Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Kai Havertz at left-back click-bait

If you say “Kai Havertz played at left-back for Germany,” you would assume he’s sitting back to the left of a center-back. You are picturing one thing, but in actuality, he played a much more advanced role. A role he has played this year at Arsenal during preseason.

Newly appointed Germany manager, Julian Nagelsmann, before the match:

“We have different formations. Kai won’t always be in this position [left-back]. I have a great idea for him because he’s an exceptionally good footballer. This is a very good option. He won’t always play as a classic left-back.”

Figure 1.1 - Possession starts for Germany. Kai Havertz prepares to move forward.
Figure 1.2 - Kai Havertz moves forward in line with Germany's front-line.
Figure 1.3 - Germany advance the ball into Turkey's end. Kai Havertz remains further forward.

It oversimplifies a more complicated process to then form an opinion solely off of the word “left-back” without seeing where Havertz played during the match.

Figure 2.1 - Illustration of Manchester City's two modes in possession. Notice Kyle Walker's role further forward.

I would compare Havertz’s position to that of Kyle Walker for Manchester City. Walker starts at a more traditional right-back position, and he can stay back if needed, but he will move forward to allow Bernardo Silva to invert infield.

Figure 3.1 - Kai Havertz moves wide when Kieran Tierney inverts.
Figure 3.2 - Kai Havertz advances with the ball uncontested, and Arsenal have a 5v4.

Arsenal trialed Kai Havertz and Leandro Trossard in a wider position during preseason. You can read more about that change and the benefits here. I argued that he’s better when he can receive the ball with his hips open pointed towards goal. That’s why he performs better on the right side of the pitch rather than the left.

The issue with placing Havertz wide left is that he’s not quick, so he won’t beat anyone 1v1, and he is not a great crosser. Attacks end in a cul de sac when he receives the ball; the ball moves backward. He’s great at finding space though.

Playing Havertz wide is one of the only ways to get him into a squad that has attacking quality. Managers want him starting because they’re seeing the intelligence he has and desperately want that to translate into a match.

Julian Nagelsmann after the match:

“Kai said he wanted to do it, wanted to try it. 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 the first time in an unfamiliar position, he did extremely well and probably was our best player.”

Figure 4.1 - In the second phase of a set-piece, Leroy Sané cuts back a pass to Kai Havertz for the goal.

And Kai Havertz scoring in the first 5 minutes has nothing to do with him playing at left-back because he wasn’t even playing at left-back when he scored. The goal occurred in the second phase of a set piece.

This goal is an example of how well he can find space. He’s an intelligent player. He’s like Thomas Muller or Jude Bellingham but without the necessary skill to finish chances. Raumdeuter.

Figure 5.1 - Germany counter-pressing; Kai Havertz is further forward, in-line with Leroy Sané.
Figure 5.2 - Kai Havertz back to defend deep in Germany's half.

He did track back all the way to left-back when Germany were out-of-possession. I’m not a huge fan of someone that high up the pitch being forced to track up and down the pitch that much during a game. I think it would have been more productive if Joshua Kimmich moved to a full-back position out-of-possession and Havertz stayed higher up the pitch. Havertz has a large presence and is a good presser of the ball; you lose that part of his game when he’s back with the back-line.

But to say “Havertz played left-back” without providing more context is a little misleading for those who didn’t watch live.

Assigning a position to a player makes players chess pieces. They are not chess pieces. Each player behaves differently when you put them in a specific position. A center midfielder in one team will move and occupy different space when you compare them to a center midfielder in another team.

Match: Germany 2-3 Turkey, November 18, 2023

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