Why Kai Havertz must play as a midfielder for Arsenal

Over the last two decades, successful Chelsea strikers have been rare. Few clubs, especially those as successful and resourced as Chelsea, have had such a chronic problem with a sole position. Not even a striker by trade, Kai Havertz is this strange curse’s latest victim, obscuring his skill-set, quality, and potential. However, his £65m move across London offers hope.

Not suited to the role, Havertz’s reputation in England has been tarnished by Chelsea’s insistence on using him as a number nine – his 6’3 frame seemingly the main reason various coaches have persisted. Nine goals in 45 games still made the German Chelsea’s joint top scorer last season, but it was the club’s joint-lowest leading total in the last 99 years.

Havertz joined Chelsea as a lithe, inventive creator and invasion player. His displays as an attacking midfielder, having emerged from Bayer Leverkusen’s youth system, earned the then-teenager a reputation as a potentially generational talent. Although Bundesliga’s open nature helped – his final season averaged 3.21 goals per game – his stats there underline his effectiveness in a deeper role.

As Bayer finished fifth in 2019/20, according to FBRef Havertz made the top ten for goal contributions (10th), key passes (9th), shot-creating actions (8th), and progressive carries (6th). This underlines his ability to progress play and manufacture openings by dropping into spaces between lines and in the half-spaces when playing off a more conventional striker such as Kevin Volland.

Havertz’s Champions League final-winning goal in 2021 came when playing in a comparable role, and it’s his goal-scoring that stands out from his Bundesliga career, despite playing further from the goal. Havertz was Leverkusen’s top league scorer in his final two seasons there, with 17 being his zenith in 18/19. Those goals, and associated xG, sum up his misuse in London.

Most came from either around the penalty spot, often via a cutback, allowing Havertz to arrive late and stroke home, or by finding space on the edge of the area. Playing much closer to the goal at Chelsea, Havertz has needed to engineer chances by beating defenders to a near post, winning close-range headers, or manufacturing space deep in crowded areas. None of which he is suited to, his size distracting from his lack of genuine physicality.

As a result, Havertz greatly underperformed his xG at Chelsea this season, as those chances carry higher potential – which is all very well but matters little if they fall to a player not designed to take them. However, in Germany, Havertz outperformed his xG despite his chances being, on average, more difficult as he was an expert at converting them. The German managed 7.8 more goals than expected across his last two league seasons with Bayer. This Premier League season saw a 4.8-goal underperformance – a massive swing which can primarily put down to his usage.

After a successful season, teams will be even more likely to sit deep against Arsenal next year, scared by Bukayo Saka’s pace and Martin Odegaard’s ingenuity. If used as a number nine, this would again restrict Havertz’s space and, by extension, his usefulness to Mikel Arteta. However, using him as an eight, with Declan Rice behind, would play to his strengths, encouraging late runs into the box and the finding of space in midfield, allowing the now 24-year-old to play with control and the game more in front of him.

Arteta, however, will be weary of balance. Given Odegaard’s form, he’s unlikely to be moved wide, which only leaves Leverkusen-bound Granit Xhaka’s number-eight spot open. Replacing the Swiss international with Havertz is a risk as Arsenal would lose the bite and intensity offered by Xhaka, two attributes not associated with Havertz. It would also make the natural mindset of Arsenal’s midfield more than a little gung-ho. However,with Havertz, what Arteta loses in aggression, he gains in control.

This isn’t to say Havertz shouldn’t ever be used as a striker, either. The more withdrawn nature of the role at Arsenal, combined with the interchangeability of Gabriels Jesus and Martinelli, as well as Leandro Trossard, would allow Havertz to play to his strengths a little more. Although his lack of success as a wide player in England may give Arteta pause.

While Arteta’s ability to improve his players could yet help Havertz become a serviceable number nine, or perhaps a false nine, the player’s career so far suggests that a midfield role at Arsenal would not only get more goals from him but also add significant creativity, control, and ball progression – more than useful commodities to an Arsenal attack venturing into the Champions League.

Chelsea strikers may seem oddly cursed, but Arsenal can break the spell on Havertz. If they do, £65m may soon become something of a bargain.

Adam White


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