The Kai Havertz Conundrum
Big expectations were attached with Kai Havertz when he joined Chelsea from Bayer Leverkusen this summer. The most expensive signing in Chelsea's history, Havertz was the most exciting new entry for most Chelsea fans for this season, and that is big praise considering that Chelsea also signed the likes of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Thiago Silva in the same transfer window. This excitement was not unfounded, Havertz was Leverkusen's best player for the past two seasons, netting 29 goals and providing 9 assists in just over 60 matches. But since his arrival at Chelsea, he hasn't really turned up and is at the brunt of criticism by fans and media alike. What happened to Havertz, is this his fault or is Lampard failing to adjust him to his side, and what does the future hold for this generational talent?
Kai Havertz has recorded around 18 appearances so far this season for Chelsea in all competitions, but his contribution has been limited to just 8 goals and assists. While for most players these statistics might be impressive, a 90-million-pound signing needs to do more than just this. But to understand the sharp contrast between his performances at Leverkusen and Chelsea, we need to understand how he played in his previous club.
At Leverkusen, Havertz was an extremely versatile player. He could play as a CF, a number 8, a number 10, a right-winger and even juggle between these roles mid-game. His preferred playing position was towards the right, and he adjusted his exact role in a game based on the opponent. For instance, if the opponent was a team playing a low-block, Havertz would move to RAM, feeding wingers with precise passes. His technical ability has always been superior to most other players, he could squeeze a goal from difficult angles, give excellent diagonal assists and dribble players with ease.
Havertz was a complete attacking midfielder, and the team was built around his ability to get the best out of him. He had pacey wingers in Bellarabi and Leon Bailey who could run behind defences to open up spaces for him, which was essential given that Havertz was also the fastest player in the Bundesliga last season, using his blistering pace to leave defenders in the dust. He didn't have too many defensive duties either because there already was a defensive structure behind him that could do well without his contribution. All of these factors meant that Havertz had a system which played to his strengths. This is a common tradition in world football – shaping your entire tactical game plan around your best player. Real Madrid did this with Ronaldo, Barcelona with Messi, Chelsea with Hazard and Manchester United with Bruno Fernandes.
However, this wasn't to be the case when he arrived at Chelsea. Since Eden Hazard's departure, the club has worked around an approach that doesn't focus on just one player, but rather an integrated team where everyone turns up to perform. Havertz was never going to be the centre point of Chelsea's midfield, he was rather going to be another piece in the tactical puzzle that Frank Lampard is experimenting with. Therefore, since arriving, Havertz hasn't had the same kind of positioning freedom as before but has had to fulfil very specific roles in the squad. The two positions that Lampard has played him at are right-wing and RAM. Havertz has not contributed to a single goal from the right-wing, rather all his goals and assists have come from the attacking midfield position. But in Lampard's 4-3-3, Havertz has to regularly trackback, with his average position being near or behind the halfway line. That is problematic, Havertz is a space invader, such that he gets into open areas and tears the opposition apart, but even in an attacking oriented Chelsea team, he isn't getting the right opportunity to lead the attack.
A lot of these issues are rising from the personnel at Chelsea and not just Lampard's playing style. Mason Mount was Chelsea's go-to number 8 last season, and he hasn't backed out since. He is giving consistently impactful performances every week, and it is very difficult to adjust two players of similar playing style in the team. That is a big problem, Mount is an excellent player with a very mature style of play at a young age, and has a significant resemblance to Lampard the player, while Havertz is a big player in his own right, Chelsea's most expensive signing and has been termed as a generational talent. But this is not where the problem ends. Hakim Ziyech was another player that Chelsea added to their attacking arsenal, and while Lampard plays him on the right-wing, Ziyech tends to shift towards the right attacking midfield position during the game, especially when his main strength as an attacker is to cut in and cross the ball with his left foot. This means that Havertz is not only facing a problem adjusting with Mount but also Ziyech, who himself was Ajax's player of the season multiple times.
Chelsea went out and bought some of the best players this summer window. While some, like Silva, Chilwell and Werner have adjusted very well, Havertz hasn't. It is easy to say that he is young, that the Premier League is too tough to perform in right away, but the fact remains the same: Lampard has failed to play the star-studded lineup to its strengths. What should then be done?
For now, Lampard should experiment with different midfield formations and see where Havertz clicks. From what I have seen, playing Havertz as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, with Mount specifically as a ball-carrying CM seems to be the answer. Kante would provide a strong cover to the defence, Mount would be able to use his high work rate in a similar fashion to Kovacic (winning balls and carrying them to the final third), and Havertz will be able to play in advanced positions to get more opportunities to score. The Ziyech problem will have to be adjusted too, but given that he has been out of the lineup due to injuries for a large part of the season, Lampard should focus on devising a plan which resolves the Kai Havertz conundrum. If Chelsea can get him to perform like his Leverkusen days, they might just have a chance at the title.