieces, where he is tasked with being as much of a nuisance as possible. This often involves blocking the opposition goalkeeper and, in the six-yard box, he is the man who attracts the attention of the defenders. “There is all sorts [going on],” he says. “Standing on your feet, elbows. It’s OK. I just have to stand in the way and see what happens.”

None of this is to downplay White’s technical ability. One does not become an Arsenal regular under Arteta without tactical awareness, a passing range and a willingness to receive the ball in tight spaces. In recent weeks, he has demonstrated these qualities by stepping inside from right-back, effectively doubling up as a central midfielder.

White plays down the significance of the shift although there is no doubt that it is a complicated role. He would not say it himself but others in Arteta’s squad have not been so successful at adapting to the unique demands of that position.

“There were a lot of instructions of where I need to be, when I need to be there,” he says of the recent change. “I think when you have Mikel as your manager, he makes it simple for you. I think most of the players could play in that position, because the key if you want to play for Arsenal is that you have got to be so technically-gifted, strong and fast. I think most of the players could do it.

Ben White and Mikel Arteta
White receives his latest instructions from Mikel Arteta - REUTERS/David Klein

“I am comfortable playing in there, but there are completely different things to look at. Like for me, playing centre-back and right-back, I only have to look forward – I never worry about what is behind me. This [role] is a completely different part of the game.”

Last season, White started 36 of 38 Premier League games as Arsenal produced an unexpected title challenge. This season, he says, the team is better. Before Monday’s trip to Sheffield United, Arsenal have won six league games in a row.

“We have improved massively,” White says. “If we were in the same position this year, I think it would be very different. There is nothing to lose. We are just going to go out there, do our best and try to perform like we have in the last few games.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.