PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2020 — KAI HAVERTZ

On October 15, 2016, Bayer Leverkusen lost 2-1 to Werder Bremen, but despite the defeat, the club still made history. Coach Roger Schmidt could have put on one of his more experience substitutes, but instead called 17-year-old Kai Havertz into action in place of Charles Aranguiz, late in the second half.

Aranguiz had picked up a yellow card earlier in the game, so it made sense to withdraw the Chile international to ease the risk of going down to 10 men. But another tactician might have opted for a more experienced replacement, not a precocious teenager, especially when trying to chase the game and push for an equalising goal.

Schmidt obviously saw something in Havertz, however, who would go on to chip in with four League goals during his debut season for Leverkusen. That included becoming the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer when he netted a late equaliser against Wolfsburg to help the team salvage a 3-3 draw in April 2017.

One year later, Havertz would set another milestone by becoming the youngest-ever player to reach 50 appearances in the Bundesliga, breaking Timo Werner’s record in the process. And although his League output declined slightly, he nonetheless featured more frequently as Leverkusen’s standing in the table improved vastly. Within the span of 12 months, the team went from 12th in 2016-17 to clinching a spot in the Europa League by securing fifth in the 2017-18 campaign.

At the start of the 2018 season, Joachim Low decided to take a punt on Havertz, making him the first player born in 1999 to represent the senior Germany side after the utter disaster die Mannschaft faced in Russia while trying to defend their World Cup title that summer. Although it was just a brief cameo as he came on as an 88th minute sub in September, the fact that Havertz still got a run-out did not go unnoticed.

Nonetheless, improved showings aside, no one could have foreseen the impact he could have following his sophomore campaign at the BayArena. The 2018-19 season was by leaps and bounds Havertz’s breakout year. He claimed 17 Bundesliga goals, 20 in all competitions, and drew comparisons to a German great of a previous generation — one less known today, it has to be said — in Horst Köppel, a goal-getter of the late 1960s.

Köppel, during the 1967-68 season, scored 13 times for Stuttgart at the age of 19. Havertz not only matched that total, he surpassed it, making him the youngest player in German football history to reach that tally. The 17 goals he scored were the most in a single season for a teenager, and he was barely beaten to the German Football of the Year award by Marco Reus, a sentimental winner after escaping his injury woes.

Köppel, now in his 70s, did retain his position as the youngest player in German football to score 25 goal in a single season, but Havertz helped his side to a modern-day success, a place in the Champions League.

The key then for Havertz in 2020 is to replicate that same impressive form, something significantly easier said than done. Consistency is difficult enough for seasoned veterans — even more so for young players who have yet to fully find their footing. Leverkusen have also undergone some changes in personnel, Havertz losing fellow young attacker Julian Brandt to Borussia Dortmund. New faces in Nadiem Amiri and Kerem Demirbay arrived but it’s well-established as fact that summer signings can take time to settle in, and established players don’t always gel with later arrivals.

Havertz didn’t hit the ground running in 2019-20 but that should have been expected given the significant change in losing Brandt and having to get used to playing with Amiri and Demirbay. Internationally, Havertz has plenty of opportunities on the horizon to get his first season goal, and Low appears content to keep naming him in the squad. Germany remain in a period of transition, and Havertz is one of the players waiting in the wings to shake things up.

Is Havertz the solution Germany are looking for? He’s been compared to none other than Mesut Ozil and in his very early years, the player himself admitted he looked up to the Arsenal man, whose abrupt international retirement has left a yawning chasm in the creativity department. Low has thus far resisted the urge to throw Havertz fully into the fray, despite Havertz demonstrating he is more than ready to compete at the highest level.

A show of confidence at an international level could make a world of difference to Havertz, especially as he is turning out for a national team that has clearly fallen from grace on the world’s biggest stage. Germany are not the team they were in 2014, when they crushed Brazil on route to winning the World Cup. As they look to rebuild, Havertz has to be a player the national team set-up are fully invested in, and he has to be fully invested in the process too.

At club level, all signs point to Havertz having the talent to make sure 2020 is a better year than 2019, on paper at least. The question is whether or not all the pieces of the puzzle are really there, and there are factors outside his control. Havertz enjoyed a highly successful, fruitful, 2018-19 season, and will no doubt have put a lot of pressure on himself to score more goals in the current season. He may even have 20 goals in his sights.

After all, scoring 17 goals at a tender age is impressive, so why not aim for 20? Is that a step too far? Havertz will also be aware that his performances and his goals have gotten the attention of some of the biggest clubs in Europe. They include, unsurprisingly, Bayern Munich, who always have an eye on their rivals’ best players, as well as teams outside Germany.

As the Bundesliga hits the mid-way point of the season, eyes will be on Havertz to see if he can hit his stride in the New Year. Leverkusen’s fourth-place finish last season took many observers by surprise, as hid Havertz’s goal output, and the club, as well as the player, have something to prove. And that’s important, too. This season isn’t just about Havertz proving he’s more than a flash in the pan — Leverkusen are fighting to retain their place among German football’s elite clubs, and Havertz is a key part of the team. Every three points matters, and Havertz can help deliver them.

Will he be able to pull it off? Many young players have attempted valiantly to follow up on a breakout campaign, only to fall short — and not for any lack of trying. So greater focus will be on Havertz in 2020, having already been one of 2019’s most-talked about talents. The world is watching to see what he can do over the next 12 months, and where he’ll find himself at this point in 2020.

Leave a Reply