Fernandinho, Fabinho and Ben White - how Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa will improve Brighton and Hove Albion defender
The version of Ben White that Brighton and Hove Albion welcome back at the end of this season will be an upgraded version of the one they sent to Leeds in the summer, if Marcelo Bielsa’s theory is correct.
United’s Argentine head coach believes that playing players in unfamiliar positions improves them and he plans to do just that this weekend against Huddersfield Town.
White, a centre-half by trade, has experienced life elsewhere on the pitch, playing games in every position across the back four in his career.
At Newport County, he occupied both full-back roles as well as his traditional position and left Rodney Parade with glowing references in his back pocket.
But that was in League Two.
This weekend, the 22-year-old will take a step into the unknown, at the highest level he has ever competed at, in a Yorkshire derby no less.
The Brighton youngster does, however, already exhibit some of the characteristics of a midfielder from the centre-back role – against Reading in particular he went roaming, running the ball out from the back.
A map of his touches on the pitch made it almost impossible to discern his starting position.
And his passing has been superb since he first pulled on a Leeds shirt, giving him an accuracy ranking in the Championship’s top 20.
Any suggestion that Leeds were attempting to transform White into a midfielder would give rise to serious concern in Brighton, although they could do little to stop it now that he’s played the pre-requisite number of games to rule out a recall, but that is not Bielsa’s aim here.
His belief is that tasting life in a new position will not only make White a better player, it will make him a better centre-half, because he is carrying out responsibilities that play a part of his ‘day job’ anyway.
“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,” said the head coach.
“When Phillips plays as a midfielder, a lot of time he plays like a centre-back.
“A lot of 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.
“But this secondary function is part of the principal function, so when you change a player’s position, it improves him.”
There is mounting evidence, from Bielsa’s time at Elland Road, that he is a man who can successfully unlock versatility in players.
Stuart Dallas is the prime example, having excelled at right-back as a winger, before performing well in central midfield and left-back.
Few will argue that Dallas’ best displays have come on the right-hand side of a back four, but it’s universally accepted that he is a better player for Bielsa’s input.
Gjanni Alioski is another who can now be trusted in more than one position, playing defensively or offensively on the left flank, and Jack Harrison has come to play two roles at the same time, occupying the left-back spot on top of his left-wing duties, when Bielsa goes to a back three.
The caveat in all of this is quite a big one.
“You have to have the skills to adapt to a new position,” said Bielsa, before going on to list them.
“Mobility, technique, speed, co-ordination, the ability to create play, but all these things you can see.
“You can see Fernandinho at City or Fabinho at Liverpool.
“Fabinho was a full-back, now he plays in midfield and he also defends close to the centre-backs. Fernandinho was a midfielder, now he plays as a centre-back.”
White cannot yet be spoken of in the same breath as those two top-flight operators but it might not be long before he is – the Premier League is well within his sights and his capability.
And it might not be long before the idea of a defender playing in midfield or a wide man playing centrally becomes less of a talking point.
Bielsa, who claims no credit for the trending versatility in the game, says that while specialists continue to exist, the modern-day game calls for generalists.
“The players have one principal function in the team,” he said.
“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.
“In current football it demands of the players that they have variety in their positions.
“Dallas is an example, plays winger, full-back or inside. Alioski is the same. But Harrison he does similar work.
“Some players move from the back to front and others from front to back.
“It is not something I invented. Football is played like that now.”