Kai Havertz: How Germany and Arsenal’s displaced playmaker fared at left wing-back

Tuesday night in Vienna underlined that people can get used to anything quite quickly.

Kai Havertz’s deployment at left wing-back by Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann was hardly mentioned after the game, chiefly because it was no longer such a shocking novelty. But also because fresher horrors took precedence in the 2-0 loss against Austria.

The 24-year-old Arsenal forward had first played that unfamiliar role in the 3-2 defeat against Turkey in Berlin three days earlier, delighting his coach in the process with a goal and his all-round effort. “Kai showed a world-class performance today,” Nagelsmann said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

That level of praise — which sounded more like an attempt by the manager to defend his tactical ploy — heavily hinted at a repeat in 2024 European Championship hosts’ next friendly against neighbours Austria. Nagelsmann wanted to show everyone his new big idea could work.

It didn’t.

But how much blame should specifically attach to the player was hard to say, in light of the fact nothing really worked for Germany last night.

Havertz had a couple of good moments in the first half when he broke through near the touchline and played dangerous balls across the box. He tracked back willingly enough too, once clearing a cross inside his own six-yard box with a perfectly timed header.

After Leroy Sane was sent off early in the second half, he was pushed further forward and swapped wings, into the right-sided attacking slot, as Nagelsmann’s 3-4-2-1 system morphed into a 4-2-3. Havertz looked more comfortable there, was more involved and had a few decent touches, albeit without making any strong impact before he was substituted on 77 minutes.

Traditionalists might bemoan he was the only player to wear gloves on a rather mild evening at the Ernst-Happel Stadium. In truth, however, Havertz wasn’t any worse than any of the other Germans, who all tried but failed to inject a bit of dynamism and coherence into the visitors’ feeble attacks. He was neither an asset nor a liability for his team but, like so many of his peers, a supremely talented player lost, disconnected.

By playing the left-footed player wide on the left, where he had even less space to operate, Nagelsmann only exacerbated his detachment.

That wasn’t the plan, of course.

Nagelsmann later explained he wanted his side “to attack as much as possible and minimise the time defending” since his team weren’t exactly “defensive monsters”. You could see the logic: fielding five attacking players ahead of a back three and two central midfielders was designed to suffocate the opposition and keep the ball far away from the German goal.

High ball circulation in the attacking third and placing plenty of players around him should have played to Havertz’s strengths in particular — he’s always best when he has many touches near the box. But Germany couldn’t dominate the ball nearly well enough and often crowded themselves out in non-offensive areas.

Is it the system? Or is it the players? Havertz is emblematic of that enduring enigma.

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. But since leaving Bayer Leverkusen for Chelsea in 2020, he’s played in club sides who don’t afford him that luxury and in a national team so stocked with attacking midfield schemers that he had to be crammed into starting XIs as a “false nine”, a left-sided “eight” or now as a wing-back.

As a result, we only ever get glimpses of him, never the full picture.

That much-diluted Havertzness has become self-perpetuating as he continues to get moved around to accommodate more reliable performers in their preferred roles.

Sane is sent off against Austria (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Being the most elegant, upright player in a sea of technicians doesn’t exactly help dispel the populist suspicion that Havertz doesn’t quite want it enough either. The debate about his body language neatly encapsulates wider concerns about the Germany team’s make-up. Are they, like him, simply too neat and nice?

On Tuesday, Nagelsmann criticised a “low level of emotions” after the Turkey defeat and Germany’s sporting director Rudi Voller felt the players had perhaps been lulled into a false sense of comfort after the two encouraging opening games under the new coach against the U.S. (3-1 win) and Mexico (2-2 draw) last month. “It’s not about playing three-at-the-back or four-at-the-back, it’s not about Kai Havertz playing left defender,” former Germany striker Voller said. “It’s about those five or ten per cent of passion, dynamism and energy that were missing in both games (this week). We lack those German virtues.”

Havertz won’t turn into a blood-and-tears-type fighter in time for the next pair of friendlies in March, but he won’t be able to claim special dispensation for having been made a DP (displaced playmaker) for too much longer either.

Unlike Mikel Arteta, who’s personally invested in £65million ($81.5m at the current exchange rate) signing Havertz becoming a success at Arsenal and has a functioning team to put him in, Nagelsmann doesn’t have the time to make this experiment work.

(Top photo: Boris Streubel/Getty Images)

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