With the Bundesliga the first major European league to return to action following the mid-season suspension forced by the spread of COVID-19, it was inevitable that all footballing eyes would wander towards Germany.
Bayern Munich resumed at the top of the tree, and have since increased their lead to seven points.
Interestingly, however, a ‘big five’ has broken out in German football, with Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen all joining the Bavarian giants in a ‘league of their own’. The emerging stars at these sides have been linked with big moves away — Liverpool had, until very recently, long been connected with a move for Timo Werner, while Jadon Sancho has caught the attentions of most of the European elite, with rumours suggesting that he hopes to return to England.
Before the news that Werner appears to be heading to Stamford Bridge, writers had argued that any move for the German could trigger a change in Jürgen Klopp’s system from the trusted 4-3-3 to a more offensive 4-2-3-1, and that Werner could be moved out to cover a wide-attacking role when both Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané depart for the prospective African Cup of Nations this winter.
Perhaps most unlikely, they mooted the possibility that Werner’s arrival would see Roberto Firmino fall down the Anfield pecking order. Of course, the Leipzig forward would have also enabled greater levels of frontline rest and rotation than has been custom to Klopp’s Liverpool. The Reds’ front three have played on average nearly 600 minutes more this season than their Euro-elite comparisons in the oncoming chart (a few paragraphs down).
My issue, though, is that Werner is 24 and his return so far this season of a goal or assist every 74 minutes is nothing short of world class. So, if Liverpool were to sign a Timo Werner approaching his peak, they would sign a player who would not expect to be second-choice, but also may require individual tweaking in terms of positional role, or a change in the entire Klopp system to optimise his performance — a system that looks likely to set the record points total for a single Premier League campaign.
There is no good reason, and this is the concept upon which this article hinges — to change a system that has seen Liverpool break record after record on their way to a seemingly-inevitable, maiden Premier League title.
Enter Kai Havertz.
I had heard about Havertz’s emergence for Bayer Leverkusen last season, when he registered seventeen league goals as a teenager, playing on the right-wing, as a ‘No.10’ or as a deeper box-to-box midfielder when needed. I watched the poisonous YouTube compilations and concluded that Havertz’s physicality and composure were impressive for a player so young. He is just under 6′ 3″ — quick and already well-rounded as a football player.
It was during an international friendly between Germany and Argentina that saw me really connect with Havertz, though. He scored his first international goal following a trademark run from deep, and despite his inexperience looked the most at-ease midfielder in a fixture between two international giants. His Firmino-esque ability to turn away from pressure impressed most, especially considering his considerable physical stature. ‘Good feet for a big man’ as the adage goes.
With that I vowed to watch Havertz more, setting notifications on my phone to alert when Bayer Leverkusen were kicking off etc. so that I could watch das Wunderkind whenever opportunities arose. Although with the hectic winter Premier League schedule and university exams, this viewing only really came to fruition from January, a point when Havertz’s supposedly ‘poor form’ picked up.Embed from Getty Images
I must address the facade that Havertz struggled during the first portion of this season. Although I had not been watching regularly, those who were have said that the reality was that Havertz’s role within the Leverkusen system had simply been changed to help Peter Bosz’s side deal with the loss of Julian Brandt. The emphasis on Havertz’s scoring responsibility had been reduced, he now needed to create.
Havertz has 7.89xA (expected assists) in the Bundesliga this season — the seventh best figure in the league — but crucially almost 40pc more than the second-best figure amongst the Leverkusen squad. That calculated 0.33xA/90 (expected assists per 90 minutes) compares with 0.09xA/90 in the 2018/19 season. Havertz is again his side’s leading goalscorer but now also their creator-in-chief.
There are arguments that can be made against xG as a stat to show trends, because some players are just really clinical and will outperform their xG- Robert Lewandowski being a key example. However xA is a brilliant stat because it shows clearly the quality of chances that the player creates, regardless of whether their teammates convert or not.
If you do not already know what xG are, they follow a statistical model which weights the likelihood of a goal from any shot from 0 (impossible, like an overhead kick from 40yards out) to 1 (inevitable, like a tap in, having rounded the keeper). xG accumulate over the course of a game — as real goals do — to show how many good chances a team has created.
