Quick Hits: Arsenal sign Havertz
Can the Gunners get him going when Chelsea could not?
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When Chelsea signed Kai Havertz three summers ago, I had a pretty straightforward question: what is he supposed to do in this team?
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I don’t think they really knew. The plan in that transfer window was to sign a striker (who ended up being Timo Werner), a winger (Hakim Ziyech), a centre back (Thiago Silva) and a goalkeeper (Édouard Mendy). Manager Frank Lampard, technical director Petr Čech and chief executive Marina Granovskaia would have been happy with that summer. But Havertz suddenly became available. The pandemic meant Bayern didn’t have the cash upfront to get the deal done. Chelsea did. This wasn’t what they planned for, but you can’t turn down the chance to sign one of the best young players in the world, right?
That strategy had worked at Chelsea in the past. They didn’t know why they wanted Eden Hazard or how he would be used, but when they got the opportunity to sign someone of that quality, they took it and figured out the rest later. Hazard quickly nailed down the left-sided role and went on to define an era at Stamford Bridge. Havertz, they thought, could do the same.
Three years on and Havertz is leaving Chelsea without anyone quite figuring out what they bought him for. His three managers at Chelsea tried him as a lone striker, as part of a front two, out wide, in an attacking midfield role, you name it. Everyone knew he was good enough to start for this team, but no one figured out where it would be.
If Havertz doesn’t succeed at Arsenal, it won’t be because they didn’t know what they wanted him to do. Much more than Lampard, Thomas Tuchel or Graham Potter, Mikel Arteta has a very clear vision of how he wants his team to play and drills them relentlessly on it. It is not his job to find a way of playing to suit Havertz. It is Havertz’ job to fit into the way Arteta wants to play.
That apparently means he’ll be in midfield. “[Arteta’s] vision re-casts Havertz as a left-sided No 8 afforded the freedom to link play in the final third”, The Athletic reports, and join attacks from midfield, arriving late into the penalty area while Oleksandr Zinchenko or Kieran Tierney shift across from left-back into central midfield behind him”. He’s the replacement for Granit Xhaka. Imagine telling anyone that two years ago.
Arteta clearly favours a left-footer in this role. Arsenal’s most used side last season contained five left-footed outfielders (Gabriel Magalhães, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Xhaka, Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka), which is obviously the perfect amount. Left midfield is probably a key position for this, because he always uses a right-footed winger on the left flank so that Havertz can provide the balance on that side of the pitch. Arteta could have moved Ødegaard across, but presumably didn’t want to mess with an effective right side of the pitch.
I’m a little surprised by how much I like this move considering I’ve never been a Havertz superfan. He was good at Bayer Leverkusen, especially for his age, but I don’t think his form there quite merited the hype as a future superstar. If he hadn’t been scoring about 37% more than his xG over those last two seasons, I think he gets rated more as a promising young player than a potential Ballon d’Or winner. Add to that the decent list of players who struggled to recreate their Bundesliga form elsewhere and I really do think he was overhyped at Leverkusen.1 Expectations are definitely more muted now.
We’ve seen Havertz’ quality in fits and spurts, which is what you might expect from someone who hasn’t had a clearly defined role. Arteta has a plan for him and he’ll be relentlessly working towards turning the German into a midfielder. It could fail completely, but I like the vision here.
No, I don’t think Erling Haaland proves there’s no “Bundesliga tax”. He’s a legitimate freak, a one-off who would terrorise defences anywhere. The rules don’t apply to players like him. He doesn’t disprove the “Bundesliga tax” any more than Luis Suárez disproved the “Eredivisie tax” a decade earlier.