As chronicled by German journalist Raphael Honigstein's excellent book Das Reboot, the German football federation (DFB) instituted an overhaul of their youth development system more than a decade ago, and the changes led to the production of talents like Mesut Özil, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller, to name but a few who drove the Mannschaft to World Cup glory in 2014.
They may have been relatively short on top-class strikers and truly outstanding defensive players in this period – aside from a few obvious exceptions such as Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng – but churning out high-quality creative midfielders has been no issue.
Bayer Leverkusen‘s outstanding 18-year-old playmaker Kai Havertz is the latest young star to roll off the German production line, and he has the potential to reach the heights of the generation of world champions that preceded him.
A reported target for Liverpool, the teenage creator is both Leverkusen's youngest ever player and scorer, and has quickly established himself as one of Europe's brightest talents since making his Bundesliga debut as a 17-year-old in October 2016, coming off the bench to replace Charles Aránguiz in a 2-1 defeat to Werder Bremen.
Havertz became a semi-regular feature of the Leverkusen line-up towards the back end of last season, benefitting greatly from Hakan Çalhanoğlu's four-month suspension. He finished the campaign with four goals from 28 total all-competitions appearances, all coming after April, but it is his creative instincts that set him apart from the Bundesliga's best up-and-comers.
With five assists to him name last term and three in just 501 Bundesliga minutes so far in 2017/18, Havertz is giving credence to the comparisons being drawn between himself and Arsenal‘s Özil.
The “New Özil” label also stems from the fact that, like the former Real Madrid playmaker, Havertz is left footed and does his best work either as a No.10 or cutting inside from the right flank.
Marked out as a special prospect from an early age, Havertz has been with Leverkusen since he was 11, and has received international recognition at under-16, -18 and -19 level. Upon the young prodigy penning his first professional terms with Bayer in August 2016, legendary Germany striker and current director of football at the BayArena Rudi Völler spoke glowingly about the then-17-year-old.
“We are happy that Kai Havertz is the next home-grown player to make a long-term commitment to the club,” Völler said. “It underlines our ambition to bring more and more talented youngsters through to the first team. If his development continues at this pace then he will a brilliant addition to our squad.”
So confident in the ability and temperament of Havertz are Leverkusen that they elected not to sign a direct replacement for Çalhanoğlu, who was sold to big-spending AC Milan in the summer, trusting the teenager – who had to miss the second leg of Bayer's Champions League tie against Atlético Madrid last season in order to sit school exams – to carry the creative mantle.
“He's a proper player for us, despite being only 17,” Since-dismissed manager Roger Schmidt said last season. “We gave him some playing time to see what effect this had on him.
“It quickly became evident that playing in front of a full stadium doesn't faze him. He's an excellent footballer with good technique, speed, strength in one-on-one situations and even a decent aerial game. Those kind of players are a huge joy to me.”
Back in October, the Liverpool Echo reported that scouts from Liverpool were in attendance to run the rule over Havertz during a Germany Under-19 fixture against Belarus. And the Merseysiders will surely have been impressed with what they saw, as the youngster scored four goals and registered an assist in a 5-1 win.
Already standing at 6ft 1in and still growing Havertz has all the physical tools to succeed at the highest leveldespite his tender years, and is very much in the mould of the kind of tall, athletic modern German attacking midfielders such as Julian Draxler and Bayern Munich transfer target Leon Goretzka.
Stylistically, he is comfortable drifting between attacking zones, looking to get on the ball and link with colleagues. A fine dribbler with tremendous balance, it is Havterz's vision and technique that stands out most when observing him at work.
Although the likes of Julian Brandt and Jonathan Tah are further along in their development and thus perhaps seen as more viable candidates for a big-money move away from Leverkusen at this stage, Havertz's potential is sky high, and any suitor will have to stump up a significant sum to prise him away any time soon.