In Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen have a young player well worth getting excited about.
At 17 a lot of us were still in higher education, preparing for the daunting prospect of exams.
That’s also true of Havertz, though for him it meant missing the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie with Atletico Madrid. Where did it all go wrong for the rest of us?
It’s a sickening realisation when you see a fully fledged professional footballer’s date of birth end in 1999.
When Havertz entered the world, Leverkusen were about to embark upon a season that would see them miss out on the Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich on goal difference alone.
Seventeen years on, Haverz lined up against the Bavarians at the weekend in a game that will have encouraged the fans as they held an admittedly much-changed side to a goalless draw.
It was an admirable point nonetheless, with the hosts reduced to 10 men on the hour.
Arjen Robben was promptly introduced, and new Bayer manager Tayfun Korkut was forced into a change. That it wasn’t Havertz sacrificed but experienced international Charles Aranguiz speaks volumes of the regard in which the youngster is held in Leverkusen.
In a difficult campaign, with Bayer currently lingering in the bottom half of the league, Havertz has emerged as the club’s great hope for the future in their bid to return to former glories.
He has been likened to former Bayer legend Michael Ballack due to his ability to get from box-to-box in midfield, but Havertz has generally been used in a more attacking role this season, either from wide or behind the striker.
He idolises Mesut Ozil, admitting he tries to emulate the Arsenal man’s game to an extent, and it’s certainly his vision and weight of pass that has caught the eye since becoming Bayer’s youngest player to ever make a Bundesliga appearance in October.
His Champions League debut came a matter of weeks later and his first start for the club the week after that.
Havertz has now featured 20 times in the Bundesliga this season, and while the absences of Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu have certainly contributed to his inclusion, former manager Roger Schmidt, who was sacked last month, was never in doubt the teenager could have a real impact this season, bypassing the Under-19s altogether.
“We gave him some playing time to see what effect this had on him,” Schmidt said. “It quickly became evident that playing in front of a full stadium doesn’t faze him.”
Tayfun Korfut is clearly equally as convinced as his predecessor, handing Havertz five of his 11 league starts to date.
It was, however, an appearance from the bench that has perhaps been his most memorable thus far. At the start of this month B04 were facing Wolfsburg and turned to Havertz to spark life into a game that had been thoroughly unmemorable until that point.
Within five minutes of his introduction he set up Kevin Volland for a simple finish to give the hosts a 2-0 lead, but Leverkusen, as they have had a propensity to do this season, went on to collapse at the back, with Mario Gomez netting a seven-minute hat-trick to put the visitors in front.
Two minutes later, and with just one of the ninety left on the clock, Bellarabi found Havertz free in the box for the teenager to equalise with the composure of a player that had experienced such situations for years.
His unerring finish across the keeper was another reminder that at 17, this kid is more than ready for top-flight football.
It was his first league goal for the club, having also scored in the cup, and his fourth assist of the season.
With regards to the latter, a sumptuous lifted one-two to find Wendell against Cologne was the pick of the bunch.
He should really have had more than the one against Augsburg in February too, finding Chicharito with a precise, disguised through ball that the Mexican eventually bundled in following a ricochet off the keeper.
That the Manchester United man saw his first effort saved meant Havertz didn’t get the statistic, but his role in the goal was no less important.
It’s this ability to spot the runs of team-mates in the final third that is certainly more akin to Ozil than Ballack.
Still so young, it’s impossible to tell whether Havertz will develop physically to pack the same power that made the latter a machine in midfield.
But what is undeniable already is the technique and calmness on the ball that has seen him draw comparisons to such big names of German football.
Germany will defend the World Cup in Russia next year. That may come too soon for Havertz – though you can’t rule it out given the incredible strides he’s made so far – but a long-term future with Die Mannschaft surely beckons.
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