Kai Havertz, Extremely Good
With transfer rumours swirling and the Bundesliga bouncing, Stephen Ganavas has taken a look at what makes Kai Havertz so good, as well as what has powered his exceptional form in 2020.
Wide, central, goal-scoring, or playmaking – Kai Havertz can operate in almost any role from midfield to striker. The 21-year-old has – over the last two-and-a-half seasons – turned himself from one of the best young players into simply one of the best players in the Bundesliga.
Transfer rumours have swirled since his breakthrough in 2016, yet not with the intensity of past weeks. Chelsea, riding their Timo Werner wave, have been credited with a strong interest, Bayern München, Manchester United and Liverpool too. But if your team were to buy Havertz, where should they play him? Players that can score 15+ goals a season would ordinarily force teams to play them up the pitch, where their goalscoring potential is more likely to be maximised, but the German also happens to be a high-level creator and excellent facilitator, one that plays incisive passes to beat defences and combines with team-mates.
STYLE OF PLAY
Havertz is a tall and elegant footballer with top-level technical quality, as well as excellent football IQ and tactical awareness. Not only is he a great player in the traditional senses, he is also consistent, disciplined, and rarely injured.
The foundation of his game is his off-ball ability. Havertz’s head is constantly swivelling as he looks to receive the ball, anticipating where he will need to direct his first touch in order to position himself to either carry the ball or play it to a team-mate. Additionally, excellent decoy runs allow him to create space for others, and himself, especially in the attacking third.
In fact, his dynamism and awareness off the ball feeds into his simplicity when in possession. He receives the ball in space so regularly, whether it be in midfield or in attack, allowing him to carry possession into space or lift his vision to scan for the best passing options. When he does gain possession under pressure, Havertz is crafty in using his first touch to create space for himself.
As a dribbler, he will generally look to move the ball on quickly. He's fairly limited in one-v-one scenarios, both physically and technically. When he does look to carry the ball forward, he lacks the outright acceleration in possession (though he has clocked one of the fastest recorded overall top speeds in the Bundesliga this season) or trickery needed to routinely get past defenders. According to StatsBomb data, his dribble success rate of 49.5% in the Bundesliga this season places him in the 20th percentile of attacking midfielders and wingers in Europe’s top-five leagues in 2019/20 with over ten starts, while he placed in the 65th percentile for successful dribbles, with 2.27 per 90 minutes. High volume, low completion.
He is, however, one of the better creators in Europe from both deeper positions and closer to goal. He thrives in flowing attacking moves, often involved in combinations that drag defences out of position and create space for himself or others. This move against SC Paderborn sees him drift wide, drawing the play to the right flank by engaging in a one-two with Lars Bender, then drifting towards the space opening up centrally through the off-ball movement of Karim Bellarabi that draws the Paderborn defender slightly out of position.
In terms of raw creative numbers, he averages a strong 0.24 xG Assisted per 90. A significant underlying strength is shots created from open play passes, where he ranks 20th in Europe with 3.62 per 90. However, he does rank 39th in goals created per 90. This derives from an unwillingness to directly attack the penalty area in general play, although it flips completely in counter-attacking phases – in which Havertz creates most of his assists – through sharp decision-making and devastatingly good execution.
While most of his midfield time is spent in an advanced role, seeing the German play up front has shown some different exciting elements of his skillset. Primarily, he can really threaten as an aerial presence in the penalty area – no surprise given his 6'2" stature. He scored two excellent headed goals in Leverkusen’s first game post-lockdown against Werder Bremen. The first was knocked back across goal, leaving himself exposed to some heavy contact but keeping his composure to finish regardless. The second, a lovely flick-on from a set-piece from an intuitive run into a space vacated by Werder’s defenders. He seems to have very strong sense of the ball’s trajectory and is very accurate when he can fire a header on goal.
Moreover, he's rarely wasteful when shooting, confining the vast majority of his efforts on goal to within the penalty area – with the odd exception being an occasional attempt when cutting in from the right and firing on his preferred left foot. Naturally, this means he ranks well in xG per shot. He averages 0.14 in this particular metric, which is very good for someone playing primarily as an attacking midfielder, and still ranks above average in comparison to strikers in Europe’s top-five leagues. Likewise, he's an accurate and composed finisher, and he can score in a variety of methods with both feet or, as detailed above, with his head. Even more importantly, he routinely finds his way into high-quality scoring positions at the end of quick counter-attacking sequences. That ability to routinely move himself into higher percentage scoring situations is what elevates his skillset to another level; an exceptional level.
