There was a time when Arsenal spending more than £60 million on one player would have had fans dancing in the streets of north London.
It is 10 years since former chief executive Ivan Gazidis hailed the “escalation of our financial firepower,” a sign that after years of transfer market frugality triggered by self-funding a move to Emirates Stadium, the club was finally ready to compete for the biggest players. And in September 2013, they signed Mesut Özil for £42.4m. From Real Madrid, no less. Ozil was a bonafide star on the world stage and the Gunners smashed their previous club-record purchase — a paltry £15m for Andrey Arshavin — to get supporters salivating over the dawning of a new era.
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Transfer fees have continued to inflate across the world in the intervening decade and yet Arsenal have only paid a larger amount on eight occasions since, four of which came in the last two years.
Kai Havertz is the third-most expensive signing in Arsenal’s history. There is some dispute over the precise amount: sources close to the Gunners insist it is a fee rising to £65m, while those at Chelsea suggested the deal could eventually be worth £67.5m. Either way, it is the sort of outlay Arsenal fans used to crave and many still struggle to associate with the club’s owner, Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which oversaw years of modest investment prior to the emphatic financial backing Mikel Arteta has enjoyed as head coach.
Yet Havertz’s arrival did not garner anything like the level of excitement commensurate with his price tag. Perhaps it was lost somewhat in the slipstream of the bigger deal this summer: the acquisition of midfielder Declan Rice from West Ham for a fee that could reach £105m.
Rice’s signing felt like a major coup given Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City were among the clubs to have expressed an interest. In the end, only Bayern and City made concerted efforts to sign the England international, but it was nevertheless a reflection of Arsenal’s rude health they could complete a deal which made him the second-most expensive player in Premier League history.
There was no such competition for Havertz, whose time in England has been a frustrating wait for potential to ignite since he arrived at Stamford Bridge from Bayer Leverkusen for a fee of £71m in 2020.
The apotheosis of his Chelsea career — the winning goal in the 2021 Champions League final — was an outlier for a versatile forward whose wasteful finishing prompted growing unrest, particularly as the Blues collectively faltered under Graham Potter and then Frank Lampard. There was no outcry at Stamford Bridge when he left. And if anything, the unease at his languid, unassuming style — not entirely dissimilar to Ozil, it must be said — has followed him across the capital where, just three games into the new Premier League season, Arteta has faced questions over the mixed reaction towards Havertz’s performances.
“Today it was tough in certain moments,” Arteta said after last weekend’s 2-2 draw against Fulham. “He got in great areas and the ball didn’t arrive. In a lot of situations, he should have scored a lot of goals already this season. That’s the thing that is missing there.”
The numbers don’t entirely back that up. In Havertz’s three league games to date, he totalled four shots, none on target. His expected goals (xG) figure was 0.35.
Granit Xhaka probably thought his complicated relationship with Arsenal fans had settled in a final resting place after his summer move to Bayer Leverkusen. Yet the man who told his own supporters to “f— off” in the nadir of his seven-year stay at the club, only to embark upon an improbable latter-day redemption story, finds his stock rising further as a result of Havertz’s slow start.
This is, of course, reactionary in the extreme. Xhaka’s adjustment from a deep-lying midfielder to a more attacking role came as Arteta’s Arsenal grew together, with the Switzerland international invited to embrace the more creative side of his game. Havertz has predominantly operated as a No. 10, a striker or as a wide player. He is now being asked to play as a No. 8 in a 4-3-3 shape which has teething problems all over the pitch.
Arsenal may be unbeaten — and were three minutes away from amassing a maximum nine points before Fulham equalised — but have not looked convincing in any match so far.
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Although it should be noted an important part of Havertz’s game is the way he presses without the ball, part of the issue may lie in finding a way to get him more involved on it. On the opening weekend, Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 with 78% possession and Havertz had 69 touches. Thomas Partey (116) and Rice (105) are more involved in building attacks but still the more advanced players — Bukayo Saka (84) and Martin Odegaard (83) — were more influential.
In beating Crystal Palace 1-0, Havertz had 41 touches — the fewest of any Arsenal outfield player aside from striker Eddie Nketiah, who was substituted on 79 minutes. And against Fulham, Havertz had 22 touches in the first half, again the fewest of any Arsenal outfield player. Compare that with Rice (50), Saka (50), Martinelli (36), Odegaard (36) and Leandro Trossard (26).
Groans from the crowd accompanied a defensive pass with space ahead of him early in the second half and Havertz was substituted 11 minutes into the second half. For context, Xhaka averaged 54 touches per game in his 37 appearances last season, although not all of those came in that more advanced midfield role.
Havertz clearly has great individual talent but his signing was taken on trust by many, specifically given Arteta’s proven ability in being able to improve players through his coaching. It would be absurd to think this is not still a distinct possibility, especially given the collective issues Arsenal are having in implementing Arteta’s revised gameplan.
Sources told ESPN that Havertz became frustrated by the lack of clarity in what Chelsea’s players were being asked to do last season and the chance to work with someone as laser focused as Arteta had obvious appeal.
Sunday’s visit of Manchester United would be an ideal time for Havertz to make his most telling contribution yet. Then Arsenal fans really would have something to shout about.