Kai Havertz’s struggles to fit in sum up Arsenal’s unsettled start to season | Jonathan Wilson

The Gunners remain unbeaten and already have injury problems, but the weaknesses which cost them last season appear evident again

The ball sat up for Kai Havertz at the edge of the box. Very briefly, the possibility loomed that he might be about to arrive. This was the perfect moment for him to cast off all the doubts. Smash this into the top corner, win the north London derby with a brilliant late winner, and in an instant his journey in fans’ affections from puzzlement to embrace would have been completed.

It was not an easy chance, far from it, but so much the better: nobody becomes a hero with a tap-in. But the ball bounced fractionally higher than he’d anticipated, he made contact with the outside of his boot and the shot flew harmlessly high and wide. Havertz chewed the collar of his shirt: he knew what that moment represented.

And so Arsenal go on, somehow threatening to be good this season without so far yet really managing it – unless you count the most routine of 4-0 wins against an extremely open PSV. There is no sense yet of the momentum that carried them through the early part of last season. Rather Sunday’s north London derby felt like a throwback to the critical phase of last season, when they would dominate the start of games only to be knocked off their stride by the first sign of resistance.

Worse, much of what went wrong in the back end of last season could be put down to the team’s growth. They were young. The squad was slender. The likes of Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka had played a lot of football and so understandably lost zip. That’s what the summer spending, a net £160m of it, was supposed to address. It’s still early. Arsenal remain unbeaten. They’ve won at Everton, where they never win. Everything is still broadly positive. But it’s reasonable to start asking questions about how this all fits together.

Havertz has become the embodiment of the doubts, but he is not the only issue. After Rodri was sent off on Saturday, the optimism among Arsenal fans was clear. On Match of the Day, Danny Murphy referenced Martin Keown “smiling” at the realisation that Rodri will be suspended for the game at the Emirates in two weeks’ time. Arsenal were dominated in midfield in both league games last season (or at least they were once Pep Guardiola had stopped playing Bernardo Silva at left-back); here was a clear possibility of changing that.

That optimism is stifled by the back problem, its severity as yet undetermined, that forced Declan Rice off at half-time on Sunday. The concern is less that Jorginho was at fault for Spurs’ second equaliser than that without Rice’s dynamism the whole tenor of the midfield battle changed. Fabio Vieira, at least, was not injured, but was taken off for tactical reasons.

Declan Rice looks on from the bench after going off with a back complaint at half-time on Sunday. Arsenal can ill afford to be without both him and Thomas Partey (behind) in midfield.
Declan Rice looks on from the bench after going off with a back complaint at half-time on Sunday. Arsenal can ill afford to be without both him and Thomas Partey (behind) in midfield. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

There are questions also in the forward line. With no Gabriel Martinelli or Leandro Trossard (and Trossard has been a revelation: of the 12 games he has started since joining Arsenal, the only ones that have not been won were an FA Cup exit at Manchester City on debut in January, the defeat at Nottingham Forest last season when heads and bodies had gone and the 2-2 draw at home to Fulham this season), Gabriel Jesus was used on the left, meaning another start for Eddie Nketiah.

There is a clear desire for Nketiah to succeed. Most at the club talk about what a great finisher he has always been and remains in training. He averages 0.15 goals per shot which, while half as good as Erling Haaland, is roughly equivalent to most Premier League forwards: Son Heung-min averages 0.18, Gabriel Jesus and Darwin Núñez 0.16, Mohamed Salah 0.15, Trossard 0.13. There is a reason he was called into the last England squad.

But Opta data shows he is in the bottom quarter of forwards across the big five leagues for aerial duels won, and only just above that for progressive passes. He is in the top 13% for progressive carries but defensively he is nothing special. He carries with him that strange quality of potential, of a talent about to burst forth, understandably perhaps given he has only started 35 league games in his career. Yet he is 24. If he is about to take flight, he really needs to do so soon.

Signing David Raya has drawn comment and scrutiny, as Arteta must have known it would, and that perhaps is why so many former goalkeepers seem convinced a club must have a clear goalkeeping hierarchy. Raya made one fine save from Brennan Johnson – although a cleanly hit shot would have left him with no chance – but had his flick at a right-wing cross put the ball out of play, as it was surely intended to, in the build-up to the first equaliser, Spurs would not have regained possession to have another go at a recovering defence.

Almost everywhere on the pitch it feels as if Arsenal are nearly there but not quite, upgrades either needed or bought and not yet settled. Above all there is the conundrum of Havertz. Since he left Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2020 nobody, not a string of Chelsea managers nor Arteta, has quite worked out what to do with him. That he is a supremely gifted footballer seems beyond doubt, but where does he fit? What is he for? Everywhere there are questions for Arsenal and most involve Havertz.

If Arsenal beat City is a couple of weeks, none of that will matter, but it seems already that their season is reaching a critical juncture.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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