Why does everybody want Kai Havertz?
Before his 21st birthday Kai Havertz has been in a hurry, breaking Bundesliga records on a regular basis for appearances and goals. Gregor Kerr looks at Bayer Leverkusen’s talisman and why everybody wants him this summer.
There are a few players that can be used to draw comparisons. Dele Alli is perhaps the most recent case. Both young midfielders who pushed further up the pitch, both 6’2 and can score with their head and both goalscorers from midfield. But Havertz has further strings to his bow. He’s two-footed and can control a game. He is what they call in Germany an “Alleskonner”, which directly translates to “all-rounder”.
The club’s sporting director Jonas Bolt was a bit grander in his description in 2018, titling the then 19-year old as “Erhaben. Like a king, always looking over things.”
Former Bayern Munich midfielder Dietmar Hamann compared Havertz to the deeper-sitting Michael Ballack, who won 98 caps for Germany. Like Havertz, Ballack also spent an early spell of his career at Leverkusen. “He’s got that air of arrogance in a good way about him,” Hamann said. “I think he’s the best player we’ve got in Germany at the moment.”
Aged just 21 he is by far the leader of the Leverkusen team, his presence and constant demand for the ball shows qualities well beyond the average post-teenager. He looks a level above his teammates who struggled around him earlier in the season. At a glance, his languid movement and lanky structure might make him appear a strange player, but often it is Havertz taking the ball, winning back the ball and distributing the ball. When quizzed on his own qualities, Havertz said, “I guess reading the game has always been one of my strengths. A certain composure on the ball and the ability to make the right choices quickly.”
Leverkusen have, rightly, relied upon on him for a few years now. He became the youngest player to reach 50 Bundesliga appearances in 2018, then 100 a year later. On the opening day of the 2019-20 he scored 25 Bundesliga goals in almost record time, being the second youngest to do so after Horts Koppel.
His numbers this season, 11 goals and five assists, are more impressive when put into context – between September and December he did not add to his then tally of three goals and one assist on a single occasion. There may have been slight fears of a falling stock following his 20 goals and seven assists the year before, but any of those suggestions have been swiftly silenced.
His reliability even saw him deployed in a false nine role when main strikers Kevin Volland and Lucas Alario faced a long spell injured this season. The results were even better than expected. He led the line for eight games, and according to Bundesliga statistics, finished every single chance that came his way. Every single one resulted in a goal. It’s hard to teach instincts like that.
The 2018/19 standout season
Teams knew about Havertz across Europe by the summer of 2018 but didn’t realise just what he was capable of. He still appeared a bit like a youth player, scoring just three times in 30 league games and the end product just hadn’t arrived yet.
It was the 2018/19 season where he was no longer a promising talent, but the man Leverkusen relied on. No other player started all 34 Bundesliga games for them, and his goal tally jumped from three in the previous campaign to 17 in this, with seven assists along the way. In the process he became the highest scoring teenager ever in the Bundesliga.
But by the start of December, he had scored just three goals and the team was uninspiring. Two days before Christmas head coach Heiko Herrlich was replaced by Peter Bosz and Havertz was soon playing the best football of his short career. The former Dortmund boss turned their form around and won 11 of 16 games in the new year. His and Havertz contribution helped Leverkusen to 4th place in the league and back into the Champions League for the first time in three years.
For a player in his position, just behind the striker, it’s not uncommon for passing stats to be unattractive. Trying to thread the perfect through-ball comes at a cost and isn’t pulled off the majority of the time. That still didn’t stop him finding a teammate with 90% of his passes, the best rate for an attacking player in the Bundesliga.
He wasn’t just a player the fans adored but was literally the player’s player. In a poll put towards his colleagues in the Bundesliga, Havertz came out on top as the best outfield player for the season, with 20.8% of the vote from the league’s players.
Leverkusen, aware of the bigger clubs focusing on his accomplishments, quickly set a well-publicised prize of €100 million in the summer of 2019. As silly as it may sound now in hindsight, clubs seemed spooked at the prospects and no offers came in. Only a consecutive season of such excellence could warrant the fee demanded.
The step up
Havertz will likely have the luxury of several top European clubs to pick his hand from. A move away from Leverkusen, who seem still unable to break into the Champions League, is the only next step for a player of Havertz’s ability. The club’s sporting director Rudi Voller all but confirmed that his star player will leave in the summer, saying, “There was already interest in the summer (of 2019), but we told him that it would be good for him to stay with us for another year. And that was the right decision.”
The €100 million label won’t have reduced much in price but with two years remaining on his contract, Havertz likely knows that such a fee wouldn’t be required in the summer of 2021. From Leverkusen’s standpoint, now is the time to sell and from a buyer’s perspective, they may not be priced out as much as feared.
The links to Bayern Munich, who are known for regularly hoovering up the finest Bundesliga talent, have been inevitable and constant for several years. Along with Leroy Sane, he looks like a major piece on Bayern’s attempts to restructure their attack with younger talent. Although, with 90 goals scored after 30 games, a Bundesliga scoring record, it hardly looks like a weakness for the Bavarians. Bayern head coach Hansi Flick worked with Havertz for the Germany under 17 side and said, “I think very few coaches wouldn’t want to have Kai Havertz in their team.”
Chelsea are the second most prominent, and most recent link. With Hakim Ziyech already secured for the 2020/21 season, and fellow Germany attacker Timo Werner in discussions over a move to Stamford Bridge, the prospect of starring in a fresh young team would be alluring. Reports this week have suggested that Chelsea have bid for Havertz, which would complete a totally new looking attack. While a move to Munich guarantees more silverware, this prospect may be more exciting for an attacking player.
Other links have been less concrete, but persistent nonetheless. Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and Barcelona have all been muted as options within the last year. With the pulling power of Bayern and the ambition of Chelsea this summer, it would be hard to imagine any move is nailed on yet. Whoever parts way with their cash will be getting the perfect modern midfielder and won’t be hung up on the cost for too long.
With no European league having a definitive end point, particularly those in Europe like Leverkusen, Havertz still has a big job to finish before any move happens. He can still take the club back into the Champions League and with a 3-1 first leg lead over Rangers in the Europa League, he can bow out of his club of ten years with European silverware.