How Arsenal fixed Kai Havertz - and why his role will be key in crunch clash with Porto

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Kai Havertz has been reborn after struggling at Chelsea - but can he help Arsenal through to the Champions League quarter-finals?

For three successive Premier League matches, Kai Havertz has been deployed as a number nine. In each of those matches, Havertz has scored, and looked far more effective in a central striker’s role than he ever did at Chelsea where he so often floundered. So why is Havertz so much better up front for Arsenal – and will his role be key as Arsenal face Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday night?

It would be easy to boil the German’s resurgence down to simple form and confidence, and certainly they play a part – but while he may now occupy the same dot on a team sheet at Arsenal as he once did at Chelsea, the work he’s being asked to do is very different.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

At Chelsea, Havertz was crowbarred into a true striker’s role – the last man forward, playing off the shoulders of the centre-halves and looking to get on the end of through balls and crosses. It never suited him.

So many of the chances that fall the way of a centre-forward in one-on-one situations boil down not really to composure and the quality of the finish, but to the instinctive calculations taking place inside the striker’s head as they bear down on the goalkeeper.

Do they go near post or far? Lift the ball over the ‘keeper or play it low and through their legs? Do they take the ball wide away from the defender or try to use strength and speed to hold them off and stay central to widen their shooting angle? A striker who has played the role since childhood doesn’t need to think those decisions through – but Havertz, used for most of his career as a number ten, did need that thinking time, and it showed.

The inability to make those split-second decisions correctly doesn’t make Havertz an unintelligent player – just one who had to think through a decision tree fraught with variables in high-pressure situations. A player like Erling Haaland has seen every situation he’ll find himself in near the goalmouth so many times that the process is largely subconscious and practically instantaneous. With Havertz, you could almost hear the mental gears grinding as he homed in on goal.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

At Arsenal, it’s all very different. For starters, while he has nominally been the number nine for the games against Newcastle United, Sheffield United and Brentford, he has seldom been the furthest man forward. In each of those matches, some combination of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and even Martin Ødegaard have had average positions closer to the opposing goal – Havertz was dropping deeper behind onrushing midfielders and wingers, playing quick passes and finding half-spaces between defence and midfield. In other words, he was a ten, the role he thrived in at Bayer Leverkusen and not that role he so awkwardly struggled to get to grips with at Stamford Bridge.

Havertz may be a ‘striker’ again, but this time he’s playing within his comfort zone. That doesn’t necessarily explain all of his goals, of course – that’s where confidence comes in. It’s easy to imagine him dragging his goal at Bramall Lane wide in the recent past, for instance, or ballooning his close-range header against Brentford over the bar. But it also makes a difference that his chances aren’t coming one-on-one, they’re coming from the same tight spaces that he has done all of his best work in.

Mikel Arteta putting Havertz back where he’s able to be more instinctual is probably the biggest factor in the 24-year-old’s renaissance, but the Gunners’ head coach also deserves credit for persisting with him through the earlier parts of the season when he was still working his way through a Chelsea-induced hangover and looked a half-step behind many of his team-mates. Between a change of scenery and role, he looks refreshed. But is he the right man to lead the line on Tuesday evening?

Arsenal will have to come back from a 1-0 first-leg defeat by Porto in order to make the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2010. A rather listless display in the Estádio do Dragão, in which they failed to register a single shot on target, has put them on the back foot – and a similar performance simply will not cut the mustard.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Havertz played in that game, but as a midfielder rather than as a centre-forward – Leandro Trossard took the role on that occasion. The Belgian, like Havertz, looked to come deep and link play up with the attacking midfielders, but got bogged down between Porto’s narrow defensive lines.

Porto typically play with a high defensive line bolstered by two impressive young defensive midfielders in the form of Nico González and Alan Varela, who has been linked with a summer move to the Premier League. That makes them very difficult to break down through the middle, where they are expert at narrowing gaps, closing down space and forcing turnovers. To compensate, Trossard drifted to the left looking for room to operate, but that left Arsenal light through the middle and meant that there were frequently no dangerous passing options when they did make an attacking breakthrough.

So there’s a risk in playing with Havertz at nine once more. He’s playing beautifully there at the moment, and would be in his element – but it’s Porto’s element, too. Arteta might back his players to win that battle for the narrow spaces in the Emirates, but perhaps it would be better to target Porto’s relatively slow back line, made up of 21-year-old Otávio and 40-year-old Pepe, who knows every trick in the book but has inevitably lost some amount of pace since his heyday.

A high line without much pace is usually vulnerable to a more direct passing game which gets the ball over the top and into space – but that’s exactly where Havertz struggled before. The game looks better suited to Gabriel Jesus on paper, but his fitness issues have restricted him to substitute appearances of late.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It will be fascinating to see which way Arteta goes, and on current form it would be foolish to bet against Havertz playing well and carving out shooting chances for himself an others even in a congested attacking third. But it’s also not a judgement call that Arteta can afford to get wrong. One more bad night, and Arsenal can kiss another chance at a major trophy goodbye.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.