When it was confirmed that the German international midfielder Lewis Holtby would be joining up with Tottenham early, after he was signed on a pre-contract agreement earlier in the month from Schalke, an air of optimism surrounded White Hart Lane. Many were confident that Lewis could become the ideal van der Vaart-esque ‘number ten’ that Spurs had been missing since the iconic Dutchman’s departure in the summer, and that Levy had finally found and signed the link that we were missing to get Adebayor firing again, in the same way van der Vaart had managed to do so brilliantly. Holtby’s debut did little to dispel this optimism. In a short cameo against Norwich, he showed great promise, and played some very intelligent through balls and passes, putting in an all-round brilliant performance which managed to make all Tottenham fans extremely excited for what he may become. Was Holtby the new van der Vaart? Was he going to be the last German to rock White Hart Lane since one Jurgen Klinsmann? Sadly, despite early signs, Lewis hasn’t lived up to this billing, and has largely flattered to deceive in a Spurs shirt.
Holtby’s messiah-like status has diminished somewhat from when he first signed at the end of January, and he sadly showed in his performances a great deal more ‘German Efficiency’ than ‘Brazilian Flair’ since his switch from German football, to the disappointment of many. In truth, whilst his performances haven’t been bad, they have lacked any real quality, and this was recognised by Andre Villas-Boas, as Holtby was taken out of the starting team towards the end of the season. Holtby scored 4 goals for Schalke in the first half of the season, and will be disappointed that he couldn’t add to this total for Tottenham. A number of silly cautions have also frustrated many, as Lewis found himself sitting on the bench more often than not since his arrival.
The shift of Gareth Bale, to playing in what many thought was Holtby’s strongest position, behind a central striker, just as the German arrived was an early blow to Holtby’s chances of starting in the team regularly. It is worth noting that the inconsistency of Lewis’ role in games can’t have helped his adaptation to English football whatsoever. Andre Villas-Boas has selected Holtby in an astonishing 5 different positions since his arrival, as he has found himself playing across the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation, as well as centrally in a 4-3-3. It has become clear quickly where Holtby plays his best football, and has been unlucky to have been repeatedly asked to fill in for injured players in positions where hasn’t felt as comftable.
Holtby’s performances out wide have been particularly poor thus far, and I can safely say we haven’t signed the next Aaron Lennon or Cliff Jones. Even in his favoured ‘number ten’ position, Lewis’ performances have been below par so far. During the few occasions Holtby has been asked play in the more advanced ‘van der Vaart role’ in Bale’s absence, he has looked lost, unable to get on the ball and out of his depth in a position that many expected him to excel in.
Despite some early weak performances, it hasn’t been all bad for the German, and many positives can be drawn from his early showings. We have seen Lewis’ most encouraging performances in a holding midfield role, sitting behind players like Bale, Sigurdsson, Lennon or Dempsey where he can pick up the ball and feed more advanced team mates more easily. One of Holtby’s few outstanding games in a Spurs shirt came against Manchester City in this deeper midfield role. He entered the game when Tottenham were 0-1 down, and with the help of Tom Huddlestone, totally changed the course of the game. His tenacity and work rate pumped up the home crowd, his passing was positive and creative and he controlled proceedings extraordinarily well. He ended up with an assist to his name to show, feeding Jermain Defoe with a perfectly weighted through ball, who finished , and put Spurs 2-1 up.
This deeper role could well be where we see Holtby feature for Spurs in the longer-term. In late March, Lewis told The Daily Mail of his desire to play in a ‘number six role’.
“In my opinion my best position is as one of the holding midfielders,” said the German, “or maybe in a 4-3-3 formation as one of the central midfielders. This is where I feel most comftable and where I can put my best effort in.”
Many expected Andre Villas-Boas to have employed his favoured 4-3-3 formation already for Spurs, and it remains to be seen whether it will be used next season. But whether it is favoured next season or not, the possible departures of Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker, and Villas-Boas’ failed attempt to secure long term target Joao Moutinho suggests Lewis has a chance to put his stamp onto central midfield, and really become the all-action central midfield player Tottenham need, to support and challenge Sandro and Mousa Dembele. Both of these players have suffered long-term injuries in recent months, and players like Parker, Huddlestone and Livermore simply haven’t been good enough in their absence. If Lewis can become the player we all know he has the potential to become, this could be a major boost to Spurs’ midfield and help us push up the table. He has all the attributes to succeed in this role, and all hope that next season his performances from midfield do improve.
Another massive positive we can take from Holtby’s early performances is his attitude. Despite some performances that have underwhelmed and frustrated many since his arrival, during his brief time at The Lane, Holtby has shown an attitude and displayed a work-rate comparable to players like Michael Dawson or Scott Parker. Every time I have seen Lewis appear for us, he has put admirable effort into games, closing the ball down superbly, tackling very strongly, and putting in the effort that we all wish modern footballers would do more often. Although this kind of enthusiasm isn’t uncommon from new signings, Holtby’s exceptional ability to maintain this level of intensity for 90 minutes, and the way he has displayed it from his first touch of the season until his very last, suggests he is a young-player with a burning desire to succeed in English football, and one who is willing to work hard enough to get there. He has shown no sign of frustration when asked to play out of position, and has shown the same raw, determined attitude in whatever position he has played in.
Holtby’s desire to perform on the pitch is matched by his desire to become a fan favourite and settle in at Spurs. The impression I have got from Holtby’s Facebook account, is that the player has settled in extremely well in the dressing room. He often uploads joyous photos of himself with his arm around a usually awkwardly smiling fellow Spurs player after victories. Not only does this suggest that Lewis is already building great bonds with his team mates, his love for social networking shows a real desire to reach out to his new fans and connect with them in a way we really have never seen before from a Spurs player. When Lewis realises that Twitter is a much more widely used resource than Facebook by football fans, which I am sure he will, I believe we will see some more frequent updates from his largely ignored to date Twitter account.
Never have I seen a player combine such a hungry and determined attitude both on and off the pitch like I have seen from Lewis Holtby. He is absolutely determined to be a success at Spurs, and once he finds a position, sticks with it and grows as a player over the coming seasons, we could well be looking back at Holtby’s £2m price-tag and hailing it as yet another Daniel Levy master stroke. Despite some early under-whelming displays from the German, Holtby still has the potential to become an extremely important figure in our club’s midfield for years to come, and with the attitude he has shown so far, it seems as if Lewis is giving himself no other option to become one.
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