Mikel Arteta made it no secret where he envisaged Kai Havertz’s future after he joined the club for an eyebrow-raising £65m in the summer.
“He will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield and variety to our play,” the boss said,welcoming the German to north London.
So far, the Spaniard has stuck true to his word by often deploying Havertz in a midfield position. He’s also occasionally been used as the focal point of the attack – arguably having more success in this function – but Arteta seems intent on helping the former Chelsea man rediscover his majestic Bayer Leverkusen form.
While supporters are desperate to see a spark, we’ve got little from Havertz thus far. Sure, he’s good in the air and enthusiastic without possession, but he’s offered very little with the ball and is yet to contribute in the final third, notching just two goal contributions in 1,248 minutes of action.
The Havertz-shaped enigma is one Arteta is yet to work out, but perhaps he could take inspiration from German national team coach Julian Nagelsmann.
Can Mikel Arteta take inspiration from Julian Nagelsmann over Kai Havertz usage?
There’s doubtlessly an experimental side to Nagelsmann, whose tactical nous has seen him garner a lofty reputation from his Hoffenheim days. His latest ploy was to utilise Havertz in a left wing-back position.
“Kai said he wanted to do it, wanted to try it,” Nagelsmann said after Germany’s 3-2 defeat to Turkey. “I don’t see this as a risk for him, but as a very, very big opportunity to play a key role at the Euros. For a first time in an unfamiliar position, he did extremely well and probably was our best player.”
Nagelsmann’s ploy initially appeared to be a stroke of genius as Havertz opened the scoring for Die Mannschaft within five minutes after converting from inside the box. However, thereafter Havertz was a peripheral figure. He was no better or worse than his teammates, but Nagelsmann’s plan failed to have the desired effect.
Lothar Matthaus, a huge Havertz advocate, said the experiment “can’t be a permanent solution” and it wouldn’t be a surprise if we didn’t see it again after Germany were then beaten 2-0 by Austria with the Arsenal man continuing down the left.
Nagelsmann’s plan revolved around the dominance of possession, using a 3-2 base to springboard attacks. While wing-back Havertz would have to track back when the opposition sprung on the counter or enjoyed periods of possession, the hope was that he would be able to enjoy much of the game stationed in the final third, surrounded by teammates where he could interchange and combine.
Germany’s inefficiency with the ball, however, rendered the Havertz ploy futile. As Rafa Honigstein commented in his recent piece for The Athletic, managers aren’t going to get the best out of the 24-year-old if they continue to shoehorn him into unfamiliar roles: “For as long as he’s not being played in his most natural position — as a central, second forward behind a more orthodox striker — he will struggle to bring his full potential to bear.”
So, Nagelsmann’s tinkering is not something we’ll be seeing from Arteta anytime soon. We haven’t seen the Gunners utilise wing-backs since the Spaniard’s debut season. He’s not going to alter his system so drastically at such a crucial point in his project. It’s not something he would’ve considered even if Havertz had been an unmitigated success as a wing-back.
While this won’t be the route Arteta goes down, the Arsenal manager must start to maximise the potential of his £65m asset.