Versatile Ben White is given chance to move forward at Leeds United

Leeds United's Ben White in action.
Leeds United's Ben White in action.
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For Leeds United, it is a necessary case of plugging gaps, but for Ben White, tomorrow could be another important step in his developing career.

The central defender has impressed hugely since joining on a season-long loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, to the point where some are even starting to talk about him in the same breath as England.

At Huddersfield Town in the Championship he will add another string to his bow – that of holding midfielder. His head coach, Marcelo Bielsa, thinks the experience will only further improve him as a player.

With Kalvin Phillips suspended for five booking this season, and logical deputies Adam Forshaw and Jamie Shackleton injured, White has got the nod. Bielsa showed his hand, giving White 10 minutes to acclimatise to a new role he has been working on in training for some time at the end of the non-contest at home to Middlesbrough, so it was no surprise when the Argentinian confirmed he will do the job again in the lunchtime derby.

This is no knee-jerk reaction to a hole suddenly opening up, but something Bielsa has been working away from prying eyes at Thorp Arch for a while, presumably in the expectation that Phillips might be treading a fine disciplinary line.

“For a long time we’ve been working with White in this position,” he reveals. “He is going to play in that role (against Town).

“Of course it’s a new position for him. He has the skills to play there but he’s not used to it. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

He has given us a few clues.

White showed a more expansive side of his game at Reading last month, when he charged out of the back three so often he looked more like an attacking than a defensive midfielder, and in an era where central defenders are expected to show quality on the ball as well as just being able to head and kick it away, ball-playing Brighton will no doubt be delighted with the decision.

“The players have one principal function in the team,” explains Bielsa. “In general, they play in one area of the pitch. But it is very common that one player who plays in the centre has to move to the sides and a player in the centre has to go forward to the midfield, or a player that plays as a midfielder has to drop from his position.

“You have players at the back, in midfield and the front, then players in the middle or each side. You have players who defend more and players who attack more. But all of them have to defend and attack. All of them drop and go forward and all of them play narrow or go wide.

“Modern football demands of the players that they have variety in their positions. (Stuart) Dallas is an example – he plays winger, full-back or inside. (Ezgjan) Alioski is the same. But (Jack) Harrison, he does similar work (recently switching from winger to wing-back in Leeds’s slightly odd lop-sided 3-1-3-3).

“Some players move from the back to front and others from back to front. It is not something I invented. Football is played like that now.”

Such versatility is essential when Bielsa insists on working with quite a tight-knit group of players and with the versatility of the likes of Dallas and Alioski, it sounds like Leeds are edging towards “Total Football”, the dogma the Netherlands used to make the beautiful game yet more beautiful in the Seventies, which demanded players be able to constantly switch position. Phillips has in the past been used as a defender.

Converting holding midfielders into centre-backs and vice-versa has become something of a fashion since Bielsa disciple Pep Guardiola turned the diminutive Javier Mascherano into a commanding central defender at Barcelona, and there are other examples in the Premier League of already fine footballers taking their game to another level by learning a new job.

“When you play in a different position, it always improves the player because when Ben White plays as a centre-back, a lot of time he does things like a central midfielder,” argues Bielsa. “When Phillips plays as a midfielder, a lot of time he plays like a centre-back. A lot of the time, when Ben White plays as a centre-back, he goes forward and plays like a midfielder. What doesn’t happen is a centre-back playing as a centre-forward, or vice-versa (maybe Bielsa will try that next).

“This secondary function is part of the principal function, so when you change a player’s position, it improves him. But you have to have the skills to adapt to a new position – mobility, technique, speed, co-ordination, the ability to create play, but all these things you can see (in White).

“You can see Fernandinho at Guardiola’s (Manchester) City or Fabinho at Liverpool. Fabinho was a full-back, now he plays in (central) midfield and he also defends close to the centre-backs. Fernandinho was a midfielder, now he plays as a centre-back.”

If White can develop into anything like those players, Leeds, Brighton and England will be very happy.