A fortnight ago, I wrote about Kai Havertz and the hybrid role he adopted in the season opener against Nottingham Forest. At the outset of the article, I wrote, “I very much have the feeling that Kai Havertz is going to be a player that divides opinion,” and I already feel vindicated in that view.
The environment among the supporters still feels a little like it did at the end of last season, expectant, tense, fraught. For the first time in over 15 years, Arsenal fans are going into a campaign with a reasonable expectation of a title push and to do that, they are going to have to kiss the sky, because Manchester City don’t really allow much wiggle room for any challenger.
It’s created an expectation mixed with a tension and, on the other hand, the coaching staff have (rightly, in my view) surmised that they cannot win the league by doing exactly the same things that came up short last season. But clearly, there is a very fine line between building flexibility and unpredictability and over complication.
The biggest and most notable change to the starting line-up is Kai Havertz, signed after a slightly inauspicious three years at Chelsea where nobody seemed to be able to work out exactly what he was. I think the word ‘Chelsea’ offers mitigation there, more attacking players have failed than succeeded in a soup of signings at Stamford Bridge over the last three to four seasons.
But given the club and the price tag, Arsenal fans were always going to have their priors and they were always going to manifest very quickly in lieu of a lightning quick start. By my estimation, he was ok against Nottingham Forest, quite good at Crystal Palace and quite poor against Fulham. A mixed bag but I am not surprised that has already been enough to cause angst and concern.
Firstly, let’s build a case for the defence (depending on your view, this is where I either wheel out a load of excuses or I try to analyse objectively). Havertz in for Xhaka is the headline change to the team but it is far from the only one. In the ‘left pod’ of the team where Havertz is largely asked to operate, there have been several other enforced changes.
Oleksandr Zinchenko is yet to start a game at left-back and, in his stead, Arsenal have started three different players now in Jurrien Timber, sadly injured on his debut, Takehiro Tomiaysu, comically sent-off in his start, and Jakub Kiwior. Gabriel has also yet to start a game. Gabriel Jesus tends to ‘lean left’ (in a footballing sense anyway) and he has been absent also.
Arsenal have started upfront with Nketiah twice and Trossard once in the opening three games and a large part of Havertz’s role is to operate as a kind of second striker, or the tip of a midfield diamond. He is one of myriad players being asked to play pluralistic roles in the team. Arsenal have opted to tilt their modus operandi this season with Thomas Partey starting at right-back and stepping into midfield.
This sees Partey join Rice in a kind of double pivot with Havertz ahead of Rice. Playing Partey at right-back has also changed the right pod of the team and some more of those familiar relationships from last season have been fractured and we could see the impact of that unfamiliarity as Arsenal gifted Fulham a first minute goal on Saturday. Arteta is trying to build new relationships in the team to offer diversity and the option of rotation.
In a sense, Arteta was able to use his bench to brilliant effect against Fulham. The ‘left pod’ of the team looked stodgy with Kiwior at left-back and Havertz to the left of the midfield. Clearly, Havertz did not have a good game against Fulham, attackers don’t tend to be subbed at 0-1 on 56 minutes if they are having anything other than an indifferent performance, at least.
I think it’s worth saying that two other players (Trossard and Partey) also didn’t make it to the 57th minute on Saturday so the issues were not isolated to Havertz. The introduction of Vieira – who had previously yet to play a minute this season – and Zinchenko unclogged the left side of the pitch and Arsenal scored twice in quick succession from moves down that side.
Arteta hadn’t considered any part of the Forest and Palace games a ‘Vieira moment’ but he saw something in the left area of the pitch against Fulham that made him think Vieira was the man for that situation and he was correct. Really, I think what we are looking and waiting for is a Havertz moment. Arteta made some pointed comments about his failure to score so far which also tells us a lot about how he sees the player’s roles and responsibilities.
“He should have scored already a lot of goals this season, and that’s the thing that is missing there.” He had a presentable chance on the back post in the 11th minute on Saturday that he did not take and I think that is the exact area where Arteta sees him making a goal scoring impact. He scored a goal against Barcelona in pre-season that I believe the coach sees as a template that has yet to be replicated in the first three games of the season.
Of course, the fact that Havertz has come from Chelsea both makes him a more familiar figure to supporters and elevates expectation. While it is true that Arsenal have bought poorly from their West London neighbours in the past, none of those were bad purchases because of their inherent Chelsea-ness and it’s not logical to consider the identity of the seller as a reason not to buy a player.
Havertz also has a languidness that does him few favours, even if the data shows a player who runs a lot, wins duels and competes aerially. All of this meant that an atmosphere of distrust around him has been quick to build. I understand it, when you buy a player for £65m you don’t really want to hear about how issues at left-back and left centre-half may or may not be impacting their game. Declan Rice has played in a similar area and already looks settled and established.
Maybe that is the difference between a £65m player and a £105m player, maybe it’s easier to adapt to a ‘busy’ on the ball role like Rice’s compared to the off the ball subtleties of Havertz’s position. Some players, like Ben White and Thomas Partey, took a while to truly grow into their roles. Some, like Saliba, Zinchenko and Jesus, managed it instantly.
Lord knows Guardiola has had his share of players that required time to adjust to his tactical machinations. However, City’s relentlessness allied to Havertz’s price tag and air of familiarity (contempt) mean patience is in short supply. It would not be intellectually honest of me to say that the Havertz signing will definitely work in time. It might not. Sometimes things are disjointed and stay that way.
However, I do believe it is far too early to judge and far too early for the home crowd to be humming and hawing at him. The team needs this signing to work and while that doesn’t mean that anyone has to rate him especially, in the stadium I hope we can lay any priors to one side and see how this all pans out.
Because it is far too early for anything to be decided yet, especially against a backdrop of new relationships and a team seeking evolution. There is a potential irony in the fact that he replaces Granit Xhaka, a man who took some time to win over the Arsenal fan base. Fingers crossed it doesn’t take Havertz as long to do the same.
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