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Kai Havertz: Brilliantly Versatile or Tactically Tricky?

Chelsea’s transfer business thus far has excited not only their own fans, but those of the entire league. The club-record transfer of Kai Havertz may prove the crowning glory in their spending spree.

The fee, beginning at £75.8 million and rising to £89 million (according to Sky Sports), brings with it a sense of gravitas. A pressure that for such a young player may prove a burden.

So what are Chelsea getting? Raphael Honigstein describes the twenty-year-one old as a cross between Michael Ballack and Mesut Özil. At six-foot-two and a predatory goal scorer, such a player’s unique skillset may prove to be his manager’s dream. Equally this rare breed of player could be awkward to fit into a tactical system.

This article will assess this question, and analyse this intriguing young talent.

Not a midfielder, nor a striker

It first must be said that Honigstein’s comparison is not particularly accurate. Yes he shares Ballack’s height and physicality, and Özil’s weight of touch. However the comparisons end there.

The aforementioned players are midfielders. To label Havertz as a midfielder is deceptive and ill fitting to his game. At Bayer Leverkusen he would start as the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, occasionally as a right sided eight in a 4-3-3 or as a striker in a 4-4-2. Özil nor Ballack could be described as having this level of flexibility.

A more apt comparison would be Dele Alli, specifically in his first two to three seasons at Tottenham. Both tall and athletic, and demonstrate a striker’s instinct for arriving in the box late. The attacking midfield role has long been considered Dele’s best role, and the same applies to Havertz.

Havertz’s ability to ghost into space undetected is his prime asset. With a striker ahead of him to pull markers away, he can time his runs to finish crosses brilliantly. He only takes 2.13 shots per game (fbref.com), however 45% of these shots are on target. This is high for a young player, and reflects that the quality of these shots is high as opposed to low quality efforts from range.

Last season he ranked ninth in the Bundesliga for Shot Creating Actions (SCA), meaning that through dribbling, passing and shooting he was contributing to a high number of shots for his team. His influence in the final third is great, with few opening up more chances for their team through all means.

Therefore Havertz is best described as a facilitator. In taking up advanced spaces across the attacking line, he is the final stop before the ball reaches the opposition goal. This may be through threading a ball through to a team mate, or by arriving late to shoot himself. Chelsea’s overall creativity and goal threat will only be improved by his presence in these areas.

Downfalls to his game

When assessing Havertz, it is hard to pin point technical weaknesses. He is a skilled dribbler, although he rarely carries the ball from deep. His height make him a significant aerial threat, and his shooting accuracy is superb.

Attacking midfielders often however require a rigid system around them in order to roam and pick up these spaces. At Leverkusen he had the double pivot of Kerem Demirbay and Charles Aranguiz behind him. This afforded Havertz the attacking license to stay in advanced areas centrally and to the right, without having to pick the ball up deeper.

Havertz has also never been a prolific presser. Again under Peter Bosz in Leverkusen he had a structure around him that would press. Kevin Volland would lead this aggressive press as the striker, and over the course of the season completed close to one hundred more pressures than Havertz. This is despite Volland completing five fewer matches than the younger German.

This means that Havertz can appear a passenger when his team are out of possession. Premier League sides are becoming more and more adept at playing around an opposition press, and as sides play out from the back a player like Havertz can be bypassed.

In Timo Werner Chelsea have a striker that will press agressively, taking some of this responsibility away from Havertz. Nevertheless it is something for his manager to be aware of when constructing a transitional out of possession shape.

Where to position Havertz?

Havertz of course is not the only arrival south of the Thames. Werner will likey start at centre forward and Hakim Ziyech will bring creativity across the forward line. In defence too, Ben Chilwell is an upgrade at left back and Thiago Silva bolsters their centre back roster.

Whilst Chelsea mostly played in a 4-3-3 in Frank Lampard’s first season in charge, it is likely that this will change to a 4-2-3-1 in 2020/21. One reason for this is that such a system will accommodate the new attacking signings cohesively.

Havertz would line up as the attacking midfielder, as he did at Leverkusen. Ziyech and Christian Pulisic would start either side, with Werner spearheading the unit. The other three will provide aggressive pressing, as would Mason Mount should he rotate in. Havertz could therefore occupy central areas without having to press with such ferocity as those around him.

As was the case in Germany, a double pivot would sit behind Havertz and offer defensive solidity as well as impressive ball progression. This will likely be Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante. Relinquishing any defensive responsibility, and allowing Havertz to continue to refine his attacking game between the lines will best utilise his rare set of attributes.

As mentioned, Havertz is highly versatile. This could see him interchange with the striker, the right sided attacking midfielder, or indeed allow Lampard to change formation altogether. This will add depth to Chelsea’s attack in multiple areas, and counter for the departures of Willian and Pedro.

A Star in the Making

The facts are that Havertz has scored and assisted fifty-seven goals in just 118 league appearances in his career. He has started ninety-nine of these appearances, and is still only twenty-one years old.

The quality already demonstrated in his short career has validated a move of this magnitude, and with an already impressive attack it may be perceived that this was a move to prevent a rival club picking him up.

In Havertz, Werner and Pulisic, Chelsea have an attacking unit that could see them dominate the English game for close to a decade. Add the creativity of Ziyech, and their Kante-Kovacic pivot, and Chelsea have assembled an exceptional top half of their team.

As their young team grows, so will Havertz. He is still raw and will require time to not only understand the league, but also for his team to understand him. His is not a common skill set; his talents but also his downfalls must be catered for. Given time however, he will establish himself as not only a Chelsea star, but a star of the European game.

Let us all watch these tentative first steps. Before long they will be long strides towards superstardom.

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