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Lewis Holtby playing his way in to contention?

The performances of Lewis Holtby have been one of the highlights of our preseason. Could he be playing his way in to a regular spot in the starting XI?

Arriving from Schalke in January 2013, Lewis Holtby was signed to be our number ten. Andre Villas-Boas was struggling with a disconnect between his midfield and strikers and the German was bought in to be the answer.

Coming in midway through the season, Holtby found it difficult to settle. He became a bit-part player, renowned for his energy and enthusiasm, but failing to provide the creativity and killer balls we needed.

Regularly becoming a substitute, it was a game against Basel in April 2013 that prompted me to write “Could a deeper Lewis Holtby open up our midfield?’ It firmly looks like this season that could well be the place that he is playing in to contention for.

Pochettino’s box-to-box player

Mauricio Pochettino combines two players at the base of his midfield, a holder and a box-to-box player.

This latter man is required to help out in the defensive phase, screening his back four and dropping in for the left back if he is caught forward. Once on the attack, he is required to move the ball vertically to the advanced midfielders and striker, whilst also arriving late in the box unmarked.

Those who have read my series on ‘How Mauricio Pochettino will change our midfield’ have seen how our new coach used Morgan Schneiderlin to do this. With his performances in pre-season, Lewis Holtby is playing his way in to contention for the role at Spurs.

Lewis Holtby defensive phase

Along with the full backs, the box-to-box midfielder at the base of Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 is required to be the most athletic player on the park. He has a lot of ground to cover and this seems to suit Holtby’s boundless energy perfectly.

In the defensive phase, he is required to squeeze up and press behind the front four attackers. Here we can see how he wins the ball back off the Schalke defensive midfielder, as he rushes in behind our advanced midfielders and striker to compress the playing area.

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Lewis Holtby presses in-behind our front four.

In our pre-season match with Chicago, he created the first goal for Harry Kane by doing this, as he quickly closes and robs the defender on the edge of the box. A neat and well aware pass to Kane then created an easy tap-in to open the scoring.

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Lewis Holtby closes quickly to steal the ball.

Whilst this is the aggressive side of his defensive game, he cannot be up the field the whole time. Pressing is not always successful every possession when the opposition have the ball. Whilst after a certain amount of time, it has to be dropped off due to the energy expended over 90 minutes.

In these situations, the box-to-box player has to drop in and screen his back four. Here we can see with 63 minutes on the clock how much deeper we are as Schalke navigate our initial wave of pressure. Lewis Holtby spots the pass and comes off his man on the halfway line to intercept the ball.

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Lewis Holtby jumps the passing lane to intercept.

But his defensive duties don’t just stop there. When the left back goes forward on the attack, he has to drop in and cover for him if possession is turned over.

Here we can see how Lewis Holtby has dropped in to help Danny Rose who is up-field.

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Lewis Holtby fills in for Danny Rose.

Here he doubles up with Aaron Lennon against two Schalke players as Rose recovers his position.

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Lennon and Holtby make it 2v2 as Rose recovers.

There is a tremendous amount of work for the box-to-box player to get through without the ball and this can see him rack up the fouls.

Morgan Schneiderlin committed the most fouls, as well as having the most interceptions and tackles, in Pochettino’s system at Southampton. Lewis Holtby has had trouble with fouling opponents at both Spurs and during his time in the Bundesliga. This is something he will need to get a handle on if he is to make the position his own and wants to make the German national team, who online betting site MyTopSportsbooks.com have as 9/2 favourites in their Russia 2018 World Cup predictions.

Lewis Holtby attacking phase

Whilst working to regain the ball is one part of the box-to-box player’s job, he is also required to support and join the attack.

It starts with helping move the ball out from the back. Whilst the holding midfielder is usually required to drop between the wide-splitting centre backs, the box-to-box midfielder can also find himself doing this job.

Against Schalke, Nabil Bentaleb was the holding midfielder and was supposed to be covered by the Schalke forward. As he is marked, Bentaleb moves up and Lewis Holtby drops between the centre backs. The Schalke forward then gets drawn towards Holtby as the deepest lying midfielder. Now Bentaleb is free to take the pass, leaving the Schalke player in no man’s land and expending energy closing down.

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Lewis Holtby drops in to move the ball out.

Once play is moved further up the field, the box-to-box player then has the role of moving the ball vertically forward to the advanced midfielders and striker.

