Not since Eden Hazard in 2012 have Chelsea made a signing as ground-breaking as this. The club are getting a player coveted by every big club on the planet, a player who has been dubbed the best player in Bayer Leverkusen history and a hybrid of Mesut Özil and Michael Ballack.
Some of these tags are hyperbolic and do not hold much credence. However, Havertz is unquestionably among the best talents in the world and arguably the most versatile.
This article will look at his positives, negatives, tactical fit and expectations going into the season.
Kai Havertz has been around seemingly forever, completing his fourth full season at his hometown club recently. Over the seasons, he has evolved as a player and has gradually gone from a talented youngster to one of the best players in the country.
Many would have likely first heard about Havertz when he was forced to miss crucial games due to his high school exams in 2017. If nothing else, the fact a 17-year-old was entrusted with the responsibility of starting big games is a sign of the high esteem in which he was held.
His first real step towards superstardom came in the 2018-19 season where he bagged 17 goals in league play, leading Leverkusen to a top 4 finish. While 2019-20 was not as spectacular, a return of 12 goals and 6 assists is still highly respectable.
His progression over the years, his characteristics and how his traits fit the current Chelsea outfit will be explored in the upcoming sections.
His underlying metrics and actual output have seen gradual improvements over the years. The growth in some of them has not been linear or consistent but that only serves to underline the complexities of player development. Some players have to regress in order to progress, as paradoxical as that sounds.
Havertz finished 2019-20 with 0.64 non-penalty xG + xA per 90 in the league, a thoroughly impressive tally. His xG over-performance suggests that he is an above-average finisher too, a trait that will no doubt appeal to decision-makers at the club considering the team’s profligacy.
An xA-per-90 of 0.3 (via understat) is a terrific figure in isolation and puts him is esteemed company among the likes of Philippe Coutinho (0.27), Trent Alexander-Arnold (0.32), Bernardo Silva (0.28) and Papu Gomez (0.32). However, this is not to say he is an elite level creator (yet), a topic that will be touched upon later.
His progression over the years in terms of simple metrics such as shots and dribbles has been just as encouraging. The increase in attacking output can partly be attributed to the fact he has been deployed in more attacking positions in recent seasons and partly to his own growth as a player.
As he has evolved as a player, he has found himself becoming more active inside the penalty box and actively impacting the game from closer to goal. Interestingly, while he focused primarily on goalscoring in 2018-19, his focus in 2019-20 appeared to be chance creation.
Havertz’s ability to score from different regions is worth highlighting. Unlike some players who limit themselves to certain locations, Havertz has shown the capacity to finish from different locations and with different body parts.
This appears to be a consistent theme among attacking players targeted by Chelsea, with Havertz, Werner and Pulisic all possessing this trait.
Do note the number of goals he has scored from just outside the six-yard box. Lampard has repeatedly stated his to see wingers and midfielders to attack the goal wherever possible and score from close range. Havertz’s propensity to pop up close to goal and capitalize on seemingly innocuous situations would have been a major attraction.
This degree of finishing is a repeatable skill that can be expected to carry over from Bundesliga to the Premier League.
Another point of interest is Havertz’s shot selection. He does not prefer to take shots from long range and instead prefers taking shots from dangerous locations inside the box. This reflects well on his decision-making considering the fact many midfielders, especially young ones, are trigger-happy from distance.
However, he can improve the number of shots he takes. His tally of roughly 2.6 shots per 90 in 2018-19 is what he should be aiming towards this season, before transitioning into the 3 range in the future. Who better than the best
goalscoring midfielder in history to mentor him in this regard?
Nature of goals
Havertz scores from a wide variety of situations, some of them directly created by his ability to identify and exploit space. His late runs into the box are reminiscent of his new manager and while he is clearly not as good (or consistent) as Lampard at it yet, the raw tools are certainly there to develop.
The number of one-on-one scenarios he finds himself in is further reflection of his intelligence. The Bundesliga does tend to feature defences vulnerable to one-on-one scenarios but it still takes a degree of footballing IQ to get on the end of these chances.
When it comes to pure finishing, Havertz seeks to use the chipped shot and far post finish wherever possible. While he capable of executing other finishes, he clearly has his favorites.
While this is not really a negative, he will do well to expand his range. This might have to do with his confidence as much as ability and he can be expected to improve at this as he gains more experience.
From a creative perspective, Havertz has strongly improved over the past 12 months. However, he is not a top-tier creator yet in terms of the quantity of chances he creates. His assist tally is good but one gets the impression he can improve further.
As mentioned before, his xA tally has improved dramatically and has reached a solid figure in 2019-20. However, he is not a chance-creating machine as you would expect from a player compared to Mesut Özil. His chances tend to be fewer in number but typically of a higher quality.
Among the 18 high-quality chances (xG over 0.25) he has created over the last two seasons, a paltry 4 of them came in 2018-19. The aim for 2020-21 and beyond must to be keep up (if not improve) the rate of high-quality chance creation he managed in 2019-20 while also creating smaller chances elsewhere.
