Mikel Arteta knows how all-consuming football management is, but his 17-year playing career also taught him how pervasive criticism can feel when performing on the pitch.
Since moving into the dugout, Arteta, like most managers, has said that while he is aware of the themes being discussed by fans and pundits, he does not read much as he wants to maintain his clarity of thought.
Blocking out the noise is not so achievable for players who grew up in the age of social media, the most judgmental and unforgiving of public forums. Kai Havertz has been learning how brutal life as a high-profile footballer can be after his slow start to life at Arsenal following his £65million ($79m) move from Chelsea.
The more naturally fellow summer signing Declan Rice has fitted in, the more Havertz has started to look like a square peg in a round hole.
Before Arsenal’s 4-0 win away to Bournemouth, he had made nine appearances without registering a goal or an assist, a run of 21 games when you include the end to his time at Stamford Bridge. His effectiveness on the left of midfield was being forensically studied, magnified by the strong start of his predecessor Granit Xhaka at Bayer Leverkusen, and every missed chance was being added to a blooper reel.
So, when Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard presented Havertz with a second-half penalty to get him off the mark, the hearty support he received from his team-mates and the vocal travelling support was a poignant moment.
The narrative needed to change. Rather than feeling like a routine win to close the gap on Manchester City to one point, the afternoon became about the warmth on display.
Odegaard took the initiative in the 53rd minute to hand the ball to Havertz and did so again during the full-time celebrations.
In a repeat of Wednesday night’s Carabao Cup victory over Brentford, when he pushed debutant Charles Sagoe Jr and the returning Mohamed Elneny to absorb the applause, Odegaard ushered Havertz front and centre.
Odegaard pushes Havertz towards the Arsenal travelling support after getting his first goal. pic.twitter.com/8ygl4eIsq9
— Jordan Campbell (@JordanC1107) September 30, 2023
The fans gave him a rapturous applause and belted out the ironic lyrics of “£60million down the drain? Kai Havertz scores again…” in a bid to show their desire for him to succeed.
“I’m really happy for the win, but I’m even happier to be part of a team that shows the human qualities that they did,” said Arteta.
“Without me telling them anything, to show that empathy to a player that has some question marks to resolve externally, they warmed me even more. They’ve done it in a really natural way.
“I’m delighted they made that decision and so thankful as well to our supporters for the way they sung his name and made him feel. If there’s a player who deserves that it’s Kai Havertz. I’m so happy for him.”
It may have been artificially arranged, but Havertz felt cool enough to take a stuttered run up before sending Neto the wrong way with his penalty.
— Kai Havertz (@kaihavertz29) September 30, 2023
Arteta is not usually a manager to draw attention to one player or overstate the significance of a single moment but this was a departure.
“It will probably change everything. If he had any question marks about how we feel about him, about what he does, they are out,” said Arteta.
“Usain Bolt once said, ‘I have to train four years to run nine seconds’. Sometimes you have to do a lot and you don’t see that. In that moment you see it. After everything Kai has been through in the last few weeks, that moment is worth all of it.
“We have all tried to give him support and the right tools. He’s doing so many great things in the game. It was about that moment, that was the question that had to be resolved and today he has done it. To show that level of empathy and understanding, worrying and caring for somebody is just great.”
It was a moment of joy fused with relief. Imagine how difficult it must be to take to the pitch knowing every mistake, however small, is going to be pounced upon.
To become a professional at any level, never mind the elite, requires an enormous amount of mental resilience and self-belief but Havertz has been playing within himself, as if still in a mental space that urges safety over expression.
Ironically, the forecasted drawbacks of using him as a left-sided central midfielder have been the strongest part of his game. Rather than adding a goal threat while unbalancing the midfield, he has looked ponderous on the ball while showing robustness and tactical discipline to win it back.
Those are not the main attributes he was bought to display, though, and even neutrals will have felt compelled to will Havertz’s penalty in.
The leg-up from Odegaard worked out but a penalty miss could have been humiliating. There is the potential that it may feel a little demeaning for Havertz to have his team-mates to spoon-feed him a goal, but for a captain to recognise the burden he was carrying shows emotional intelligence.
Players know what is being said and written about them. They internalise the words — former Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley was one of the first players to experience how cruel football culture had become when he deleted his social media account and stayed in his house after a petition was launched to stop him from being called up by England.
Gareth Southgate’s defence of Harry Maguire last month over the abuse and mockery that has stalked him the past two years was a reminder that footballers are humans.
Odegaard’s gesture was another reminder — that empathy is still a powerful quality, one Arsenal will hope powers Havertz into the most confident version of himself.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)