Thursday, May 30, 2024

New signing profile: Kai Havertz

Having fallen just short in the title race, Arsenal wasted little time kick-starting their summer business by completing a deal for Chelsea forward Kai Havertz.

But who is the German, what will he bring to the side and why is he costing up to £65 million? Phil Costa reports.

The wonderkid tag has almost become a poisoned chalice for players breaking through of late, and for Kai Havertz those superlatives – on top of being described as a mix between Mesut Ozil and Michael Ballack – were impossible to escape. However, in this particular case those claims felt justified. This was a pencil-thin, unassuming teenager whose seamless transition into senior football felt more like a pastime alongside his studies than a challenge.

After managing his minutes for two seasons, Bayer Leverkusen saw the best of their academy graduate under head coach Peter Bosz who effectively built his team around Havertz, allowing him to roam off the striker in an expansive, counter-attacking system. That faith was rewarded with 55 goal contributions (39G, 16A) in 87 appearances across the following two campaigns, before Chelsea won the race for his signature in September 2020 – making him the Bundesliga’s then second most-expensive sale at €80m.

Despite his burgeoning reputation and talent, the Aachen-born forward has struggled to match expectations in English football, losing himself in different systems under four different managers at Stamford Bridge. Which begs the question – why does Mikel Arteta want him?

A common theme running through many of the clubs’ recent signings is versatility, of which Havertz possesses plenty. The German has mostly led the line for Chelsea as a nine or false nine, but can play from the right hand side, as a number eight and ten, where he excelled in the Bundesliga. As the nine, his back-to-goal game is strong with a secure first touch and ability to manipulate the ball in tight spaces, where he can use his 6ft 3in frame to post up and bring others into play. In a deeper role, his game is more centred around carrying the ball and arriving late in the box unmarked to finish chances.

Statistically, he mirrors Gabriel Jesus quite closely with 44.1 touches and 31.4 attempted passes per 90 last season to Jesus’ 47.2 touches and 30.5 attempted passes per 90 – although the Brazilian is more creative and betters him for both shot creating actions and expected assists (xAG) per game. It’s important to note that Chelsea were a miserable attacking unit last season and Havertz has shown an ability to create chances when part of a more fluid front three – particularly in transition where his decision making and weight of pass are maximised. Whether he can replace Granit Xhaka as the left eight remains to be seen, as he looks a natural offensive fit for the role but could fall short defensively in its current iteration; the Leverkusen-bound midfielder has more two-way balance to his game despite adapting last term.

What makes Havertz such a unique prospect is his movement and ability to interpret space in congested areas. The German likes to drift and combine with teammates wherever possible, and often gives defenders a false sense of security through his languid manner before springing into life. Only Erling Haaland (349) made more off-ball runs into the opposition penalty area in the Premier League last season than Havertz (334) – Opta data – while he was third and fifth respectively for attacking runs and runs challenging the backline across all other players in the top flight.

His trademark run is exploiting space between the last defender and goalkeeper, before finishing with delicate, lobbed efforts as the ‘keeper comes rushing out. The 24-year-old also likes to hang back in busy penalty areas to anticipate cutbacks which affords him time and space to finish. More importantly, Havertz offers Arsenal newfound aerial prowess – 10 of his 32 goals for Chelsea have been headers – which can offer this side some attacking variance when facing mid or low-blocks, and defensive presence when contesting set pieces.

But there are concerns over the player – primarily with his finishing. Over the last three seasons, Havetz has scored 19 Premier League goals from 24.4 expected goals (xG) and while many factors can affect xG data, this underperformance is supported through the eye test. There is a lack of conviction when the German finds himself in goalscoring situations, where weak shots are struck straight at the goalkeeper, his body position and bobbly control often take him away from goal and when in contact with defenders, can be brushed away too easily despite his frame. He has, however, made contributions in big games with goals in the Champions League and Club World Cup finals since joining the West London club.

And while his defensive numbers impress at face value – Havertz sits in the 90th percentile or higher for tackles, blocks and clearances among positional peers – his general play lacks intensity and often feels too passive. He has a nice habit of sneaking up on players’ blindsides and nicking the ball away, but Chelsea fans have voiced their frustrations about his demeanour during matches, how he fades in and out of games and the ease at which he can be dispossessed under pressure (where have we seen this before). The core ingredients are there to suit Artetaball – hopefully a change of scenery can inspire him to find another gear in English football.

“He (Havertz) is a unique player,” Tuchel explained in February 2021. “But it’s not so clear what he needs to settle.

“Today, I would say he’s between a nine and a ten, someone who is comfortable in the box, very good in offensive headers, has good timing to arrive in the box, good finishing and composure; so between nine and ten.”

And that feels like the perpetual battle for versatile players – how else can you define yourself? This signing almost feels like a rescue project in how the trajectory, stability and clarity of Arsenal could provide an antidote for his stagnation at Chelsea, which Tuchel referenced above.

As mentioned earlier, Havertz would probably struggle to replace Xhaka in this current set up but his arrival could hint at the left eight position evolving ahead of next season; shaping into a more offensive, line-breaking role with Oleksandr Zinchenko inverting alongside a natural defensive six? It definitely works on paper and the German could be the final jigsaw piece to finalise our five ahead, five behind the ball structure.

What’s clear is that beyond the inconsistency and indifference to another player swapping Cobham for London Colney, the club have signed another versatile option with huge experience and potential that needs some fire in his belly. Arteta has proven his knack for providing the fuel and oxygen but as his Bundesliga brilliance becomes a distant memory – it’s now time for Havertz to bring the heat.

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