On Friday 22nd May, Hertha destroyed Union in the Berlin derby which marked the return of topflight European football after more than 2 months of darkness. For the next two weeks, the Bundesliga would be the talk of the town. Fans from all over the world have been eagerly consuming, trying to scratch that football itch, which has resulted in record Bundesliga viewership since the return from the COVID break.
With La Liga planned to restart next week and the Premier League the week after that, the Bundesliga is coming to the end of its time consistently in the international spotlight. Non-Bundesliga fans will slowly transition back to watching their own leagues, but not without a couple of lingering questions they may have from their time “on loan” to German football. If they have spent any amount of time on social media over the past month, one of those questions will surely be — “Who is Kai Havertz?”
With the rumor mill turning at full speed and the already seemingly confirmed transfer of RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner to Chelsea, the media is now recalibrating its focus onto other Bundesliga talent. Havertz has quite literally exploded onto the scene in the last two years and is now popping up on the radars of even the most casual of football fans.
It will be no surprise to anyone that he is currently a player in very high demand, what might be more shocking for people is the fact that he is currently expected to command a transfer fee level with or even higher than the £100 million necessary to snatch Jadon Sancho from Dortmund. So, who then is this Kai Havertz?
Born in Aachen, a small University city on the German/Dutch border, Kai was encouraged at the tender age of 4 to play football by his grandfather who was at the time chairman of the local football team Alemannia Mariadorf.
During his formative years, it was not uncommon for the young Kai to be playing with kids more than two years his senior. He would continue to impress and at 10 years old already required his first move to a bigger club, Alemannia Aachen, where he would go on to continue his development.
This however would be short-lived.
A smidge more than a year later and Kai had already outgrown the 2nd Bundesliga side and with scouts from all the top clubs in the Rhineland following his progress keenly, he had his pick of the bunch. In the Summer of 2010 Bayer snapped up the 11-year-old Kavertz for their academy and just over 6 years later he would make his debut for the first team against Bremen at the age of 17 years and 126 days, at the time Bayer’s youngest ever senior player.
Less than two years after this he would be named club captain breaking multiple records along the way. He not only became Leverkusen’s youngest ever goalscorer at 17 ( a record which was broken just yesterday by a young Florian Wirtz), he also broke the records for youngest player to reach 50 and 100 Bundesliga appearances, both set by Leipzig’s Timo Werner. In 2018/2019 he became the highest scoring teenager in the Bundesliga ever and just narrowly missed out on the award for German footballer of the year to Marco Reus. Finally, he is the only player ever to reach 35 Bundesliga goals before the age of 21.
Style of Play
Havertz has been described as an “Alleskönner” in Germany, which translates roughly to a jack of all trades, rather crude compartmentalization with a rather negative connotation in my opinion. When such a talent emerges, comparisons to previous greats are never far behind. His style of play drew early comparisons to former Real Madrid and Arsenal star Mesut Özil, a player Havertz himself has admitted he looked up to. Personally, looking outside of Germany for a moment, I can’t help but notice an uncanny resemblance both in body posture and playing style to a young Ricardo Kaka.
Standing at 6’2, one inch taller than Kaka, Havertz has that same kind of gangly look that gives a slight impression of a lack of coordination. This however couldn’t be farther from the truth and it shows every time Kai receives the ball back to goal, neat touch and turn, before exploding around any defenders unfortunate enough to have attempted to close him down.
Above is an example of Havertz signature dribbling. In the first picture, you see how far he dribbles the ball well away from his body, inviting a challenge which duly comes from the right center back. The ball however is never outside of Havertz control, he stretches out and scoops the ball around the defender, drifts around him inviting the challenge from the right-back, then pokes the ball forward to his support setting up a scoring chance.
While watching him play, you often feel that when he dribbles towards people, the ball seems precariously far from his feet. This often leads to defenders committing for the ball but at the very last moment, a long stretching leg will shoot out and poke it to the side leaving the defender behind. His physicality and speed are a constant thorn in the side of any opponents and with him regularly reaching a top speed of 35 km/h it is easy to see why.