The chart below –which plots the shot output of players marked as MF or MF/FW on FBRef, as powered by StatsBomb, with over 25 shots in Europe’s top-five leagues this season – highlights Havertz as a highly accurate shooter with a slightly above-average volume, and also in the 90th percentile for non-penalty xG per 90.
Comparing him with midfielders needs to be caveated with the stretch of recent games he's played up front, let alone the goalscoring emphasis his deeper roles typically have. Amongst strikers, he would rank in the bottom quartile for shots per 90, but his accuracy remains elite.
To summarise, his ability to get into scoring positions, finish in several ways, and actual finishing itself are all fantastic. If he can increase his shot volume with a move closer to goal, he could quite conceivably become one of the deadliest strikers in Europe.
Finally, there is defensive pressure. Playing for Peter Bosz, Havertz has had to re-acclimatise himself to a high pressing system that seeks to rapidly win the ball back and initiate quick attacking moves in transition. He's rediscovered the instinct for when and where to pressure the opposition, one initially instilled in him by Roger Schmidt. Most importantly, he doesn't overcommit to pressuring, allowing himself the opportunity to reassess his positioning so he can press another player or fill a passing lane. One thing that could potentially improve him in this area is just a tad more agility and speed off the mark to impact those looking to play out of defence even further. In terms of overall volume, his possession-adjusted pressures per 90 in the Bundesliga this season rank highly amongst both attacking midfielders/wingers (76th percentile) and forwards (87th percentile) in Europe’s top-five leagues.
Overall, there’s a reason why Havertz is going to cost whoever buys him somewhere in the region of €100 million. He's a player with a very complete skillset: goalscorer, shot creator, an effective defender from the front, and an expert reader of in-game situations when not in possession, with the added bonus of being strong with his weaker right foot, while maintaining the versatility to play in multiple positions across midfield and attack.
What position gets the most out of Kai Havertz? It's hard to say, but here are some thoughts.
We should quickly discard the right wing. It seems a waste to plonk someone as dynamic as Havertz out wide and ask them to put in a shift running up and down the flank. The only way it could really function is in a role where he does not really defend and sits in the channel, giving him avenues to drift centrally to create for others or score himself – not dissimilar to role he fulfilled under Schmidt and Heiko Herrlich, when he was younger and less developed, and Bosz for a lot of last season, mainly to accomodate Julian Brandt's abilities. This clip, against Union Berlin in February, showcases his ability in such positions.
Likewise, we can discard central midfield; it would inherently limit his ability to get into the final third, which would be wasteful considering how good he is in that area of the pitch.
So, striker or attacking midfielder? Firstly, not many teams play with an attacking midfielder in its traditional sense any longer – especially not one with as much license to hang forward as Havertz. Operating within a 4-2-3-1 shape, he's supported strongly at Leverkusen by a double-pivot (often Julian Baumgartlinger and Kerem Demirbay) that gives him freedom to make his impact further up the pitch. Obviously, not every coach wants to play such a system though; accommodating Havertz in this way does require sacrifices from other players on the pitch.
Lately, due to an injury to Kevin Volland, the 21-year-old has found outstanding success playing as a centre-forward. It's a position that also comes with some responsibilities which may limit Havertz’s overall influence on the game, though. There was a marked decrease in shot assists and key passes in his recent five game stretch up front, although that's an acceptable sacrifice for the six goals and an assist he managed in that period.
Something that we have not seen is what he could potentially do as an out-and-out second striker, akin to the role Timo Werner has played at RB Leipzig this season. Here, he would have free license to attack the penalty area and fully utilise his excellent array of finishes, even providing an aerial threat that Werner doesn't possess. Naturally, he would also have scope to drop deeper and move wide to engage with others and create opportunities for his strike partner.
He's going to be good anywhere he plays, but finding the balance between maximising his creative and goal-scoring talents will be the ultimate test for any manager that has the pleasure of coaching him in the future. We'll see what the future holds.
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