Thomas Tuchel’s faith in Kai Havertz helps Chelsea believe in the hype | Champions League
TThe last day retired to the back of the grandstand and tiptoe to the banks of the Douro. It was shortly after 8:30 p.m. in Porto, and the fun and antics of the first half hour were over. As dusk fell over the Estádio do Dragão, as the roar of the socially distant crowd began to turn into a tight, desperate growl, you kind of got the feeling that the serious part of the League Finals des champions was about to begin.
Like many of his generation of young German prodigies, Kai Havertz is kind of a serious player. He has an intense gaze and a determined step and a sort of restless, unrequited desire: as if this game was his last chance to win the golden ticket off the island and see mum and dad again.
Even in the jubilant day after Chelsea’s 1-0 victory, a game-winning game and goal that heralded Havertz as a generational talent in the making, there was still a sort of strange intensity to him. Informed by an interviewer that he was the most expensive signing in Chelsea history, Havertz retorted: “I don’t give a fuck, we just won the Champions League.”
Well, absolutely. After all, Havertz is not like most footballers. On the one hand, he is the son of a retired police officer and a lawyer. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t have to do that. And yet he does it so clearly: everything is there in this tender embrace with the ball, the balletic movement, a language and a grammar of its own.
As a player, too, it is difficult to pin down. He is tall, but not too physical. He has incredible close control, but he’s not seeing. What he seems to live for is the hole: the little hole in the fence that only he can see. And during his quieter moments, when he innocently stutters around doing household chores, you always feel like he’s just biding his time, waiting for the moment the gap appears, and he can sprint to freedom.
Shortly before the break, the moment has arrived. After the frantic opening, a sort of anxious truce had erupted between the two sides, a few superficial cycles that passed to complete the half.
Édouard Mendy absent-mindedly sent the ball to Ben Chilwell on the left flank. Chilwell quickly pushed him towards Mason Mount. Mount spun around, glanced up and realized he was in an unusual space. Then he saw it. The gap that Havertz had already spotted a few seconds earlier.
You can see the moment Havertz sees the opening. Mount always has his back to the goal. But Havertz already notices that Oleksandr Zinchenko gave him a start, and that Ilkay Gündogan was a little slow in reducing the passing lane. The time for reflection is over. He leaves. By the time someone realizes what is going on – even Mount – City is done. The col du mont is delicious. And suddenly, in the greatest game of his life, Havertz is on target.
During a long forward destined for greatness, Havertz seems to have spent a good chunk of his career biding his time, trying to convince people that he is as good as everyone says he is. After a decisive season at Bayer Leverkusen in 2018-19, production slowed down the following year. For much of his time at Chelsea since signing for £ 62million last summer, Havertz has looked like an uncomfortable cut to a transition squad, with a player still trying to find his place.
Frank Lampard, a coach who seemed baffled by the range of possibilities available to him, often left him out or pushed him onto the wing. Under Thomas Tuchel, however, he seems to have found his best role: a false nine that plays alongside a real nine, the long-range poacher, the threat you don’t see until it’s too late.
And so there he was, a twenty-one year old with the glory at his feet. Zinchenko chased him down, Ederson charged to meet him, and yet, in the midst of the chaos, Havertz managed to slow down the moment at his own pace. He kicked the ball past Ederson and ended up in an empty net: his moment, a moment that will define him forever.
Who knows where Havertz is going from here? One thing, perhaps, is certain: henceforth, his name will carry weight and threat. Defenders will mark it a little tighter. Opposition teams will make plans to thwart it.
He will be a marked man with Germany this summer. The audience’s brilliance will burn a little harder, bad performances will be judged a little more harshly. But right now, you think he couldn’t give a damn. He has just won the Champions League.