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Arsenal have unlocked Kai Havertz – and it could impact their transfer business

Kai Havertz celebrates scoring for Arsenal

When it comes to off-field matters, Mikel Arteta cannot be described as a particularly flexible manager. Just ask Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Matteo Guendouzi, two players of Arsenal’s recent past who were exiled from the club because of their failures to stick to Arteta’s strict disciplinary rules.

On the pitch, however, Arteta is far more flexible than many supporters might think. “I don’t establish my authority by being dictatorial,” he once said, and there are plenty of examples of the Arsenal manager being willing to redraw his plans and move in an entirely different direction to what he originally intended.

This season, there is no better example of this than in his management of Kai Havertz, who was signed for one purpose but is now serving another. This remoulding of the former Chelsea player has transformed Havertz, revitalised Arsenal’s charge for the Premier League title and potentially even altered the club’s plans to improve the squad this summer.

The original plan: Havertz the midfielder

When Arsenal made their £65 million move for Havertz in the summer, they did so with a specific plan in mind. Arteta’s intention was to play him in the position previously occupied by the departed Granit Xhaka, on the left of his midfield three. Havertz was listed on the club website as a midfielder, and Arteta was clear when he said: “Kai will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield.”

In theory, the idea was for Havertz to play as a midfielder who could use his running power, technical skill and height to contribute regular goals and assists in the final third. On the club’s pre-season tour, when Havertz scored twice in three games in the United States, it was evident that Arteta wanted him to attack the box from a midfield position. Both of his goals came at the back post.

In the Premier League, though, it quickly became clear that something was not working. Havertz’s poor form was one of the defining themes of the first half of this season, with many Arsenal supporters showing their discontent towards the German in those early matches. In September, Arteta pleaded with the club’s supporters: “Give him love.”

Up until Christmas, there were fleeting moments of promise from Havertz, who was gradually growing in confidence but still not influencing games as expected. On the odd occasion, the original plan came to fruition. His back-post winner at Brentford, in November, was the perfect example of the sort of move that Arsenal had produced in pre-season.

Similarly, against both Lens and Luton in December, Havertz scored from a midfield position after running beyond central striker Gabriel Jesus and into the penalty area.

Overall, though, many of Havertz’s performances remained underwhelming. In league matches in which he started as a midfielder before the turn of the year, Havertz scored just three goals and registered zero assists. In 13 starts in midfield in 2023, he created just 15 chances. For all of Arteta’s praise for Havertz, it was clear that his masterplan was not unfolding as expected.

Havertz unlocked: new position, new player

Arsenal played against Liverpool twice within a few weeks, from January to February, and in both of those games Havertz was deployed as a central forward. On both occasions he was asked to dovetail with Martin Odegaard, with the two players taking it in turns to drop into midfield or push higher. Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, called them “double 10s”.

In many ways, Arsenal’s shape became something closer to a 4-4-2, especially when they did not have the ball. For Havertz, it was a shift that effectively changed the course of his Arsenal career. Suddenly, the 24-year-old had more freedom on the pitch and more space to run into. Rather than having to move in relation to the attacking players, the whole frontline was now moving in relation to him.

Havertz as a midfielder against Fulham at home
Havertz as a midfielder against Fulham at home
Havertz as a striker against Spurs away
Havertz as a striker against Spurs away

Havertz the striker is, by most measures, an entirely different player to Havertz the midfielder. This season, he has started nine league games as a forward, scoring seven goals from an expected goals of 5.51. As a midfielder, he has scored four goals from an expected goals of 4.93. As a striker, Havertz is often deadly. As a midfielder, he is often wasteful.

Playing in this striking position, which often involves dropping into deeper positions before exploding upfield, Havertz has also been significantly more creative. As a midfielder this season, he has registered zero assists and created 1.2 chances per match. As a striker? It is now five assists (0.55 per start) and 1.77 chances created per match.

Sunday’s victory at Tottenham Hotspur was perhaps his best performance yet. He held up the ball like a target man, fell into midfield like a “false nine”, scored a towering header and created a goal for Bukayo Saka with a raking long-range pass, of which any creative midfielder in the league would be proud. It was the complete striking performance.

The impact on Odegaard

For much of last season, Odegaard, the Arsenal captain, was tasked with leading Arsenal’s defensive press from the front. With his relentless running, he would hunt the opposition centre-backs and attempt to prevent them from passing the ball out from the back. Xhaka, on the other side of the midfield three, would generally sit deeper.

In many games in the first half of the season, Havertz’s position in midfield led to a change in Odegaard’s role. It was often Havertz pressing high, alongside the striker (usually Eddie Nketiah or Gabriel Jesus) which meant that Odegaard had to be more reserved, sitting deeper.

By moving Havertz into a more offensive starting position, Arteta has liberated Odegaard. A feature of Arsenal’s recent matches has been the sight of Odegaard and Havertz both charging after the ball in the final third of the pitch, together. There are few players in the league as effective as Odegaard at reading these situations and closing down opposition defenders.

Martin Odegaard closes down Micky van de Ven
Martin Odegaard (right) is a master at closing down defenders - Getty Images/Rob Newell

For Odegaard, there is a clear difference when Havertz is in midfield or in attack. In games in which Havertz has started in midfield, Odegaard has won possession in the final third an average of 0.8 times per match. When Havertz has started in attack, that number leaps up to 1.4 times per match. In other words, Odegaard is almost twice as likely to win the ball back high up the pitch when Havertz starts as a striker.

A consequence of this is that Odegaard also touches the ball more frequently in the opposition penalty area when Havertz starts in attack. In those nine matches, Odegaard has averaged 5.5 touches per game in the opponent’s penalty area, compared to 4.5 touches when Havertz plays in midfield.

When Odegaard and Havertz combined to score against Luton, in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory in April, the Arsenal captain immediately turned to Havertz in his celebration. Their connection, on and off the pitch, is growing strong.

Asked last month about Havertz’s change in position, Arteta said: “A lot of the time players decide where they have to play. We can have certain ideas, but then you see certain relationships and some things flow. And when it flows, you have to let it go, and I think Kai at the moment is flowing and he’s feeling really comfortable there. The rest of the team is comfortable with him there and things happen naturally.”

The impact on Arsenal’s transfer business

For some time, Arsenal’s key decision-makers have known that they need to add at least one more high-class attacking player to their frontline. A new centre-forward has been on their wishlist, with Telegraph Sport reporting in January that Bologna’s Joshua Zirkzee is among the players they have been studying.

Bologna's Joshua Zirkzee
Bologna's Joshua Zirkzee has been linked with Arsenal - Reuters/Jennifer Lorenzini

Such has been Havertz’s form as a striker, though, it is now entirely possible that Arsenal will instead choose to prioritise the signing of a new winger rather than a centre-forward. Sources have suggested the club is prepared to make that pivot, depending on which targets become available this summer.

Havertz has performed so well in attack that there are now also doubts over the future of Gabriel Jesus, who until recently was the undisputed first-choice No 9.

The Brazilian’s fitness issues have not helped his cause but it seems clear, especially after Havertz’s performance against Spurs last weekend, that the former Chelsea player is currently the man in possession of that position as centre-forward. The knock-on effect, for Arsenal’s other attackers and for their summer business, could be significant.

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