Kai Havertz is Bayer Leverkusen, Germany's next big thing, but he's destined for much bigger
COLOGNE -- It's winter along the Rhine, nearly the shortest day of the year. Morning light fills the living room of a spacious apartment in the Sudstadt, Cologne's most vibrant neighborhood. With breakfast finished, Kai Havertz pulls out the piano bench. He sits to play.
His repertoire, built over the past two years, includes pop and jazz standards. Today he chooses a classical piece, Yann Tiersen's Comptine d'un Autre ete: L'Apres Midi. He has been learning it the past few weeks. To improve, he must keep practicing.
One of the most coveted footballers in the world, Havertz, 20, is a reported transfer target for Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid and now Liverpool. Thoughtful and reserved, he seldom visits the night clubs and beer halls that line the streets below. Still, he likes to feel a city's thrum and bustle. The liveliness of the Sudstadt attracted him away from the staid suburbanism of Leverkusen, a short drive across the river, where he plays attacking midfielder for Bayer 04. "I'm an adult now," he says. "It's nice. I can grow in this situation."
He lives alone. The piano helps fill the time, and it helps clear his mind. "When you play football," he says, "you always have football in your head. You need something else." For years, his grandmother kept a piano in her home. When he visited, he'd sit at the keyboard and bang out notes. When Julian Brandt, who was his teammate at Bayer for the past three seasons and now plays for Borussia Dortmund, mentioned he was learning the guitar, Havertz decided to take up the piano in earnest.
His schedule is busy. Lessons can be weeks apart. Yet as he begins to play, he strikes the keys with confidence. With his left hand, he creates a pattern known as an "Alberti bass," the notes proceeding low to high and then middle to high. With his right, he plays the melody, which moves higher and higher, creating a sense of foreboding.
One day, perhaps even in the next few days, Havertz will leave his flat in Cologne. Leverkusen pays him €5 million annually, but that will not be enough. The bidding for his services will likely exceed €100m, a barrier that only seven previous transfers in history have crossed. The sum could pay for an entire Leverkusen starting midfield.
The newspapers in Germany speculate about where Havertz might go. Is he ready for one of Europe's biggest clubs? Will he choose Bayern, like so many talented German players before him? Will that happen before the January transfer window ends, or after this season?
By many of those same accounts, Havertz hasn't been the same player he was the past few years. The statistics are indisputable. He scored 17 goals in the Bundesliga in 2018-19, for example, but in the first half of this season, he managed just two. Leverkusen had aspirations to win its first Bundesliga title, but as German teams resumed in mid-January after their winter break, the club sat in sixth place, nine points off the lead. It is a tense time for the club and its supporters.
You wouldn't know it by watching Havertz. "I'm a calm guy," he says. "I'm not nervous. I've never been that. Maybe that helps me on the pitch."
He hesitates before a tricky series of notes. Then he resumes, even stronger than before.
UNTIL NOW, HAVERTZ'S PROGRESSION through football has appeared effortless. He was a standout youth player, then a standout club player. After seven appearances for the national team, he already has been anointed the next German No. 10, relegating the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller to history. "During the whole time, he has kept his exact style of play," says Simon Rolfes, Bayer Leverkusen's sporting director. "The speed of the game is different from youth to the professional team, so normally players need time to adapt.
"For him, it seemed to be quite easy. He kept playing like he played as a youth, but on the highest level."
At age 10, Havertz left a club in his hometown of Aachen, in northwest Germany, for Leverkusen. "The perfect club for me," he says. His mother drove him an hour to practice every day. Then she drove him home. Later, he'd ride in a van with other Bayer players from Aachen and points between, finishing his schoolwork on the ride. At 15, he boarded with a local family. Then he lived with his older brother, who worked at the team shop.
Havertz was 17 in 2016 when Roger Schmidt, then Leverkusen manager, had him train with the first team. He showed up unsure what to expect, less apprehensive than curious. A day before, he'd been another hero-worshiper in the youth program, thrilled by each glimpse of a famous player in the cafeteria. Now he'd be passing the ball to those players, and they'd be passing it to him. Warming up, Havertz noticed Leverkusen attackers such as Kevin Volland, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Hakan Calhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi around him. "All the players you're looking at as a kid," he says.
