From ‘bargain of the century’ to Fulham: Lewis Holtby’s year at Spurs
12:01 06 February 2014
PA Wire/Press Association Images
Spurs correspondent Ben Pearce looks back at Lewis Holtby’s year at Tottenham following his loan move to Fulham on deadline day.
When Lewis Holtby arrived at Tottenham for £1.5million last January, it was hailed as a major coup.
At the time, Andre Villas-Boas was asked whether the Germany Under-21 captain might be “the bargain of the century” and the Portuguese replied: “Yes I think so”, before comparing his creative talents to Rafael van der Vaart.
“He’s recognised as an exceptional young talent and we have high expectations of the player,” added Villas-Boas. “He will fill the No10 position, although he can play on the right or the left and he has also played in a holding role.”
Holtby ended up playing in all of those positions during his year at White Hart Lane, but he never really found a home in the Spurs side – and just one year after his arrival, he has departed on loan to Fulham.
Holtby was certainly unfortunate that, having been told he would “fill the No10 position”, his arrival coincided with Gareth Bale’s switch from the left flank into the centre - no-one needs reminding of how successful that was.
Spurs’ new signing therefore found himself operating in wide positions instead, and he played in 17 of Spurs’ last 21 games of the season – but he ended the campaign with no goals and just two assists.
The general feeling was that Spurs fans would see the best of Holtby the following season – this season – and he seemed to feel the same way.
Speaking in July, he said: “I moved to a different league with no pre-season, and after two days I was playing my first game. It was very quick and that half-season went very quickly – it was Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday.
“With the pre-season now, it’s a brilliant opportunity for me, and especially for the coach to get me where I can play best.”
That suggested that Holtby was still unsure where he would fit into Villas-Boas’ side, and he went on: “With my running ability I think I can play as an attacking No6 or as a defensive No6 - I can always come back to my position. I love having the game in front of me and getting on the ball a lot, and I think this position suits me.
“As you have seen probably so far, I’ve played every position here – on the left wing, right wing, No10, No6, No8, No9 and a half - name every number. But I think that’s a good thing to have, if you can play more than one position.”
Tottenham’s hierarchy clearly agreed because they flooded the squad with similarly versatile players, adding Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen to the likes of Holtby, Andros Townsend and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The young German now had a real fight on his hands, and he was hampered by an injury – sustained at the European Under-21 Championships – which ruled him out of Spurs’ pre-season friendlies and sidelined him for the start of the season.
He eventually returned in the home leg of the Europa League play-off against Georgian minnows Dinamo Tbilisi, and got his first Spurs goal in a 3-0 home win.
Jermain Defoe also struck twice that night and, with Holtby now getting his chance to play as a No10 behind the English striker, the pair built a strong relationship.
Holtby went on to play the penultimate or final pass in six of Spurs’ eight goals against Tromso (3-0), Cardiff (1-0) and Aston Villa (4-0 in the Capital One Cup) in the space of six days – with Defoe scoring four of them.
The policy of pairing Eriksen-Soldado in the league and Holtby-Defoe in the cups appeared to be paying dividends - Eriksen and Soldado combined nicely to set up Sigurdsson’s opener against Chelsea in the following game.
However, Villas-Boas opted to change things up – possibly to reward Holtby, who got his first Premier League start of the season behind Soldado away at Villa and played the penultimate pass in the Spaniard’s goal (which remains his last strike in open play).
Holtby was now showing what he could do as a No10, and his passion, work-rate and eternally sunny disposition made him a firm favourite with the fans - and the media.
He kept his place for the top-flight fixtures against Hull and Everton – but Tottenham mustered just one goal in those games, and Holtby was partly at fault.
With frustratingly little space to operate in against Hull’s five-man defence, it was noticeable that the No10 was dropping deep to get on the ball, taking it off the centre-backs and then bemoaning the lack of options in front of him – precisely the job he should have been doing as the link-man.
It was telling to note Holtby’s words a few months earlier: “I love having the game in front of me and getting on the ball a lot.” Unfortunately, he was being asked to perform a very different task.
Villas-Boas reinstated Eriksen for the home game against Newcastle (a 1-0 defeat), underlining the head coach’s difficulty in selecting his best team, but the Dane was then injured on international duty.
Holtby consequently started away at Manchester City but he was substituted at half-time in the 6-0 defeat and was benched for the following three games, with Villas-Boas now preferring to play Paulinho off Soldado.
The new tactic didn’t work away at Fulham, and Holtby was introduced at the interval, initially operating as a No10 before dropping into a deeper-lying role – and it was he who struck the winner from 20 yards.
Having previously played wide and in a central position at Spurs, he now had a new place in the side and, two games later, he was on target again in the 4-1 home win over Anzhi.
Holtby reflected: “Against Fulham I got my goal when I played in that No6 role, so I think when I come from that deeper position on the ball I can have a crack on the goal.
“If I play as No10, then their No6 takes me on, but at No6 no-one really follows you so I have so much space.”
It seemed that Holtby was offering a new dimension to a Spurs team who had previously been struggling for goals – but five days later Villas-Boas was gone, following the 5-0 home defeat against Liverpool.
Suddenly there was a new manager and a new 4-4-2 formation, and it quickly became apparent that there was no room for Holtby, who made just one start under Sherwood and found the little-known 19-year-old Nabil Bentaleb ahead of him in the pecking order.
By now he cut a frustrated figure - especially after the 2-0 home win over Palace. Leaving the ground after being an unused substitute, the German was unfortunately mistaken for the man of the moment as a journalist, who wanted an interview, shouted “Eriksen!” at him.
It was no surprise to see Holtby departing in search of first-team action last week, and his agent Marcus Noack said: “The system and philosophy how Fulham plays fits well with Lewis.
“He will have match practice in the second half of the season in his favourite position, and then we’ll see how things are going by summer.”
It seemed that Holtby was something of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ at Tottenham – he could play a number of positions but was rarely the first choice in any of them.
He struggled to get goals and assists out wide last season and, although he had a purple spell at No10 in the cup competitions, he was unable to maintain that form when he got his chance in the Premier League.
Then, when it seemed that the German might get a run of games in a deeper-lying role, Villas-Boas was sacked – and Sherwood clearly prefers his rivals in his four-man midfield.
The chance to play regularly as a key player at Fulham will be a relief for Holtby – and it is win-win situation for Tottenham, who cannot really lose in the long-term after paying a paltry £1.5m for his services.
Either Holtby will benefit from a run of Premier League games and force his way back into the picture at Spurs – as Townsend did after impressing with QPR last year - or he will put himself in the shop window and make a healthy profit in the summer.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs