Winning is contagious, so they say. For Arsenal, it has been far too long since the English giants have managed to lift silverware of a grade that so many inside the fanbase have craved.
Not since the famous Invincibles season of 2003-04 have the Gunners topped the Premier League, and even further still, it has been an additional ten years since there was a trophy haul on the continent. Unfortunately for many, the club’s five FA Cup wins since 2004-05 have not been nearly enough to satiate a deep desire to return to heights that few had dreamed of under Arsène Wenger.
So much of the frustration - and subsequent jabs from rival fanbases across the Premier League landscape - at the closing of the recently completed 2022-23 season is because Arsenal got so close to ending that very drought before Mikel Arteta’s young yet talented outfit studdered across the finish line as runner-up to a rampant and hegemonic Manchester City who were on their way to a historic treble.
Despite topping the table for ~250 days before failing to close out what would have been a record-breaking league win given the average age of Arteta’s troops, there is still so much to not only love about where Arsenal is headed, but how they are expected to move forward as a side that has an impressively high-performance ceiling it should be on track to hit.
But formerly maligned owners KSE have now seemingly become the aggressive leaders of a sporting empire that has tasted victory on multiple fronts after North American franchises the Denver Nuggets (NBA), Colorado Avalanche (NHL), and Los Angeles Rams (NFL) have all recently won their respective league titles.
With Arsenal coming so close to doing the same and now back in the Champions League for the first time in years, there probably should be little surprise that Stan and Josh Kroenke are prepared to do what is necessary to push the Gunners over the hump.
As such, it was long expected that Arsenal would retool and refit during the summer transfer window, with names the likes of Declan Rice and Moisés Caicedo commanding much of the discourse. But as the Gunners seem primed to pull Rice to another corner of London in the wake of West Ham United’s success in the Europa Conference League, an unexpected move for Chelsea forward Kai Havertz has seemingly materialized out of nowhere; in typical Arteta and Edu fashion.
The 24-year-old former German wunderkind was once billed as one of the brightest talents to ever emerge from its domestic pipeline after his rapid ascension at Bayer Leverkusen ultimately culminated in a £70m move to Chelsea in a highly-anticipated arrival in England during the summer of 2020.
Unfortunately for the Aachen-born versatile international, his rise to prominence is now at risk of turning into a fallen star in the wake of three frustrating seasons at Stamford Bridge that have been marred by inconsistency and questions of whether or not the Blues were fleeced for cash.
For many, Havertz remains a supremely gifted footballer that has been left adrift amid rocky shoals without the appropriate tools to navigate out of turbulent waters in west London. That same analysis seems to have fallen on the minds of Arsenal’s leadership, with the Gunners trying to pounce on a rival that is in desperate need to sell, and fast, with a view of getting its own house in order while under a looming cloud of potential FFP sanctions at the very least.
Why Havertz? Well, if you tap into the wonderful world of football Twitter, you will come across a litany of online discourse that paints the German forward as a lost cause. A player without direction, motivation, or talent befitting the reputation he crossed the Channel with in tow. But, as ever, appearances can be deceiving. In this case, the mask worn by the Leverkusen Academy graduate during his period in the top flight of English football has been deceptive, and not of his true ability.
Previous comparisons to Mesut Özil should not alarm fans, either. No matter what you can say about how the German craftsman ended his career, for a time, the Gelsenkirchen-born former international was regarded as a pure artist both on the ball and in his ability to create, while his goalscoring exploits were criminally underrated. Havertz is very much that same player, but with a physical side to his game that eclipses Özil in his pomp.
These traits were on display week in, week out, during an immensely successful period at the BayArena between 2016-2020, but it was his final two seasons in North Rhein-Westphalia that saw him truly attract attention outside of Germany’s borders.
Versatile on the tactics board, Havertz is adept across a number of positions, most notably in a creative 10 role, as a mobile and free-thinking 8, and residually as a false 9 while also having some credible success on the right flank in an adapted wide role. Due to his capability in multiple roles, plenty of evidence is on offer to suggest that he has both the technical aspects to excel under Arteta, but most importantly, his versatility offers a profile that the Spanish tactician clearly favors as a hallmark of virtually every piece he means to add into the mix.
At Chelsea, Havertz’s struggles are not owed to a lack of ability or even adaptability, but the simple notion that the recent Champions League winner (a tournament where Havertz scored the only goal in the final) is a house on fire when it comes to their disjointed approach on the pitch. That same troubled dynamic has seen a number of attacking players utilized poorly, which subsequently saw consistent poor performances, including many by compatriot Timo Werner.
Often thrown into a center-forward role (one that Havertz was only deployed in on nine occasions while at Leverkusen, but did show promise in), Chelsea’s struggle to create space in the final third, and a lack of runners to stretch and break defensive lines, often saw the Blues clog central spaces and allow themselves to be too easily countered from a defensive perspective. Under Arteta, with an Arsenal side that thrives in the inverse, Havertz would have much more room to graze akin to his big breakout seasons between 2018-20.
During that period, the full range of Havertz’s capabilities was on display, highlighted by his positioning when in possession and when also looking to receive, spatial awareness, off-ball movement during transition and making late runs in the final third, and his instincts at getting into high-value positions to either create or convert chances. All told, Havertz hit a combined 38 goals and added 16 assists across 87 appearances in all competitions, averaging .62 direct goal involvement/match.
Even more impressive, is the fact that when tasked with sitting slightly deeper than in an attacking-midfield role, Havertz was not only capable of performing but there are some similarities in how Granit Xhaka was utilized this past season under Arteta.
Many fans will look for Arsenal to solve the vacancy left by the departing Swiss veteran with a player of a similar profile, particularly defensively given some of the concerns that bubbled to the surface during the late slide last season. There is, however, plenty of scope to suggest that how Arteta and Edu recruit now is so much more than just looking to fill a peg with the same shape, and rather, continuously adapt how the club operates n the pitch with the sole mission to extract the maximum of the talent in the senior ranks.
It remains to be seen whether or not Arsenal if they do complete a move for Havertz, would go on to also bring in both Declan Rice and Moisés Caicedo, and if they do, there is no direct link to how each may be used. What we can say for sure about Havertz is, beyond his struggles at a Chelsea side that has been a tactical disaster during his entire spell in the capital, that Arteta would only make the move if he felt the player’s best qualities would suit his collective schematic aims.
This also would offer a player of similar if not identical versatility to that of Ghanaian international Mohammed Kudus; a player that a fair few Arsenal fans wanted the club to target this summer on the back of his ability to deploy as an 8, 10, right-wing, and center-forward. And it is perhaps interesting to note that at City, Pep Guardiola boasts the same in Phil Foden; whose Swiss army knife profile has come in handy a great many times at the Etihad and keeps his value in the team high despite not always featuring in the matchday XI.
And while there may be no telling just what the future would hold for Kai Havertz should he choose to remain in the English capital under a different badge, it is important to remember that looks can be deceiving. When it comes to football, what you see is more often than not the sum total of what is allowed to be seen.