Schmidt divided the squad into six-man teams for a tournament. As soon as play started, Havertz said he felt comfortable.
"I scored goals," he says. "A lot of goals. And I realized that these players are not that much better than I am. I can play with them. That helped me a lot. It was the first moment that I realized that I could do big things."
On Oct. 15, 2016, Havertz debuted in the Bundesliga as its youngest player: 17 years and 126 days old. Less than a month later, Leverkusen played a Champions League match against Tottenham at London's Wembley Stadium. His teammate, Jonathan Tah, remembers struggling not to feel overwhelmed by the occasion. "The stadium was full," Tah says. "I was 20 years old. I was like, 'Wow, Wembley. This is a big game.'" Then he glanced at Havertz, who was standing nearby. "He's so chill, so calm," Tah remembers. "The way he looked. And after the game started, the way he played. It was all so smooth and easy. He was 17. It was incredible. I thought, 'Is this normal?'"
Havertz shrugs. "I didn't think much about it," he says. "I played football and enjoyed it."
Havertz was the youngest Leverkusen player ever, the youngest in the league to play 50 games, the fastest this, youngest that. Last season, those firsts and youngests turned to bests. After helping lead Leverkusen into the Champions League, he finished second in voting for German Footballer of the Year to Marco Reus. He won the award as the top outfield player in the Bundesliga, beating Reus, Jadon Sancho and Robert Lewandowski.
All summer, reports had him leaving for increasingly large sums, but the season started and Havertz remained. The enticement was a Bundesliga title for a team that had never won one. With Havertz, anything seemed possible.
IF YOU'VE COME ACROSS HAVERTZ ON FIFA OR FOOTBALL MANAGER, or spend any time tracking the Bundesliga's statistical leaders, you'll wonder what the commotion is about. Over the past few seasons, he has ranked near the top in several categories, but no single metric captures his impact.
"You'll find a dribbler who has more skills in one-on-one situations," says Rolfes, the sporting director. "Not many, but you'll find some. You'll find a guy who has more speed, probably. Again, not many, but some. He's also quite strong, so he can drop back and defend if that's needed. So many skills on that level, it's extraordinary. I cannot remember another player like this."
Havertz stands 6-foot-2, as tall as Harry Kane. "And what you don't realize when you see him is how fast he is," says Julian Brandt, the Dortmund midfielder and Havertz's former teammate at Leverkusen. "You wouldn't believe someone that size would be so fast, so quick. But he is. He's good at passing and good at scoring. He has all the tools."
At nearly 22 mph at top speed, Havertz ranks among the league's fastest players. But he's also one of the slowest. He's most effective moving the ball forward deliberately, waiting for an opportunity to take it past a defender or make an unexpected pass. He'll wait, and wait, and wait. Nothing happens. Until it does. "He's never in a rush," Tah says. "He never thinks, 'I'm under pressure right now.' He gives himself time to make the right decision."
Havertz has modeled his approach after Xavi, the former Barcelona midfielder who is known for rarely making a mental error. "Xavi says you play football with your head," Havertz says. "For me, intelligent players are the best players." Like Xavi, he can slow the game to a dead stop. Unlike him, he can take off in a sprint and outrun most any defender. "That you can play the game like Xavi or Iniesta, and you're also one of the fastest players in the Bundesliga," says Julian Nagelsmann, the RB Leipzig manager. He shakes his head. "You don't see that."
After passing the ball, Havertz sprints off with a purpose. Often, it isn't to where you'd expect. If you're watching on television, he'll vanish off the screen. "Sometimes you have the feeling that Kai Havertz isn't on the pitch," Nagelsmann says. "He's clever. He moves to empty spaces, so you cannot mark him one-on-one. He disappears. He's out somewhere in free space. Then he moves very fast and suddenly, he has the ball."
But this season, Havertz has been disappearing all too often. His performance in December's 2-0 loss to Juventus, the game that ended Bayer's Champions League aspirations, seemed typical. Havertz couldn't find space to operate. Defenders converged on him. He was reduced to one timid pass after another, moving the ball sideways or backward. At the end of the first half, he found himself with the ball in the box, eye to eye with keeper Gianluigi Buffon. He made an initial touch with his left foot to set up a shot, but a diving defender slid in and deflected the ball. Last season, the consensus was, he would have found a way to score.