Above is another example illustrating how far the ball leaves Havertz sphere of influence. Again, he invites the left back to challenge him, showing just enough of the ball to entice him in before closing the distance and poking the ball into space. Forcing this defender to commit is important because it turns one possible passing route (to the left winger) into two (right winger now has ample space to exploit). This drastically increases the chance of a goal.
Here another example of Havertz receiving the ball on the edge of the opponent 18-yard box. He takes a heavy touch wrongfooting his marker and using his physicality to close the distance back to the ball.
The heavy touch also invites the second defender to throw himself into the challenge. Again, Havertz had just enough weight on the touch to bait the challenge, there was never any doubt that he would reach the ball first and set up his teammate for what would be a goal-scoring chance.
He does this all over the pitch even when recycling possession. Here, the same again. A strong touch into space inviting the challenge and then using his physicality to bully his way to the ball. With two men pressing him so strongly (due to him dangling the carrot), he has opened space on the other side of the pitch. Havertz will make it to the touchline, play the ball back to the right back who can now switch the play setting up another attack
Here is a situation demonstrating Havertz sheer pace. The right back closes him down, as he should, but with one stepover to gain a fraction of space wrongfooting the defender, Havertz rockets directly around him and straight into the box unchallenged
Havertz sees the space and explodes into it arriving late into the box to apply the finish to a good counter attacking movement. Havertz is involved in every phase of the play and once he receives the pull back there was only going to be one result. It is no wonder he has achieved the goalscoring numbers he has so far.
Havertz isn’t just fast running with the ball, above he receives a drilled cross back from the left flank. One touch, turn and shot placing the ball in the bottom right corner less than 1.5 seconds after his initial touch
Another parallel to be drawn with the Brazilian is his exceptional range of passing which has made the number 10 position a natural fit for him and where he has played throughout his entire development.
In his last 34 games playing in the attacking midfield role, he has created 67 chances for his teammates and completed 86% of his attempted passes, exceptional for such an attack-minded player. His vision allows him to pick up on clever runs made by his colleagues and his execution is consistently excellent.
Here Havertz picks up the ball deep within his own half, spots the run on the other side of the pitch and launches a cross-field pass to set up a 4-5 counter attacking opportunity
However, due to an unfortunate injury crisis at Bayer, with both Kevin Volland and Lucas Alario both suffering long term injuries at the same time, Peter Bosz made the brave decision to keep the system the same and push Havertz into the forward position, in a false 9 role, where he has played ever since.
It’s fair to say he took to the new position like a duck to water performing far beyond anyone’s expectations. According to the Bundesliga’s official statistics, he has finished literally every single chance in his 8 games leading the line.
Since the beginning of the 2018/2019 season to now, he has tallied 30 Bundesliga goals and 9 assists with 6 of those goals and 1 assist coming in his new role. I would expect however that upon the strikers return, Havertz will be returned to his natural number 10 role. Although his apparent affinity for the striker role will do his value absolutely no harm when it comes to interest from bigger clubs.
The question isn’t so much if Havertz will move on from Bayer but rather when. It has been no secret that the biggest clubs in the world have kept him closely under surveillance. Bayer Sporting Director Simon Rolfe has recently admitted as much, saying he does not know where Havertz will be playing next season.
If rumors are to be believed, Bayer have just a few days ago turned down an offer from Real Madrid of 80 Million Euros. Liverpool’s alleged unwillingness to pay Werners 60 Million Euro buy out, puts in perspective what a statement such an offer is to the apparent value Havertz holds, especially during the COVID crisis. Former Ballon D’or winner Lothar Matthäus has touted Havertz to be a future winner of the prestigious award. “If Havertz can maintain this high standard, with his natural talent, cleverness, presence on the pitch, and goal threat, then he could someday follow me as world footballer of the year.”
Will “King Kai” fulfill his potential and follow in the footsteps of greats such as Lothar Matthäus and Ricardo Kaka in winning the most prestigious award in World football? Perhaps. However, he will have many important career decisions to make in the coming months that could well shape his destiny in the sport.
Whether he is already capable of playing in the best teams in the world is debatable. What isn’t debatable is his place as one of the most exciting prospects of European football and his reputation as Germany’s next footballing superstar.
Written by: Scott Samuel (@sscott39)