Arsenal, the Kai Havertz enigma – and Mikel Arteta’s wife

Mikel Arteta looked the happiest he’s been this season after the final whistle, but when Sky Sports reporter Patrick Davison enquired about Kai Havertz, things got briefly very personal.

“I said to him yesterday, when I met my wife, at the beginning it was hard to conquer her,” the Spanish manager said with a smile, drawing a (little clumsy) parallel between the new midfielder’s struggles to find his feet in an Arsenal shirt and his prolonged courtship of Argentine-Spanish actress Lorena Bernal.

“I had to try and message, and go and go, and at the end when she said, ‘Yes, we will be together’, it’s beautiful. If she had said ‘yes’ on the first day, it’s not that great.” The key, he added, was being “persistent — and determined”.

You know things must be fairly serious when a coach as urbane as Arteta starts channelling Swiss Toni, the cringetastic American car salesman from the BBC’s ’90s comedy series The Fast Show, who compared every mundane activity to “making love to a beautiful woman”.

Thomas Tuchel was, incidentally, moved to go down a similar path in April 2021 as Chelsea manager in an effort to get Timo Werner scoring again after an interminable barren spell. “If a woman does not want to go out with you to dinner, you cannot force her to, you just step a little bit back and maybe she will call you up,” Tuchel said. “The best thing to do is not to think about and work hard. The goals will come.”

Narrator: “The goals didn’t really come for Werner.” The Germany international only scored three more times that season before another minimally proficient campaign saw him move back to RB Leipzig in 2022 and go down as one of those Bundesliga hotshots who, for some reason or other, can’t quite hack it in the Premier League.

We haven’t reached that point with Havertz yet. Far from it. But Arteta’s impassioned defence of the £75million ($95m) buy from Chelsea before the game (“give him love and we’ll get the best out of him”) and his renewed appeal for patience after the 3-1 win over Manchester United underline the vast shortfall between performance and expectation.

Havertz, a silky, technical attacking midfielder, was signed as an upgrade to the more pragmatic Granit Xhaka in the left-sided “No 8” spot but once again, looked like a ‘Fremdkorper’, as they say in Germany — an alien lost on the wrong planet — on Sunday. He was more involved than against Fulham last week (22 touches in total), winning a couple of balls back to early applause, but never found a sense of rhythm or connection with his team-mates.

His three big moments in the game couldn’t have gone much worse for him. Havertz miscued a half-volley in front of Andre Onana’s goal, gave away the ball with a sloppy pass to set off the attack that led to Marcus Rashford’s opener and then saw VAR and referee Anthony Taylor overturn the penalty he had won in the second half. To make matters a little worse, Arsenal found more energy when Fabio Vieira was brought on in his place with 23 minutes to go.

Kai Havertz misses a golden chance against Manchester United

As ever, it’s not easy to separate cause and effect in football. Arsenal, on the whole, struggled to play with the kind of fluidity we admired them for last season until deep into stoppage time and Havertz was not the only one failing to make a positive impact. But by playing two No 10-type players either side of Declan Rice this season, Arteta has devised a more attacking setup that is yet to have the desired effect — Havertz, the man who brought about that change, is not showing the quality needed to make this demanding position work.

He looks far too timid, too self-conscious right now to cope with the physical and mental demands of being at the heart of the action in the Premier League. On current form — a slump that’s very hard to understand for all those who used to marvel at his unique blend of dominance and elegance during his Bayer Leverkusen days — it’s futile to ask whether he or the system is at fault. As a combination, it’s just not working.

If Arteta is beginning to have doubts, he’s done a stern job of not showing it. His mantra has remained the same: “Keep going and you shall conquer.” It’s a philosophy that’s probably less informed by the complicated pursuit of his future wife than his experiences as Arsenal manager.

Just as he needed a good two years before his ideas and personnel were properly aligned, and just as his team also needed more than 90 minutes to break down a Manchester United side that had come to obstruct, frustrate and deny on Sunday, Havertz will surely need more than four weeks to fully get what Arteta wants and give him what he needs.

Others seem to feel the same. Asked about his side’s lack of attacking fluency, Aaron Ramsey was echoing the manager’s plea for patience, “The right side — Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka — have been playing together forever,” he told Sky Germany. “The left — Oleksandr Zinchenko, Kai Havertz, Gabriel Martinelli? Once. It takes time to build those connections.”

Havertz will be afforded more opportunity to make it work, naturally. But it mustn’t take him too long to produce at least the odd beautiful moment that will breed trust and encouragement. No unrequited love can last forever.

(Top photo: John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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