Without Brandt, who contributed 13 assists and seven goals last season, the entire team has struggled offensively. From 69 Bundesliga goals in 2018-19, they're on pace to score under 50. That dip in production has, in turn, forced Havertz into another role. He has dropped deeper into the defensive end, working as more of a box-to-box midfielder than an attacker, often trying to get the ball into a position for an opportunity to be created rather than creating one himself. That work hasn't gone unnoticed in the changing room. "Kai is so important to us, as a person and a player," Tah says. "He makes the rest of us better."
Still, that isn't how he came to be valued at €100m. From September through the end of 2019, Havertz didn't manage a goal in the Bundesliga. It's not how anyone envisioned that this season would unfold.
Then came training camp in Spain at the end of the winter break. Manager Peter Bosz told a club executive that Havertz had returned "fit and confident." During the friendly against F.C. Utrecht that followed, he scored twice. Bosz talked about "the Kai we all know." When the Bundesliga resumed two weekends ago, Havertz contributed a goal to a 4-1 win over Paderborn.
When he scored again on Sunday, a flying header late in the first half that gave Leverkusen a lead over Fortuna Dusseldorf that they never relinquished, he shouted into the night. For the first time all season, he'd scored in consecutive games. The victory pulled Leverkusen within six points of the top of the table.
LAST YEAR'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL was successful for Leverkusen. "Son Heung-Min," Rolfes says, referencing the Tottenham forward who played for Leverkusen from 2013-15. But no final may ever match three years ago. "Three players," Rolfes says, listing Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Juventus, all of whom spent time at BayArena. "It was quite rewarding to see a Champions League final and say, 'He made his first steps here' about three of them."
It's a statement about a club when the best supporters can expect is to see their favorite players on the sport's biggest stage wearing another shirt. "It would be nice to win the Champions League ourselves," Rolfes says. "And sure, in any one year, we can try to do extraordinary things. But to compete year after year at that level, you have to double or even triple your expenses. That is not possible for us."
The pitch Rolfes gives to young recruits is that Bayer will serve as a football finishing school. It will take their raw talent, polish it in the Bundesliga and then send them out into the world. The process funds Bayer's search for the next Michael Ballack or Dimitar Berbatov, both of whom played at Leverkusen. Or the next Son, Brandt or Havertz. "That's our club DNA," Rolfes says. "That's who we are."
Havertz is different, but not different enough. "He grew up here," Rolfes says. "He has a strong identity with the club. I think he loves to play here. We're very proud that we developed him. Now, how long we can keep him, we will have to see," Rolfes says. "There will be a time when we sell him."
German talent tends to stay in Germany. "We are not typically a country that exports a lot," says Lutz Pfannenstiel, sporting director at Fortuna Dusseldorf. Pfannenstiel is confident that Havertz will move to Bayern Munich this summer. "I am 99 percent convinced," he says. "And if not, it will be Dortmund." Havertz isn't so sure.
"They don't know me, exactly," he says.
Aachen, where Havertz grew up, sits at the apex of an international triangle. Drive 10 minutes west and you're in Belgium; 15 minutes southwest and you're in the Netherlands. His family could jump in the car and shop in Maastricht, then stop for moules et frites on the drive home. "Bayern Munich is a great club, but I can't say I only want to stay in Germany," Havertz says. "Some people want to spend their whole lives here. I'm not that guy. I'm open to anything."
He believes he has the talent to play anywhere. "I think I played the last three years very well, in my opinion," he says. "So my ambitions are very high. I want to play for the biggest clubs in the world. Maybe now, maybe someday."
He approaches the process the way he approaches everything else, with that preternatural calm. When he talks about his football future, he could be planning a Sunday dinner. "In all the decisions I will make, my family and friends will take part," he says. "We'll see what happens. Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. I'll find a solution. At my age, what I know most is that I want to play."
And for the moment, he continues to play, Comptine d'un Autre ete: L'Apres Midi. The melody segues into three-note arpeggios and Havertz completes two of them in quick succession. Then he stops. He has mastered the piece only to that point. He doesn't want to go further until he can play it flawlessly. For that, he knows, he needs time.