Thomas Tuchel’s faith in Kai Havertz helps Chelsea believe the hype


The last of the daylight retreated over the back of the stand and tiptoed over the banks of the Douro River. It was shortly after 8.30pm in Porto, and the fun and frolics of the first half hour were over. As dusk fell over the Estádio do Dragão, as the roar of the socially distanced crowd began to harden into a tight, desperate growl, somehow you got the sense that the serious part of the Champions League final was about to begin.

Like many of his generation of young German prodigies, Kai Havertz is a serious sort of player. He has an intense gaze and a purposeful stride and a sort of restless, unrequited yearning: as if this game here is his last chance to win the golden ticket off the island and see mama and papa again.

Even in the jubilant aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-0 victory, a game and a winning goal that announced Havertz as a generational talent in the making, there was still a strange sort of intensity to him. Informed by an interviewer that he was the most expensive signing in Chelsea’s history, Havertz retorted: “I couldn’t give a fuck, we just won the Champions League.”

Well, quite. After all, Havertz is not like most footballers. For one thing, he’s the son of a retired policeman and a lawyer. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t have to do this. And yet all the same he so clearly does: it’s all there in that tender embrace with the ball, the balletic movement off it, a language and a grammar all of its own.

As a player, too, he’s hard to pin down. He’s tall, but not overly physical. He’s got incredible close control, but isn’t showy with it. What he seems to live for is the gap: the little hole in the fence that only he can see. And during his quieter moments, when he’s innocently bumbling around doing chores, you still get the feeling he’s simply biding his time, waiting for the moment when the gap appears, and he can sprint clear to freedom.

Shortly before the break, the moment arrived. After the frenetic opening a sort of uneasy truce had broken out between the two sides, a few perfunctory passing cycles to round out the half.

Édouard Mendy bunted the ball absent-mindedly to Ben Chilwell out on the left flank. Chilwell nudged it smartly to Mason Mount. Mount swivelled, took a look, and realised he was in an unusual amount of space. Then he saw it. The gap that Havertz had already spotted several seconds earlier.

You can see the moment Havertz sees the opening. Mount still has his back to goal. But already Havertz notices that Oleksandr Zinchenko has given him a start, and that Ilkay Gündogan has been a little slow in cutting down the passing lane. The time for thinking is over. He goes. By the time anyone realises what’s up – even Mount – City are cooked. The pass from Mount is delightful. And suddenly, in the biggest match of his life, Havertz is clean through on goal.

For a forward long earmarked for greatness, Havertz seems to have spent quite a lot of his career biding his time, trying to convince people that he’s as good as everyone says. After a breakthrough season at Bayer Leverkusen in 2018-19, his output slowed the following year. For much of his time at Chelsea since signing for £62m last summer, Havertz has had the air of a uncomfortable fit in a transitional team, a player still trying to find his place.

Frank Lampard, a coach who seemed bewildered by the array of possibilities at his disposal, often left him out or shoved him out to the wing. Under Thomas Tuchel, however, he seems to have found his best role: a false nine who plays alongside a real nine, the long-range poacher, the threat you don’t see until it’s too late.

And so here he was, a 21-year-old with glory at his feet. Zinchenko chased him down, Ederson charged out to meet him, and yet somehow amid the mayhem Havertz managed to slow the moment to his own pace. He knocked the ball past Ederson and finished into an empty net: his moment, a moment that will forever define him.

Who knows where Havertz goes from here? One thing, perhaps, is certain: from now on, his name will carry a heft and a menace. Defenders will mark him just a little tighter. Opposition teams will build plans to thwart him.

He will be a marked man with Germany this summer. The public glare will burn just a little more strongly, the bad performances will be judged a little more harshly. But right now, you suspect, he couldn’t give a fuck. He’s just won the Champions League.