Comparing Havertz to younger versions of other creative midfielders provides some context as well. De Bruyne in 2012-13 averaged 2.6 key passes per 90 as opposed to Havertz’s 2.16 this season. The corresponding figures for Toni Kroos (11-12), Thomas Müller (10-11) and Özil (09-10) are 2.3, 1.8 and 3.2 respectively.
Havertz might perhaps never reach De Bruyne’s or Özil’s level creatively — even at a young age, those two were racking up incredible numbers — but in Müller he has a blueprint to follow in terms of developing his creative passing. Müller in 2019-20 racked up a whopping 21 league assists and there is no reason to believe that Havertz couldn’t put up at least two-thirds of that (14 assists) eventually in the future.
This is perhaps Havertz’s biggest weakness. He has been a big fish in a small pond at Leverkusen, meaning he has not been asked to contribute much defensively. That will not be the case at Chelsea. A quick comparison between him and Mount, the leader of Chelsea’s press, lays bare his shortcomings.
If Havertz is to cement himself as a serious starting option at a big club, he will certainly have to become more intense in his defending. Given the degree of pressing used in modern football, no team can afford to carry passengers off the ball.
At 21, it is something that he can learn with time and become better at. However, improvements need to be seen from day 1. Defensive intensity is perhaps the only aspect where he is under pressure to improve immediately.
Havertz stands at 1.89m and is quick for his size, clocking up a scarcely believable top speed of 35.02 hm/h in 2018-19. However, this is not to suggest there is no room for improvement here.
Havertz is yet to fill out his frame and it is not uncommon to see him pushed off the ball. In a more physical league such as the Premier League, he stands to lose the ball even more owing to his lack of strength.
This is a completely fixable issue and Pulisic went through a similar adaptation curve in terms of physicality. During the adaptation process in the initial stages of his Chelsea career, do not be surprised to see him lose the ball often.
Tactical fit at Chelsea
One of Havertz’s biggest positives is his versatility. He has been deployed in different positions across his career and has done justice to each of them. However, for the sake of his development and specialization, he needs to settle on a position soon.
It may be surprising that Havertz has actually not been used often as a central midfielder over the past few seasons. He has been used mostly as a winger on the right with occasional appearances at centre forward and attacking midfield.
However, Havertz’s long term future surely lies as a midfielder in a 4-3-3. His ability to make late runs into the box and exploit unattended spaces across the pitch makes him a prime candidate for the role of an “attacking 8”, to borrow a phrase from Twitter parlance.
Havertz’s production has remained at reasonably good levels regardless of the position he has played in. His productivity is highest as a centre-forward, as you would expect from a player deployed close to goal.
While his numbers as a winger are pretty encouraging, there are questions over his ability in one-v-one dribble scenarios. Havertz can possibly play as a winger, this is not say otherwise, but it should not be viewed as the first option considering Chelsea’s roster.
Do not rule out the possibility of Havertz playing as a centre-forward in due course. He could well end up playing there once he develops physically and fills out his frame. A front three of Werner, Havertz and Ziyech has open-ended possibilities.
Setting expectations for next season
What can we expect from Havertz in his first season in the PL?
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang suffered a 27% drop in his league output during his move from Germany to England across an 18-month span. Let’s take this as a reference to create realistic expectations.
Havertz at present is not as good as Aubameyang was when he moved to Arsenal. At the same time, this Chelsea team are significantly better than the Arsenal team Aubameyang moved to. Keeping these two factors in mind, a rough 30% drop in output can be assumed for Havertz.
In the past two seasons, Havertz has produced 20 and 18 goal contributions in the Bundesliga. Assuming a 30% drop, this roughly translates to 13-15 goal contributions in the Premier League. This should be the expectation for Havertz, with any more than that being viewed as a bonus.
That may sound underwhelming at first, especially for a record signing, but Havertz is not being signed for merely one season. He is being signed to be the cornerstone of Chelsea’s project over the next half a decade and beyond.
In an ideal world, Havertz hits the ground running and matches his current output at Leverkusen if not better it. In a more realistic world, Havertz might have some initial hiccups before adapting. There is no need to panic or get up in arms if he adapts slowly.
Parallels may be drawn with how Bernardo Silva, another highly rated young midfielder, was used sparingly in his first season in the Premier League before coming into his own in the second.
While this is not to say Havertz’s first season will be a write-off, but the adaptation process might not be the smoothest and we should be understanding of Havertz’s situation.
N.B. Pulisic’s xG/xA metrics remained broadly consistent in his final season at Dortmund and first season at Chelsea. However, he finished poorly at Dortmund and his finishing reverted to the mean at Chelsea, explaining the increased output.
In Kai Havertz, Chelsea have signed a player who can truly be called a “super-talent”. In terms of output, intelligence, raw physical tools and maturity, it is nearly impossible to find a 21 year as complete as Havertz except for Kylian Mbappé.
At the same time, Havertz has flaws just like every other young player does. We will have to be patient with him as he irons out these flaws and realizes his potential at Stamford Bridge. It might be frustrating at times but it absolutely will be worth the hassle.