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Havertz proving the answer to Chelsea's long-term striker issue

Posted on March 15, 2022

There's an argument to be made that Kai Havertz shouldn't have even been on the pitch to score Chelsea's winner against Newcastle. The German contested a first half header with Dan Burn, elbowing the Magpies defender in the process, yet after a VAR check, David Coote felt a yellow would suffice, much to the chagrin of the travelling Newcastle support.

It was a pivotal moment on Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge in a match where off-field issues dominated the buildup to the game in west London. With Roman Abramovich sanctioned by the UK government due to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, his assets were frozen, which includes the day-to-day business of the club. Players and staff can still be paid, but Chelsea are unable to sign players, negotiate new deals, or even sell merchandise on match day with the club shop closed for the foreseeable future. At the time of writing, and if Abramovich is unable to sell the club, that effectively spells the end of Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta's time at Stamford Bridge, with the trio out of contract in the summer.

Yet if the playing staff were affected by Abramovich's sanctioning, they didn't show it. Newcastle have been excellent in 2022 and, ahead of the clash in the capital, were one of two Premier League teams unbeaten in the division. Only Liverpool (22) had claimed more points than the Magpies (20) this calendar year, and it ultimately took a moment of magic from Havertz for Chelsea to break this Newcastle resolve.

Jorginho played a perfect ball over the top of the Newcastle defence as Havertz timed his run to perfection. Somewhat poetically, it was Burn who lost the run of Havertz, but even then the German had plenty of work to do. In the blink of an eye, the 22-year-old had brought the ball down and poked past Martin Dubravka to score a goal of the highest quality.

That goal was Havertz's sixth in the Premier League this season. It may not look a great return on paper, but Chelsea have had their striker issues since Diego Costa's 20-goal haul in 2016/17. Only Alvaro Morata (11 in 2017/18), and Tammy Abraham (15) and Olivier Giroud (8) - both in 2019/20 - have bettered Havertz's current league goal return of Blues frontmen. That he has scored as many Premier League goals this season as recognised strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner combined is testament to the German's willingness to tinker his game accordingly to both force his way into the Chelsea XI and succeed where others have failed.

It's not as though playing up front is an alien concept for Havertz. Five of his 29 league starts in his final season for Bayer Leverkusen were as the leading frontman in a system where the German side would play with a lone striker. In his debut campaign at Stamford Bridge, Havertz started seven league games up front, but the return of Lukaku in the summer suggested the big-money arrival would struggle for regular minutes in the role.

Yet the Belgian's injury issues and poor form, coupled with an ill-advised interview to Sky Italia at the end of 2021, meant Havertz has been able to operarte regularly as the leading striker in Tuchel's side. That he is an attacking midfielder is an added bonus for Tuchel and Chelsea. The positional versatility means Havertz is able to effectively carry out two roles when he does lead the charge.

His touches per 90 when he starts up front in the Premier League drops marginally to 48.3 from when he starts elsewhere (52.4), so he is still heavily involved for the Blues, while his touches inside the opposition box per 90 increases from 5.3 to 6.7. However, perhaps importantly has been a rise from 0.5 shots on target per 90 to 1.4 when he does lead the line.

A criticism of Havertz has been his lack of goal output during his time with Chelsea. He had issues settling initially, while a bout of COVID harmed his chances of really consolidating a starting spot, but even so; fans expected a better goal return in his debut season as Havertz netted just four times in 2020/21. Having broken double figures in the previous two seasons with Bayer Leverkusen, totalling 29 league goals across those campaigns, supporters had hoped for a greater return from the £62m man.

That said, he did score the crucial winner in their Champions League win over Manchester City last May, and that more than made up for the lack of goals. Yet now finding himself is better goalscoring positions, Havertz is testing the opposition goalkeeper more frequently and that, as is to be expected, has boosted his goal return. The winner against Newcastle was his sixth goal in his last seven appearances, which included the decisive strike from the spot in the Club World Cup final win over Palmeiras. He had scored just five goals in his previous 26 club appearances in 2021/22.

Operating in a more advanced role hasn't impacted his build up play with the German still active for the Blues when they are on the ball, but rather he is just getting on the end of chances created by teammates, all the while aiding in knitting the attack together when Chelsea are seeking to keep possession and play with more patience.

With Lukaku and Werner struggling for form, Havertz has grabbed the opportunity to consolidate a starting spot on the Chelsea frontline, and go some way to answering the club's long-term striker issues. He may even be considered perfect for the role given his experience in playing in a couple of attacking positions. One of the reasons Tuchel was brought in was for Chelsea to see a return on their big money investment on Havertz and they are certainly seeing that with each passing gameweek as the youngster continues to thrive as the spearhead of the Blues attack.