Havertz’s statistical return since January has been phenomenal and has coincided with Bosz moving him to a false-nine role. No longer is the Firmino comparison a hip hypothetical, it is now a flesh and blood reality setting the Bundesliga alight. In 2020, he is averaging 0.74 goals/game and 0.43 assists/game, which puts him right in and amongst Europe’s very best. Here is the comparison:
The quality of Bundesliga opposition may be worse than that of the Premier League, but Havertz’s return includes fine performances in European competition, like two goals and as many assists over two legs against Porto.
Looking at this comparison might increase the argument for a Werner or Sancho- Havertz has hit a purple patch in 2020 but he is only just reaching their production across the whole season.
Why is Havertz the perfect fit for Liverpool then?
Liverpool have become the best team in the world due to a squad blessed with the physical tools necessary to play high intensity football, alongside a high footballing intelligence. There is no regular Liverpool starter who this could not be applied to, except perhaps Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose physical attributes are not spectacular for a full-back, but then he is blessed with the best technical ability of any defender in world football. Klop has catered the system to such a talent emerging from his academy.
Klopp also emphasises a need for good characters — Havertz brings leadership skills, having already captained Leverkusen regularly despite his young age, and his on-pitch intelligence should be evidenced from the ease with which he has adapted to the range of positions that he has played in since his emergence. The false-nine role is widely regarded as one that requires special football intelligence, and Havertz’s willingness to drop between the lines and crop up in new spaces is evidenced by a Sofascore heatmap of his last four games.
Havertz has a propensity to drop deep and wide, if necessary, creating space for his wingers and allowing him to contribute to the build-up of an attacking move. For note, that first pale heatmap is affected by his being taken off as a precaution after an hour.
Werner, in comparison, has occasional patches of soft yellow all over the pitch — meaning he can appear anywhere, but the lack of deeper colour shows that this work is sporadic. His stronger shades come in and around the 18-yard box.
Roberto Firmino’s heat map for the season shows the same tendencies as Havertz. Despite being deployed as the most central member of Jürgen Klopp’s front three, Firmino’s areas of greatest impact are in wide positions just beyond the halfway line.
Firmino is well-renowned for his defensive work, and his 11.74 successful pressing actions (possession-adjusted) is not just the best among centre-forwards in Europe, it is streets ahead of any potential comparison. Havertz, at 6.51, is not yet close to Firmino’s pressing levels, but he is already among the top 10pc most successful in that category amongst forwards in Europe.
While energy levels often reduce with age, footballing intelligence should increase, so it is all the more impressive that Havertz is posting such numbers at 20 years old, even if his data may be flawed in some respects by the fact that he has played in a number of different positions across the season.
By these data wheels, it is apparent that Firmino excels in forward areas in six statistical areas. Of those, Havertz is also amongst the top 10pc on a European template of four.
One area that he is not, touches in opposition box, could be explained by playing in deeper roles at times, while the other- dribble success rate appears to be an area that Havertz does need to improve. That said, the ‘times dispossessed’ section makes for unimpressive reading for both Havertz and Firmino, and reflects a tendency for flair and efforts to create.
Werner’s wheel is remarkable, in areas of production and creativity, but far closer to the mean in the blue and green areas of ball carrying, and defensive actions. Even though he is in the top 20pc for successful dribbles per game, he (1.91) is not at the very top-end, like Firmino (2.19) and Havertz (2.06) are.
Not displayed here are tackling stats (again possession adjusted). Firmino is once again a freak with 1.48 per game — a figure that one would expect from a defensive midfielder. Havertz’s 1.12 is very impressive, however, and far closer to Firmino than Werner’s 0.52. However, as discussed, playing in multiple positions can cloud some analysis of Havertz data.
Lastly Firmino’s big weakness this season has been a wastefulness in front of goal, in fact his league g/xG (goals/expected goals) ratio of 0.52 suggests he should have scored almost twice as many goals as he has done. Havertz, by contrast, has outperformed his xG in successive seasons (1.41 in 18/19, 1.25 in 19/20), suggesting consistency in good finishing, even more so than Werner (1.08 and 1.17, respectively).
