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Analysis: Kai Havertz’s rejuvenation at Arsenal

With a brace against Chelsea and a goal and assist against Tottenham Hotspur, Kai Havertz is enjoying his best run of form since his Bayer Leverkusen days – right when Arsenal need him the most.

At the start of the season, few people could have predicted that the German international would be the difference-maker in big games at the most pivotal time.

Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Arsenal spent £65 million to bring him in from Chelsea, who would have been glad to flip something of a profit having signed him from Leverkusen for £62 million a few seasons ago.

Havertz did not have a great time at Stamford Bridge as he failed to break into double digits in terms of Premier League goals in any of his three seasons for Chelsea.

At the time, this led to many people questioning whether he actually had the potential that everyone seemed so sold on from his Leverkusen days, or if the hype around him was just yet another example of the ‘Bundesliga tax’.

Arsenal still saw something in him, which is why they made an opportune move for him last summer. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now call that a pretty good decision, but it does beg the question – why is Havertz rediscovering his mojo at Arsenal?

Struggles at Chelsea

To answer that, we must first understand what went wrong at Chelsea.

In fairness to Havertz, he was not the only attacker struggling at Stamford Bridge in recent seasons. The Blues have been in a bit of turmoil throughout their last few years under BlueCo ownership.

Managers have come and gone and millions of pounds have been spent on player transfers that have completely transformed the squad, so there has been very little stability at the club.

However, stability is what Havertz needs to thrive as a player. That is exactly what he had at Leverkusen, who almost designed the team around him to allow him to have as much attacking freedom as possible.

He played various positions on paper as they changed formations from time to time, but in practice, his role remained constant as that of a free right-sided number 10 – something between a forward and midfielder.

Kai Havertz’s heatmap from the 2019/20 Bundesliga. (Image credit: Sofascore)

He had the freedom to drift out wide and receive the ball with time and space but dealt most of his damage in central areas with excellent vision for playmaking, good strength to win duels and hold on to the ball, and intelligent off-ball movement to receive the ball in dangerous places and make late runs to get into great shooting positions.

He had most of this freedom taken away from him at Chelsea. He was either moved out wide and left rather isolated on the wing, or deployed up front as a lone striker without much support.

Kai Havertz’s heatmap from the 2021/22 Premier League. (Image credit: Sofascore)

Additionally, due to the constant turnover of players and coaches, Chelsea never really had an established first-choice starting XI while Havertz was there.

The German international never even had the opportunity to form relationships with his teammates on the pitch and understand their traits and tendencies to form something of a fluid attack – which is what he needs to thrive.

Havertz is a player with great potential and footballing intelligence who can add a lot of spark to any attack, but he needs to be quite carefully handled and given the right set of circumstances.

Chelsea could not even come close to managing this amidst all their messes, so Havertz’s perceived failure told us little about his qualities or lack thereof as a player.

Revival at Arsenal

Interestingly, even Arsenal did not get it right initially with Havertz. The Gunners seemed to sign him as a replacement for Granit Xhaka in the left midfield role in their 4-3-3 formation.

They did attempt to afford him a decent amount of freedom in the middle of the park and kept a stable side around him, but even so, things did not really work out. There were a few reasons for that.

Chief among that was the fact that his inclusion made Arsenal’s midfield too top-heavy both in and especially out of possession.

Without the ball, Martin Ødegaard always steps up alongside the striker to lead the press in a 4-4-2 shape, meaning Havertz was effectively forced to defend as a deeper central midfielder.

This meant he had to track back a lot and could easily get pulled away from the danger area. Although he was not a massive weak link, he still had to expend a lot of energy going backwards and could not have a big impact going forward.

Eventually, Mikel Arteta realised he could solve two problems with one solution. After suffering an injury setback, Gabriel Jesus never seemed to return to his best, leaving Arsenal with a bit of a dilemma in the striker position besides the whole Havertz question. The solution then seemed natural – put Havertz up top and see how it goes.

The answer was very swimmingly indeed. Not only Havertz but the entirety of the Arsenal attack thrived with him in a central position, though his role is far from that of a line-leading striker.

Instead, the German international has all the freedom in the world to drop in between the lines to receive the ball or contest aerial duels if the ball is kicked long from the back, while the wingers can pose a threat running in behind in such cases.

He has also formed a great relationship with the excellent Ødegaard whose reading of the game is also second to none, while Declan Rice has helped add more balance and control to the Gunners’ midfield as he is starting in the left-sided position a lot more now.

The first match where everything seemed to fall in place this way was Arsenal’s win over Liverpool in early February. Since then, the ex-Leverkusen star has registered 13 of his 18 Premier League goal involvements this season.

After years of trying, Havertz finally seems to have found a home on the pitch in England.

Stats courtesy FotMob, Transfermarkt, Sofascore and Opta via Fbref.

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