Thursday, May 30, 2024

Here Is No Kai

“Kai is a player of top quality. He has great versatility and is an intelligent player. He will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield and variety to our play,” these were the words of Mikel Arteta upon the signing of Kai Havertz this summer. Sporting Director Edu added, “Kai is an exciting addition to our squad, who will bring great attacking quality and versatility.”

Both quotes made reference to Havertz’s versatility which has been a flaw as much as it has been a strength during his time in England as a collection of managers have struggled with how best to utilise his qualities. In the first quote I reference from Arteta, the manager does explicitly talk about what he will add to the midfield.

Granit Xhaka departed this summer and Kai Havertz entered and so most of us assumed this was a straight swap situation, if not necessarily in terms of attributes, then certainly in terms of position. Arteta had four attackers around the 15-goal mark last season in Saka, Martinelli, Odegaard and Jesus and Havertz was to be the fifth member of that choir.

That Havertz was given a penalty to break his Arsenal duck in the recent victory at Bournemouth shows his role is seen in terms of end-product. Nobody would have charitably handed Granit Xhaka a penalty having not scored for a few games when he played in that role.

The stark differences between Xhaka and Havertz meant that it was always going to take some time for Arsenal fans to get their heads around the change in tack in this position. One thing I have learned from writing this column over the last 12 years is that divisive players make for the most interesting topics.

I have yet to write a column of any kind about William Saliba or Martin Odegaard. The only column I have written about Bukayo Saka related to whether he was the target of rough treatment by opponents. There is very little interesting to say about consistently and obviously excellent players. I cannot eke 1200 words out of “William Saliba is really good and obviously you have all noticed this because it is blindingly obvious.” (I wrote this before Blogs managed that very feat this morning…)

This is already my fifth column about Kai Havertz and he has been at the club just shy of three months. Those, my friends, are Theo Walcott numbers. He is keeping me in business, I am the mobile hot dog vendor and Havertz is my Homer Simpson. He is going to put my daughter through university.

In the third episode of my early season Kai boxset, I wrote “I very much have the feeling that Kai Havertz is going to be a player that divides opinion.” Much of this is due to our perceptions of who he replaced in Granit Xhaka, who became a kind of latter-day folk hero for Arsenal fans. He was utterly consistent in both his output and his durability.

Put simply, Xhaka started every single game as the left eight, more or less and, more or less, you knew exactly what you were going to get. He was a player you could set your watch by and Havertz, if we are honest, could not be further away from that. Xhaka was a constant.

Havertz is much more ethereal, you have to squint to spot him despite his significant frame. He is dainty and cerebral and evades your gaze, while Xhaka grips you by the hand and stares into your eyes. (Even if sometimes he squeezes a bit too hard and stares a bit too long). None of this is to say that the Havertz ‘experiment’ has been any kind of success to this point.

I am not going to bullshit you and insist you ‘listen to the notes he doesn’t play’. He has struggled to make a consistent impact and that is why his teammates bundled the ball into his arms at Bournemouth when Arsenal won their second penalty of the game. Sure, it showed great empathy on the part of his teammates but it also showed they thought he needed that act of kindness.

However, I do wonder whether we have miscast Havertz slightly, that maybe it was never the intention that he be a player you set your watch by in the ‘left eight’ position. There were concerted whispers around the futures of both Thomas Partey and Jorginho this summer, following the signing of Declan Rice.

Arsenal didn’t budge on either player. Sure, they want depth but I am beginning to think Havertz’s versatility was the point all along. Clearly, Arteta wants to move away from the idea of a first eleven engraved in stone. On Sunday, he started with Jorginho, Rice and Odegaard in midfield and I believe that, in the bigger games domestically and in Europe, Arteta wants the option of partnering either Partey or Jorginho with Declan Rice in more of a double pivot in midfield.

Again, don’t get me wrong, if Havertz were knocking it out of the park at the moment, he would be one of those core players who starts every single game but he isn’t, so he is not. But Havertz started the Community Shield game against Manchester City at centre-forward- albeit in the absence of Gabriel Jesus.

On the first Premier League game of the season against Nottingham Forest, he played the last 20 minutes at centre-forward. We have seen an increasing willingness to use Gabriel Jesus in wide positions. These were the first two games of the season and Havertz was used as a centre-forward in both and he finished Sunday’s game there.

August was far too early to make the determination that Havertz wasn’t buttering any parsnips in midfield, so it was clearly always the intention that his role would be something of a moving feast. This might also explain Arsenal’s reluctance to sell Emile Smith Rowe, who is considered for the left eight position.

At the very least, it simply has to have been the intention that Havertz be used in the forward line on occasion, especially in the latter stages of games when lactic acid kicks in and the long pass becomes a more attractive option for players at the base of the team.

The retention of both Partey- who is physically unable to play with great regularity- and Jorginho was most likely due to the desire to use a double pivot in big games and clearly Havertz’s midfield spot would be the one to sacrifice. I think it’s eminently reasonable to question whether Arsenal should spend £65m on a player who is likely to be a late impact sub in big games and a midfield flat track bully the rest of the time but I suspect that probably was the plan all along to some extent.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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