Havertz also seems to find similar scoring chances to those that Firmino receives. It would be difficult to really statistically prove this without access to top-end football data packages, but four of his five goals in four games since the restart show him finding space inside a crowded penalty area to finish capably, on his left (pic 3), on his right (pic 4), or with his head (pics 1 & 2). His other goal since the restart was a penalty.
Like a kid on Christmas morning, I have found access to shot maps (via the brilliant understat.com). Havertz’s shots on target feel slightly more centralised in the way that Firmino’s are, than Werner’s or Sancho’s comparisons. Even though the two drift wide, their shots occur when arriving in central areas of the box.
I must admit, there may be a confirmation bias at play here.
At this point, I should explain why every comparison I am making is to Firmino, and not to Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané. The answer is simple. Salah and Mané are brilliant players, world-class perhaps, but not unique. Their styles and statistical output are brilliant, but not skewed in directions that one would not expect from modern day right and left-wingers. Both are excellent defensively, but not to a freakish extent like Firmino is — Mané’s pressing levels mark him amongst the top 5pc of wingers, Salah’s, 10pc — and one expects that any player’s pressing intensity will improve massively after working with Klopp. Their areas of attacking excellence generally align with aspects of a game that you would expect better players at better teams to excel in, even if Salah takes an extraordinary number of shots, say.
Both Mané and Salah are incredible footballers, and not replaceable per sé, but any top class winger who was brought in to replace them could probably perform a similar stylistic role, after adapting to the intensity of the Klopp system. If Werner were being chased for the purpose of replacing Mané, I would understand the rationale. He is not a natural replacement for Firmino, however.
Firmino is also almost a year older than both Salah and Mané. Not a huge difference, sure, but it would also be negligent to not consider that the Brazilian’s attacking production reduced this year in such a way that neither of his African teammates’ did. They were lower in 2018/19 than they had been the season before that, too.
Perhaps the effects of playing an energy-sapping role with no option of rotation are beginning to affect Bobby.
Havertz offers the rare qualities necessary to allow him to take on Firmino’s mantle long-term, but in the more immediate future has the versatility to cover the right-wing and most advanced spot in the midfield three. Klopp’s preference, it is well documented, is to sign players with the ability to fill-in at different spots. Unlike Werner, who I earlier stated would be unlikely to accept a supporting role as he is hitting peak age, the 20 year-old Havertz would more reasonably come in knowing that his importance to the team would grow in years to come.Embed from Getty Images
Jadon Sancho is also of a young enough age for this to be true. His production is better than Havertz’s and his pressing stats are equally as impressive (even if they are coming from a wide position, which blurs the comparison). However, Sancho plays like a natural wide player. His body angle is different to that of both Havertz and Firmino when they drop in to pick up possession and tick play along. Sancho asks for the ball out wide, to stretch the play and leave him one-on-one with his marker so that he has space to beat his man and make a killer pass. Sancho would be a tremendous signing, but will not be a Firmino without radical change to his play.
Havertz has also missed just three games over the last two seasons due to injury (per Transfermarkt). The Nabil Fékir scandal raised awareness of the emphasis that this Liverpool recruitment team put on an ability to stay healthy, and it is a trait shared by the members of the current front three. Sancho has also struggled more with injuries at the start of his career than Havertz has.
Detractors knock Bayer Leverkusen’s £90million asking price as extortionate, and not a price that Liverpool would realistically pay. The latter argument seems particularly valid considering that the club may have stepped away from a Werner deal at £50million for financial reasons.
However, Havertz has just two years remaining on his current contract, and has shown no intentions of signing a new deal. If he were to still be at Leverkusen next summer, his value could potentially halve so as to ensure that the club receive a fee for their talisman. Liverpool’s financial situation may also have resettled itself, in a world — let us hope and pray — post-COVID. It is also not unlike the Reds’ sporting director, Michael Edwards, to look to negotiate deals in advance. An agreement to pay a reduced fee for Havertz next summer could tempt the Bundesliga side.
Kai Havertz also happens to be a Nike athlete. We shall see.
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