Wednesday, July 24, 2024

What is Kai Havertz? Arsenals’ enigmatic $80-million signing is still caught between attack and midfield

When Kai Havertz concluded the time was right to leave Chelsea last summer, he did so with a particular idea at the forefront of his mind. He did not want to play as a center forward anymore, according to CBS Sports sources. For too long he had been stuck with his back to goal, duking it out with burly defenders, looking to hold up play and flick the ball on to a team mate.

That typifies the conundrum of Havertz. It is easy for him or anyone else to say what he might not be. He might win all sorts of aerial duels but his talent is wasted as a target man. As Gary Neville would note, even after Sunday’s impressive display in victory over Liverpool, he is not a true striker either. Nearly two-thirds of the way through his first Premier League season in north London it is not overwhelmingly clear that he is going to be the upgraded left eight that Arsenal hoped would make the difference between second and first this season.

This has always been the siren song of Havertz. Back in his Bayer Leverkusen days they called him an alleskönner (roughly translated as all-arounder) for good reason. He really did look like he could do it all. In 2018-19 he was a goal every other game center forward, sniffing out opportunities in the penalty area, rising highest to meet crosses and taking some mightily composed penalties for a 20 year old. The next term he rocketed ahead in his development, proving himself to be as adept at carrying the ball into dangerous areas as he was at finishing them off.

Leverkusen had created a forward who might feasibly develop into anything an elite club needed if only he was put in the right circumstances. Despite high points that included the winner in the Champions League final, Chelsea offered him nothing of the sort, souring him on a center forward’s life if all it was to be was the man who gets the ball hoofed up to him without any support or, in the post-Thomas Tuchel era, much evidence of a plan to spark an attack into life.

The irony of Arsenal’s $80 million reclamation project is that it is in that role in which Havertz has excelled. For the second time in less than a month, he gave Liverpool almighty headaches whenever his team mates felt compelled to hit it long. Gabriel Jesus is not one to back down from a fight, but the Brazilian is seven inches shorter than the man who replaced him in the XI on Sunday. There is only so much he could have done when Bukayo Saka hoofed the ball out of the penalty area in the 55th minute. Havertz turned it into the first of Ibrahima Konate‘s two yellow cards. 

“I think he showed his quality is unbelievable,” Martin Odegaard said after the win. “In duels, you know he’s so strong on the ball.

No one in Arsenal red drew more fouls. No one hurled themselves into more duels. He was the outball his team needed to clear the press. Whether this is the sort of game Havertz envisaged himself playing for his new club was rather beside the point on this occasion, the lure of competing for Premier League titles was what drew him to the Emirates Stadium. Thanks in no small part to his leading of the line, Arsenal played themselves firmly into contention for exactly that at the weekend.

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Arsenal’s completed passes to Kai Havertz in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Liverpool TruMedia

Even in that role Havertz left some wanting more. In true Arsenal center forward fashion, three shots worth 1.05 expected goals translated to zero actual goals (albeit Alisson’s save of his first effort was converted on the rebound by Saka). Gary Neville would contend that the German might have had more shots if he had really attacked the moments. “I watched him today, Havertz. When he’s moving into the box, he’s a different type of player, but he’s quite languid,” he said after the game. “There’s no change of pace into the box, there’s no change of direction, there’s no little darts.”

The body language divination can probably be parked but Neville did hit on a significant point there. In whatever position he has played for Arsenal this season, Havertz isn’t threatening the box as much as he might.

The vision for the German on his arrival was clear. He would be an upgraded version of 2022-23 Granit Xhaka on offense, all third man runs, box crashing and unmarked shots. There was even something of a blueprint for a goal ready and waiting for him: Arsenal hanging a ball up to the back post where he would beat his man and flick a header home. The one he scored against Brentford at the end of November, in other words. That is one of only two occasions he has got that sort of shot away.

As a left-sided eight there have undeniably been periods where Havertz has impressed. He won the club player of the month award for November and the following month he had perhaps his best game in the role as Arsenal asserted themselves on Brighton. Equally, it is fair to say that the left side of the field has not sung as pretty a song this season as it did last. With more touches, Gabriel Martinelli is creating less. Oleksandr Zinchenko has not bent games to his will as frequently as he did 12 months ago. Their struggles might not be down to Havertz’s presence or Xhaka’s absence — after all the Swiss international is not the only key component in last season’s midfield to have vanished this year.

Havertz remains inscrutable as ever though. No wonder, when he has gone from center forward to central midfield and yet averages almost exactly the same number of touches per 90 this season as last. 

There are things that he clearly does well. Only three players have made more interceptions in the final third than his six, one of those being Declan Rice. He wins his aerial duels and for that reason is an effective outlet for progressive passing. The timing of his third man runs is impeccable, as he proved in the build up to Arsenal’s opener on Sunday. Is this all enough to make the left eight spot his own? Evidently not with Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira and Rice all having had runs in the position. Some of those occasions have been informed by injury (particularly in attack) or the specific requirements of the opponent but shouldn’t a £65 million signing — one whose arrival came with opportunity costs in terms of deepening options on the flank — have carved out a niche of his own?

Perhaps seven months just isn’t long enough to puzzle out all the intricacies of Havertz. He himself might have a clear idea of what he does not want to be, but what exactly his array of talents is going to coalesce into remains out of sight for now.

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