When Arsenal signed Kai Havertz back in July, manager Mikel Arteta proclaimed, “He will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield.”
It’s relatively unusual for Arsenal to be so specific about how and where a player will be used at their unveiling — especially when it comes to one as versatile as Havertz. Yet the German international was also plonked emphatically into the “midfield” category on the Arsenal website’s squad page.
It had the air of a rebranding exercise — an attempt to separate this Havertz from the one who had underwhelmed as a forward at Chelsea. It felt as if we might see the 24-year-old lean forward like the guy in the Bleu de Chanel advert to tell the assembled media, “I’m not going to be the person I’m expected to be anymore”.
And yet, thus far at Arsenal, Havertz has largely been that person. As Arteta seeks to bed him into his new-look midfield, he has resembled what in Germany they call a ‘Fremdkorper’ — an alien lost on the wrong planet.
The 1-0 win over Manchester City provided cause for both encouragement and concern. Havertz emerged from the bench to set up Gabriel Martinelli’s winner, undoubtedly his most important moment in an Arsenal shirt to date. It is also telling, however, that in Arsenal’s biggest game of the season, the £65million ($79.6m) signing was not selected to start — this despite the absence of key players through injury.
Havertz’s cameo against City came, of course, as a centre-forward — the same position in which he started against the treble winners in the Community Shield. There’s a decent case that the performance at Wembley remains his best so far for Arteta’s side.
Leaving Chelsea was in part about escaping from a role in which he had been miscast as the focal point of their attack. And yet, that very role is where he’s arguably looked most comfortable for Arsenal.
Perhaps that’s to be expected, seeing as it is still early in Havertz’s adaptation. We are only eight games into the Premier League season and 12 appearances into Havertz’s Arsenal career. It may just be that playing up top is more productive because it is more familiar.
That’s to be embraced. For a player struggling with acclimatisation to a new environment, familiarity could prove invaluable. Arsenal may have bought Havertz as a No 8, but his best use right now is as a No 9.
Or a ‘nine-and-a-half’. Arsenal don’t tend to play with a penalty-box predator in the mould of an Erling Haaland. The job of their centre-forward is to drop in, provide an outlet, and link the play. In doing so, they create space for the likes of Bukayo Saka and Martinelli to sprint in behind. The role of Arsenal’s striker is as much about interplay and creation as it is about finishing — and that should ostensibly suit Havertz. He was never going to be Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, but could he be closer in style to a Robin van Persie?
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Arsenal’s other strikers are Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah, two players of a similar physical type. Occasionally, Arsenal lack variety in the front line: a taller player to win longer passes and provide an aerial threat; someone who is comfortable operating with their back to goal. In Havertz, they already have something close to that. He provides a different dynamic.
Havertz may need some convincing. He sees himself as a player best suited to arriving late in the penalty area. “I like to go into the box and score goals, maybe from first contact or two touches,” Havertz told The Athletic. “More or less, I’m a midfield player but I like to go into the box, and maybe that’s why not every defensive player has me on their mind — I just run through the midfield and then I’m there.”
The problem is Arsenal are frequently encountering deep-block defences that make it nigh-impossible for Havertz to make those ghosting runs. Instead, he finds himself clogged up in a traffic jam.
Arsenal are discovering that more nimble midfield players, such as Fabio Vieira, Emile Smith Rowe and Leandro Trossard, are having greater success navigating those congested parts of the pitch. Havertz has theoretically taken Granit Xhaka’s role in the team but is only averaging half as many touches per game as the Swiss international did last season.
If Havertz does need persuading of his worth as a striker, then the footage provides plenty of supporting evidence. In this instance from the Community Shield, William Saliba has launched a long pass from a spot near the corner flag. With City pressing intensely, the best solution for Arsenal was to go over them — and Havertz’s presence enabled this.
With the ball travelling towards him, Havertz backed into John Stones and pinned him. It might not be something he relishes, but it’s something he evidently can do.
Havertz then used his technical ability to roll between two City defenders and find Martinelli, setting Arsenal away on the counter-attack.
In the recent Premier League victory over the same opponents, Havertz’s intuitive understanding of the false-nine role was on show again. Takehiro Tomiyasu made a late run into the penalty box — ironically enough, the sort of run that Arteta hopes Havertz will make while playing in midfield — and nodded Thomas Partey’s long pass into the German’s path.
Havertz then showed good strength and awareness to bring the ball under control and lay it off for Martinelli to score with a deflected strike.
The previous week, Havertz was gifted a penalty in the thrashing of Bournemouth — a supposed ‘lift-off’ for his Arsenal career. This seemingly innocuous pass to Martinelli, however, will have far greater significance in Arsenal’s season.
Arteta has shown a willingness to switch Havertz into attack during the latter stages of games, such as in this example against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League.
The Dutch team have half their outfield players in Arsenal’s defensive third, so goalkeeper David Raya looks to bypass them with a longer pass into midfield.
Havertz drops to the halfway line to receive the ball. Martin Odegaard sprints inside him for a potential passing option but, with Arsenal cruising in the game, Havertz keeps hold of possession.
Ben White then moves outside him, and Havertz uses that run as a decoy, turning infield and playing a short pass to Jorginho.
It’s an effective demonstration of the ball security Havertz can offer as a forward. In games in which Arsenal want to go longer and keep it, he provides a compelling option.
Arsenal don’t have to abandon the ‘Havertz in midfield’ project. It doesn’t have to be an either-or. But in these early days, with the player still struggling to find his feet, using Havertz up front with more regularity could give him a more defined role in the squad. Arsenal finished the game against City with a midfield three of Partey, Odegaard and Declan Rice. If that trio stay fit, they may become the default choice.
Sometimes the plan changes. Arsenal did not buy defender White knowing that, within a year, he would be deployed almost exclusively as a right-back. Arteta will be patient with the Havertz experiment, but he must also be responsive to what he sees on the field.
The worry, of course, is that Havertz is neither midfielder nor forward — that he falls into the cracks between the two. A player cursed to look like a midfielder when playing up front, and a forward when playing in midfield. His best position may be as a true No 10, something Arsenal would struggle to accommodate in their current tactical model.
Only time will tell if Havertz can deliver on his undoubted potential in north London. But right now he looks like a player who needs all the help he can get.
There are those who’d argue that using Havertz in attack may be a backwards step. On the contrary, it might be just what’s required to help him move forward at Arsenal.
(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)