Player, Influential: #2 Ben Whiteman
Since the season is on hold due to the developing coronavirus pandemic, we thought we’d take the 2019/20 season as it stands and spotlight a few of the most influential players to Darren Moore’s young Rovers team.
Last week we looked at top scorer Kieran Sadlier, so this week we've decided to focus on captain Ben Whiteman.
Tactical Evolution, Quiet Revolution
Rochdale-born midfielder Whiteman was signed by Darren Ferguson in 2017-18, initially on loan, and had established himself as a key figure in the centre of the park over the course of the two seasons heading into 2019-20. Finding his groove as a holding midfielder in Grant McCann’s effective, fluid three-man unit last season, the natural evolution of Whiteman’s game upon the arrival of Darren Moore was to see him deployed as a deep-lying playmaker in a more disciplined 4-2-3-1 set-up.
This has worked to perfection for both Whiteman and the team. Operating as part of a duo at the base of midfield, ordinarily alongside Ben Sheaf, he has had the optimum positioning to use his superb vision and distribution abilities to good effect, linking well not only with Sheaf but with more advanced creative players like James Coppinger, Kieran Sadlier and Jon Taylor.
Whilst playing in the McCann set-up meant a sharing of duties with Herbie Kane and whomever played the more penetrative midfield role – usually Ali Crawford or Tommy Rowe – Whiteman now has the scope to hone a specialised role and it is one that has worked well, seeing him rise to prominence as one of the most accomplished technical players in League One.
The former Sheffield United’s man role can be likened to that of an NFL Quarterback, easily the most vital position in that sport. Whilst superstars like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers survey a multitude of options ahead of them before crafting success through the air, Whiteman does much the same with a ball at his feet. It is his job to find the gaps to exploit opposition defences and put his team mates in positions to score, and this is something he does very well indeed.
Leading By Example
The other subtle but important change made in pre-season was the appointment of Whiteman as team captain. A slew of experienced players departed the club in the summer, including veteran captain Andy Butler, and with James Coppinger feeling better suited to focusing on his playing responsibilities on the field, Darren Moore turned to his 23-year-old playmaker to step up and lead the way forward.
Not many managers put such faith in a player so young, yet Moore didn’t hesitate to give Whiteman the role having seen the midfielder’s natural leadership capabilities in his first few weeks in charge. Although the youthful make-up of the Rovers squad made opting for a less experienced captain more likely, Whiteman has always demonstrated a willingness to step to the fore and was a key figure in the side from soon after his arrival at the club.
The decision has been vindicated, with fans clearly able to see on match days how seriously he takes the captain’s role. He is one of the most vocal players in the side no matter what the situation in games and, alongside veterans Coppinger and Matty Blair, plus defensive leader Tom Anderson, it is Whiteman who exemplifies the confidence and composure that has served Moore’s developing side so well in 2019/20.
He has been productive too, matching his goal tally of 5 from last season by January, and perhaps just needs to add more incisive contributions in the attacking third to become a truly formidable player capable of playing at a higher level. Whiteman’s abilities as a playmaker and technical worker are unquestioned, so if he adds more goals and direct assists to his game the ceiling is very high indeed for a player in a role that is increasingly influential in the modern game.
A Statistician’s Dream
Whiteman featured in InStat Football’s Team of the Season for League One a few days ago, a fair representation of just how important he has been to Rovers and how consistently he has performed compared to the rest of the division. Be it his passing range, distribution or ability to win possession and transition play, Whiteman is becoming the complete playmaker. Dig a little deeper and you can see why he finds himself held in such high esteem by the analytics wizards.
For example, he has the highest pass accuracy of any player in the league, completing almost 83% (Ben Sheaf is third on that list, which speaks to their effectiveness as a duo) whilst he also attempts the most passes into the final third. He has also won 370 second-balls this season, the third highest in League One. These two statistics alone back up the notion that Whiteman is blossoming into a true all-rounder, adept both in possession and out of it.
It doesn’t take a deep dive into the analytics to notice that he is key to everything Rovers do on both sides of the ball. It is these stats though that scouts and other teams will be using to determine whether or not a transfer bid is a worthwhile endeavour. It feels inevitable that major interest will come for him in upcoming transfer windows, but the club know that in Whiteman, they have an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a squad capable of promotion.
At 23, Ben Whiteman is probably a good four or five years away from his peak which is a scary prospect for those lining up against him. Of all the exciting young talents currently among the Rovers squad, he is arguably the most likely to play in the Premier League. The good news on that front is that the new contract he signed in November guarantees that it will likely take a record transfer fee to prise him away, meaning that there remains plenty of room for him to grow as a Rovers player.