44. Kai Havertz
It was quite surprising that one of the only high points in Bayer Leverkusen´s 2016/17 campaign was an 18 year old “kid” who had not played one second of professional football before.
I’m talking about Kai Havertz, the versatile midfielder who started his career in the Allemania Aachen Youth Sytem, and who is one of the most promising teenagers in the world right now.
The first time he stood out to me was at the U17 Eurocup 2016 in Portugal, where he played next to the likes of Jan – Niklas Beste, the Itter Brothers, Arne Maier, and his partner-in-crime Atakan Akkaynak, who partnered him in a 4-4-2 double pivot not only in the national team, but also in Leverkusen´s U17 team. They worked perfectly together. Akkaynak drew comparisons to one of Leverkusen’s best players in recent history, Arturo Vidal. For an 18-year-old, he is a superb leader, and you could describe him as a destroyer who´s also skilled with the ball at his feet. He assisted more than half of the 18 goals Havertz scored in the U17 Bundesliga. In an interview one year ago, Havertz praised him, saying, “Most often, Atakan covers my back so well that I can concentrate on the offensive actions. If I lose a ball once, Atakan wins it back by running and recaptures it for the team.” Havertz played all 5 games in this tournament, scoring and assisting 1 goal each. His performances for Germany, mainly in the semi-final loss to Spain, were incredible.
Havertz´ debut season in the U17 Bundesliga hauled him 7 goals in 23 games. However, this was easily surpased by his breakout season in 2015-16, in which he scored 18 goals in 26 games, helping Leverkusen secure a place in the finals of the competition. The 2 semi finals against Wolfsburg were very close, but Leverkusen managed to advance, drawing 2-2 at home but winning 3-3 away in Wolfsburg. So they advanced to the final, where they played Borussia Dortmund, who had beat Stuttgart in the semis. Dortmund had finished 2 points higher than Leverkusen in the U17 Bundesliga South/West, so they had the home field advantage. Dortmund´s team featured the likes of Gabriel Kyeremateng and Niklas Beste who went on to win the U19 Bundesliga this season. Leverkusen´s U17 team, coached by Markus Anfang, started the game in a 4-1-2-3 with Havertz playing as a box-to-box midfielder. In the 59th minute, Havertz scored the opener, and after an ultra-attacking Dortmund tried hard to score the equalizer, Jakup Bednardzcyk was able to score a 2nd in stoppage time against a very offensive Dortmund team.
This was the breakout of Kai Havertz, or, as many Leverkusen Fans like to call him, the next Michael Ballack.
After this spectacular campaign, Havertz was awarded the silver Fritz – Walter U17 medal, given out by the DFB for the best youth player in Germany. Not longer after, he was also awarded his first professional contract. Roger Schmidt, who was one of the main reasons for his breakout, saw potential in him, and included Havertz, Akkaynak, Sam Schreck and Tomasz Kucz in the team for the preseason. Each of them got playing time and advanced closer to the first team. Havertz really impressed in the training sessions and that´s why he was the one player out of the 4 to make the jump into the first team. With Leverkusen´s starting RM, Karim Bellarabi, injured, he made the matchday squad much earlier than many would have expected. His debut was against Werder Bremen, where he was subbed on for 7 minutes. 3 weeks later against Darmstadt, he made his starting debut and from that point on, you couldn´t imagine a Leverkusen without Kai Havertz. He looked promising from the very beginning, so promising that Roger Schmidt started him 2 weeks later against Bayern in the hardest game of the season. He also subbed him on at Wembley, against Spurs where he made his Champions League debut. While all of this was happening, he still played in the U19 Bundesliga and the Youth CL. Despite playing in five competitions in his first professional season, he never looked tired. It always seemed like he just wanted to play, and that´s what endeared the Leverkusen faithful to the young German. Following this, he played most of the games until the winter break, where he improved even more. His real breakout game was the game against Augsburg where he had 2 assists, one of them for the 50,000th Bundesliga goal from Karim Bellarabi. It seemed like Roger Schmidt finally found out where to play him: as a 10 behind Chicharito in a 4-2-3-1 instead of as a RM in a 4-4-2. He was so good in that game, Roger Schmidt started him in the Champions League Round of 16 game against Atlético in the same role again. After that, he was finally a guaranteed starter in Roger Schmidt’s team.
Following his great performances, he sadly missed the second leg against Atletico, because he had to take important exams in school. His absence excuse went viral—a lot of people probably only know about Havertz because of this. In my opinion, it´s really impressive that he had to deal with so much academic stress and still managed to perform week in and week out. Leverkusen wanted him to focus on finishing school and he wasn´t allowed to give interviews before he did so.
After this happened, Roger Schmidt, who had made Havertz a starter and developed him into one of Europe’s most promising teenagers, was fired, and Tayfun Korkut assumed the role of manager. He didn´t start Havertz in the first 3 games, but in the third game Korkut coached, against Wolfsburg, Havertz was subbed on and got both his debut goal and an assist in just 30 minutes, becoming Leverkusen´s youngest goalscorer, displacing Julian Brandt. Korkut finally realised how good Havertz is, and started him until the end of the season. He played him at CAM at first but then switched him to RM after changing the formation back to a 4-4-2. Havertz got 3 goals and 1 assists in the last 3 games of the season, scoring 2 against Hertha, becoming the second-youngest player in Bundesliga history to score a brace. These performances by Leverkusen´s newest wünderkind were really important, helping us avoid relegation. For me, he was our player of the season along with Bernd Leno; without them, you wouldn´t be able to watch Leverkusen in the Bundesliga next season.
In what was a sigh of relief to every Leverkusen fan, after turning 18 on June 11th, he signed a new contract until 2022, and it will be vital to keep him for at least 2-3 more years, because Kai Havertz is a player with world class potential.
Let’s talk about his playing style now. Kai Havertz is a very versatile player who can play as a box-to-box midfielder, as proven with his performances next to Akkaynak in the youth teams, but he can play as a normal winger, and as a 10. If asked, he could probably perform as a second striker.
For me, his future is either as a central attacking midfielder or as a box-to-box midfielder. He´s really tall, and his passing ability is insane for an 18 year old, and his vision is great. Havertz boasts great off-the-ball movement: for his goal against Hertha Berlin, he ran the length of the entire pitch into the perfect spot, so that Brandt could pass to him, and then scored with grace. When he´s on the pitch, he wins most of the long balls and aerial battles, which was key when playing next to a less physical striker in Chicharito, who relied on his physicality to retain possession in the upper third. His dribbling ability and speed make him viable as a winger but he loses the ball too much to have a future on the wing. He loses possession far too often, but that´s the only negative drawback he has that I can think of. He always gives 110%, and his technical abilities already surpass most of the other players we have at the moment.
Mesut Özil is Havertz´ idol, and as he has said in a lot of interviews, he watches his games and tries to adapt to his playing style. You can see that when you watch his performances, but unlike Özil, he also works a lot in the defense. Havertz is everywhere on the pitch when I watch him. He is simply incredible, one can only imagine what he’ll be like in 5 years.
For me, Kai Havertz is our next Michael Ballack. The next Leverkusen player who will become world class.
By: Luca Ecke/@LucaKK44.