The Spirit in the Kai

Kai Havertz arrived in England as a mystery wrapped in an enigma. His technical quality was obvious enough; but Chelsea simply did not know where to put him or how to use him. Arsenal sold Granit Xhaka last summer and responded by signing Declan Rice and Kai Havertz. Arteta pointed to Havertz’s versatility upon his signing and started him as a centre-forward for the Community Shield match against Manchester City in August.

‘Kai is a player of top quality. He has great versatility and is an intelligent player. He will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield and variety to our play.’ While Arteta mentioned Havertz’s versatility, the words ‘he will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield’ suggest he was seen principally as a midfielder who could play upfront when required.

Gabriel Jesus’ knee has expedited the need for Havertz to play upfront and, for now, the German has made that role his own having spent more of the first half of the season in the fabled ‘left eight’ position. When Arteta talks about a player’s versatility, he isn’t just talking about assigned positions, he is talking about players being flexible in game and moving intelligently according to where the spaces are.

In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Mikel Arteta pointed to this quality in Havertz when asked for the player’s best attribute. ‘His football intelligence, how he reads the spaces, the timing of how he uses those spaces, how he moves in relation to his opponent.’ That is the key to how Havertz has excelled as a centre-forward in the current Arsenal system.

While Chelsea failed to work out whether Havertz was an 8, a 9 or a 10 (a problem Arsenal seemed to have simply inherited in the opening weeks of the season), Arteta’s answer has been for him to fulfil all those roles depending on the phase of the game.

One of the most basic coaching principles for any team is that they want the pitch to be as long and wide as possible when they have the ball and for it to be as small and narrow as possible when they do not have possession. In recent weeks, Arsenal have been able to do this using Havertz’s flexibility as the most advanced player.

Havertz often helps Arsenal to create a midfield box shape which keeps Partey, Rice, Odegaard and Havertz close together when the situation demands it. In games against Chelsea and Spurs, this has involved Partey and Rice as a midfield double pivot with Partey bearing right and Rice bearing left.

Ahead of them Havertz operates as a left 10 and Odegaard is a right 10. This helps those four players to create superiorities against teams who typically play with midfield trios. He and Odegaard are also often able to drop deep out of possession and form a 442 block.

Chelsea’s trio of Caicedo, Enzo and Gallagher were completely overrun by this quartet last Tuesday and while Hojbjerg, Bentancur and Maddison fared better on Sunday, Arsenal’s midfield box was able to outnumber Tottenham in the middle of the pitch. But that midfield box can also ‘fan out’ into a diamond when Arsenal want.

So Havertz appears at the tip of the diamond (most of the time) with Odegaard to the right, Rice to the left and Partey at the base. The legendary Ukrainian coach of the 1950s and 1960s, Valeriy Lobanovskyi said that good teams should be like accordions, with the ability to contract and expand whenever necessary.

Havertz is helping Arsenal to do that in various different phases of play. He can stand parallel to Odegaard as a left 10, drawing defenders out towards him in the process. For his early disallowed effort against Spurs on Sunday, look at how Havertz first comes away from the front line as Partey collects the ball, leaving space for Odegaard to run in behind him on the blindside of the Spurs defenders, before sprinting back into the box from a deep position for an Odegaard through ball.

He also serves other functions for Arteta. Arsenal identified a weakness in Tottenham’s left-back position, where they were going to have to replace their usual option Destiny Udogie with either Ben Davies or Emerson Royal, neither of whom are particularly good in the air.

Havertz often ‘posted up’ over on the right side when Raya had the ball and he flicked the ball on for Saka several times, especially in the first half. The graphic below, from Adrian Clarke’s excellent Breakdown of the Spurs game, shows you the multi functionality Havertz displayed in the North London derby, offering an aerial presence on the right when Raya went long but also dropping into the left-back area to help Arsenal build when they played out from the back.

This is off-left position is, of course, the standpoint from where Havertz tees up Saka’s goal with an excellent cross field pass. If we zoom out a little, we could say part of Arsenal’s progression in 2024 has been to take a pivotal but difficult hybrid role from Zinchenko and hand it to Havertz.

Instead of having a left-back who moves into midfield areas, Arsenal now have a centre-forward that is playing in a very hybrid role and this is more comfortable and secure for Arsenal. Because Havertz playing upfront hasn’t worked in every game. Bayern Munich and Porto both did a good job of reducing his influence and not getting sucked into following him away from the front line and leaving gaps in their organisation.

When this happens, it is far less consequential to Arsenal to recognise it isn’t quite working, move Havertz back into midfield and put Gabriel Jesus on upfront. When Zinchenko has a difficult game in a very demanding hybrid role, it compromises Arsenal’s defensive security.

It would be tempting to describe Havertz as a false 9 but, for me, ‘false 9’ is usually a phrase reserved for forwards who can link play but offer little to no threat in behind. It was often used to describe Alex Lacazette when, really, people were adopting a polite way of saying ‘cannot run.’ Havertz can and often stretches opponents in behind.

We saw it a lot in the first half against Aston Villa recently and, more pleasingly, we saw him do it for his first goal against his former club Chelsea too- but this time he was able to apply the finish. He tends to have a good sense of when to drop deep and connect and when to stretch in behind.

His performance at Spurs as an outlet, both physically and creatively speaking, was priceless on the day. A few months ago, Arsenal might have considered paying huge money for someone of the Ivan Toney ilk to do this job and they can probably reallocate that resource elsewhere now.

I would be wary about writing off someone like Gabriel Jesus just yet however. The picture can change very quickly in football- the fact that Zinchenko and Jesus were unused subs on Sunday with very little comment would have been scarcely believable a year ago. For the time being, Arsenal have answered the question as to whether Havertz is a midfielder or a forward by using him as both simultaneously.

The post The Spirit in the Kai appeared first on Arseblog … an Arsenal blog.

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