Sunday, April 21, 2024

River Deep, Mountain Kai

This time last summer, nobody anticipated that Oleksandr Zinchenko would come into the Arsenal squad and transform the midfield. But that’s what he did. The Ukrainian was a left-back who wasn’t a left-back at all, inverting into central midfield alongside Thomas Partey and he, alongside Saliba and Gabriel Jesus, totally changed the way Arsenal play.

None of us were talking about the possibility of a Partey and Zinchenko double pivot in midfield with Ben White at right-back and William Saliba as the ultimate vacuum cleaning defender. None of us. Which is what makes this summer so intriguing as far as I am concerned. Arsenal’s summer transfer business in 2021 and 2022 totally altered the team’s style of play.

In fact, in the summer of 2020, Arsenal signed Gabriel and Thomas Partey, both of whom have also become instrumental in that overhaul. So this summer, I have been determined to keep an open mind as to Arsenal’s recruitment. With Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka moving into their 30s, Elneny and even January signing Jorginho also in their 30s, midfield always seemed like the next part of the house due a lick of paint.

The two players Arsenal have “gone big” for are Declan Rice and Kai Havertz. I think most of us can see Declan Rice in the Partey role, roaming the wastelands around the centre circle and gobbling up any stray impalas that dare take a loose touch in the middle third of the pitch. Rice is the best in the business at gobbling up stray touches and regurgitating them as perfectly plated lobster dinners. (And he would add his own spin to the role too, with the way he drives with the ball at his feet).

The signing of Havertz is a lot more intriguing, however. Rice is a (probably slightly better) fitter Partey analogue. Havertz is very different to Granit Xhaka who looks likely to depart the club this summer. Nobody has shouted ‘SQUAD DEPTH’ louder than me over the last few months, that we need to lose the idea of a starting eleven that is engraved onto the dressing room wall.

That said, money is a good clue as to the intended standing of players. Trossard and Jorginho have been really solid squad additions. They play a lot of minutes and give Arsenal optionality. But some players, and some prices, are about more than flexibility and optionality. Arsenal are paying over £60m for Havertz and I don’t think it’s so he can plug in and play a la Trossard. That is ‘starting the majority of games’ money.

And the only natural spot for him to do that is Xhaka’s prized ‘left eight’ spot. I just don’t believe Havertz is a ‘depth’ option (though all players are depth options once your squad reaches the required strength) and I don’t believe he is here to adopt the roles of Martinelli, Jesus or Saka. I am certain he will take that left to centre spot.

And just because he is taking Xhaka’s spot it doesn’t mean he is going to play it in the same way. Jesus plays in Lacazette’s spot but clearly they have done it in very different ways (!) JJ Bull from Tifo Football put together a very good video (see below) on how Havertz could operate in the Arsenal system.

The video describes the role a little more like a support striker position. I have read plenty about Havertz’s off-ball running and his ability to receive the ball in space. Havertz is also very highly regarded as a presser and it will be interesting to see how this might shift Arsenal’s off-ball modus operandi. Odegaard has led the press in Arsenal’s 442 pressing shape in recent years, this suggests that Havertz might undertake that role with Odegaard dropping deep. Unless…

Arteta wants to play a high risk / high reward strategy of having Havertz, Odegaard and Jesus pressing high and trusting Declan Rice to patrol a larger amount of space behind them. I think another of the intriguing aspects of this potential transformation is how Havertz might compare to Xhaka when Arsenal don’t have possession.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how I felt Xhaka was probably always a ‘left eight’ who Arsenal previously miscast as a deep lying playmaker. Havertz’s numbers suggest he is an excellent presser and he is clearly very strong in the air, which will have its defensive uses as well as its attacking uses. But, clearly, he is not going to be as solid as Xhaka is when it comes to the more ‘gloves off’ moments on the pitch.

When Chelsea bought Havertz in 2020, it’s clear they didn’t really have a plan for him. The pandemic meant Bayern Munich did not want to put up the kind of money required to buy him from Leverkusen and Chelsea had already bought Werner (their striker), Ziyech (their winger) as well as Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy. They didn’t really have a role in mind for Havertz but bought him because the opportunity arose. Arsenal, it looks like, have more of a plan for the player.

I wonder whether Arteta just has a little more faith in ‘over burdening’ Declan Rice in the midfield bouncer role. What really interested me in JJ Bull’s video was the idea of Havertz and Jesus causing more chaos with their movement. I really like (at least in theory) the idea of Jesus and Havertz as a kind of attacking partnership.

Jesus is a ball magnet. He loves contact, he loves to dribble, he loves to get involved. Havertz is far more of a ‘ghost in the machine’ type player, someone who likes to sneak into areas and cause havoc off the ball. Back in 2016, when Arsenal briefly experimented with Alexis as a false 9, I described his relationship with Özil as a ‘false 9 partnership’.

Alexis gravitated to the ball like the road runner, while Özil quietly drifted into central spaces and enjoyed an excellent scoring run. I think I see the idea behind Havertz and Jesus being similar, that Jesus is the wasp at the picnic while Havertz is the ghost at the feast. The role Jesus played for Brazil excellently for many years was as an NFL blocker style forward so that Neymar could find a slither of space.

Jesus is elite at making space for others (Odegaard, Saka and Martinelli all hit 15 Premier League goals last season). I think the idea is that Gabriel Jesus creates the diversion, banging on the front door while Havertz quietly slips through the back door. Clearly, for this to work, there will be a little more responsibility on the deepest midfielder to guard against counters and, if you were going to sign one current midfielder for that role, it would probably be Declan Rice.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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