The season that seemed like it would never end, principally because it had a World Cup in the middle of it, has now ended and so the summer transfer window can open in earnest.
For Arsenal, that means somehow trying to improve upon the surprise runners-up spot that they secured. (At least it was a surprise at the start of the season; by the end, it was a disappointment.) And that process seems to have started with a move for Chelsea’s Kai Havertz after the two clubs agreed a £65 million transfer fee, leaving only the player’s own personal terms and medical to be completed.
However, before the deal is concluded, one all-important question should be asked, namely why are Arsenal trying to sign Havertz in the first place?
Reasons Why Arsenal Do Not Need Kai Havertz in Their Squad
Kai Havertz Is A Forward, Not A Midfielder
Havertz is not the midfielder that Arsenal so desperately need, but a forward, who arguably they do not need at all. It has been suggested that Mikel Arteta plans to play Havertz in midfield, but at best the German is an attacking midfielder or No.10.
As Gary Neville famously said, everyone wants to be a No.10, to have all the freedom of the “fantasista” position, as it is called in Italy, without the responsibility of being either a proper central midfielder (for whom tackling is a necessity) or a striker (for whom scoring is a necessity).
Havertz has never played as a central midfielder for Chelsea in his three seasons at the club. Last season, he was largely used as a false nine or withdrawn centre-forward because Chelsea lacked a striker worthy of the name. However, he publicly expressed dissatisfaction at the role and it may even have been a factor in his deciding not to renew his contract at the club.
He may occasionally have played as a central midfielder with Bayer Leverkusen before joining Chelsea, but the physical demands of playing in the Premier League, especially in central midfield, are far greater than those of playing in the Bundesliga, so there is no real evidence that he is capable of playing the role that Arteta may have in mind for him.
And Nor Does He Add Any Aerial Presence
It is of course possible that Arteta has no plans to play Kai Havertz in midfield and instead regards him as vital backup for his attackers, especially as it is argued that he can play all along the forward line, filling any of the four front-line positions: No.10; striker (or at least withdrawn striker); left winger, or left-sided attacker; or right winger, or right-sided attacker.
However, Arsenal are already strong up front, with a front four of Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard. And there is already cover for Ødegaard at No.10 in the form of Fabio Vieira, who may not have impressed much in his first season in the Premier League but will surely improve next season after adapting to the greater pace and physicality of English football. (That was true even of the great Robert Pires, so there is hope for Vieira.)
What Havertz absolutely does not add to Arsenal’s attack is the one thing that it patently lacks, namely an aerial presence. For all that he is 6 foot 4, Havertz has shown absolutely no heading prowess whatsoever; quite the reverse, as he is far more comfortable with the ball at his feet than in the air.
Gabriel Jesus is at best capable in the air (no more than that) and the lack of a tall, powerful header of the ball means that Arsenal are compelled to play their (admittedly excellent) inter-passing game rather than attempting to put crosses into the box.
So great is Arsenal’s need for an aerial presence to allow them to add a plan B to their A game that if Ivan Toney had not been banned for so long for gambling offences the Gunners might have been tempted to bid for him, although his value to Brentford is such that they would almost certainly have demanded a prohibitively high transfer fee, far beyond his actual value. And it is surely the fact that Folarin Balogun is only 5 foot 10 that means that, despite his goal-scoring feats with Reims last season in France, Arsenal appear likely to let him leave this summer if they receive an acceptable bid.
Arsenal’s Priority Is Central Midfield
Of course Arsenal remain interested in signing Declan Rice from West Ham, although it is now being reported that Manchester City are also interested in signing the England international, even if, as is also being reported, it is only a ploy to drive up the fee that Arsenal will eventually have to pay.
From Rice’s own point of view, it makes much more sense to join Arsenal, where he will be a guaranteed starter, rather than City, where he will be at best an understudy to Rodri. He only has to look at his former England midfield partner, Kalvin Phillips, who joined City last summer but has barely played since, to see what would lie in store for him. Phillips might have won three medals last season, but he did little or nothing to earn them.
However, even if Arsenal ultimately miss out on Rice, their priority must be to reinforce their central midfield. Arguably that would have been true even if they had retained their first-choice midfield pairing of Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka, but if the Gunners should lose either one of them, let alone two, the need to restock in the centre of the park will be even greater.
Arteta has effectively experimented with a one-man midfield in the past, notably against Villareal in the two legs of the Europa League semi-final in 2021 when Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe, who are both attacking midfielders, were played there, and he even returned to it in the penultimate Premier League game of the season against Nottingham Forest, with similarly disastrous results.
It might be possible for Manchester City to play with just one orthodox central midfielder, such as Rodri or Fernandinho before him, given both their defensive strength and almost obscene attacking resources.
However, it is absolutely not possible for Arsenal to follow suit. It had appeared that Arteta had finally learned that lesson last season, when he finally found a successful central midfield duo of a fully fit Partey and a Xhaka at last playing in a more attacking than defensive role, but the old doubts are now resurfacing.
Remember Pepe – Spend On The Necessities, Not The Luxuries
The real danger here for Arsenal and Arteta is that they are quite simply not getting their priorities right, the absolute priority being that any football team (especially one like Arsenal that does not have the state backing of a Manchester City or a Newcastle) should spend first on the necessities and not on the luxuries. And at best Kai Havertz is a luxury – a possibly useful addition to Arsenal’s attacking resources, but not the absolutely vital midfield reinforcement that they need.
This is where the spectre of Nicolas Pépé rears its head. In 2019, shortly after being thrashed 4-1 by Chelsea in the Europa League Final in what remains Arsenal’s worst ever defeat in a major cup final, the Gunners broke their transfer record to sign Pépé, a fast and skilful winger, from Reims for £72 million. That deal remains a contender for the title of worst transfer ever, and not just for Arsenal but for any major club.
Not only should the money have been spent on defence rather than attack, but Pépé’s arrival effectively meant the end for the one part of that team that had been functioning well, namely the striking partnership of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
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Four years on, there is a danger that history is repeating itself. Kai Havertz is a fine, skilful, attacking player, but he is not what Arsenal need right now, which is reinforcement in central midfield, and that almost certainly means signing more players than Declan Rice, even if they can get Rice.
If Havertz’s arrival is at the expense of the orthodox central midfielder that Arsenal need (and unlike, say, Chelsea, Arsenal cannot afford to leave a £65 million player on the bench), there is a real danger of unbalancing the team’s successful attack, weakening its midfield and undoing all the good work of last season.
Credit: Ungry, Flickr.