Whilst he is not an overly creative passer, Lewis Holtby does move the ball vertically very well. Something regular readers of this blog will know from previous posts highlighting Lewis Holtby’s vertical passing game and a topic we revisited when he was on loan at Fulham. This pass to Steve Sidwell was a particularly good illustration.

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Lewis Holtby lofts the ball vertically for Sidwell to score.

This one to Jermain Defoe in the Capital One Cup against Aston Villa was my favourite pass of last season.

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Lewis Holtby lofts the ball vertically over the defence to Jermain Defoe

He also replicated a similar one at the weekend to set Andros Townsend on his way against Schalke. Townsend pulled the ball back for Soldado to blaze a shot over, but the highlight of the move was Holtby’s perfectly weighted vertical pass.

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Lewis Holtby goes vertical to release Townsend.

Being able to shift the ball vertically moves the play quicker, but the box-to-box player can’t sit and admire his work. He then has to arrive late in the penalty area to join the attack, and if timed well enough, often he will be unmarked.

At the weekend Lewis Holtby popped up in acres of space in the box, but saw his shot smothered when he should have scored.

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Holtby wide open in the area.

He was also running forward from behind the play when setting up Emmanuel Adebayor for the opening goal.

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Lewis Holtby sets up Emmanuel Adebayor.

This was a similar run to where he started when teeing up Roberto Soldado against Celtic. Here, he also bursts forward from deep to take the ball from Harry Kane at the edge of the penalty area, before squaring it for the Spaniard to score.

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Lewis Holtby runs from deep.

Lewis Holtby has also weighed in with two goals. His burst forward from deep and deft header against Seattle was a particular highlight of the kind of runs Mauricio Pochettino wants from his box-to-box midfielder.

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Harry Kane plays a vertical pass to Lewis Holtby.

Lewis Holtby playing his way in to contention?

After an unsettled season and a half that has included time on loan at Fulham away from Tottenham, Lewis Holtby is finally starting to look like he has found a home.

His performances in pre-season have been one of the highlights and he is really staking a claim for a regular first team spot. He has the skill set for what Mauricio Pochettino requires from his box-to-box midfielder and it puts his boundless energy to good use.

In a very congested midfield, there will be competition for places, especially with our World Cup players returning. With a head start on the new coach’s system, Lewis Holtby is really playing his way in to contention for starting spot.

**As we build up to the new season, be sure to check back for the West Ham tactical preview or look for the new article links on Facebook and Twitter.



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38 Responses to Lewis Holtby playing his way in to contention?

  1. Zack 12th August 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    Thanks for another great article Mark, always a pleasure reading your work. Holtby’s been looking very good and considering that he’s been trained as an attacking mid it’s very impressive to see him adapting to a box to box role. Hopefully he can improve his tackling and defensive instincts to more completely adapt to this role.

    On another note I’ve always been a big fan of Paulinho and hope that he’ll be able to really come into his own this year as a result of Poch’s guidance. Do you think he has the work rate and the general ability to adapt to our pressing game and claim a stake for the box to box role? He seems to me to be the player best suited for that role given his background as a hard working CM.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th August 2014 at 6:27 pm #

      Good question Zack. Mauricio Pochettino really looks to have at least two options at each position and Holtby and Paulinho will be the choices here, along with Dembele.

      I’m still undecided about Paulinho. He does get through a lot of work and at times looked like he had great potential for AVB. Under Sherwood, he often didn’t look that interested or motivated. He also looked tired from playing continuously for us and Brazil. I still think he can be a big player for us as he has qualities in both attack and defence. He will score more goals than Holtby in this position, but Holtby is a better passer of the ball. He definitely gives us options depending on the opposition.

      • Chris 12th August 2014 at 9:32 pm #

        Another great article – I do hope Holtby comes good for us, I like his playing style (apart from the silly fouling) and feel he was hard done by coming to us mid-season. He needs to be careful that he doesn’t turn into a VDV-light – run around a lot, knackered by 60 minutes, often caught out of position, etc. MInd you, if he scores goals like VDV did, perhaps he’d be forgiven.

        Paulinho has a certain something, but I’m continually shocked at how bad his first touch is. And the less said about his long range shooting, the better. But… but… if he does get a chance and becomes that ‘arrive late in the box’ goal scorer that he looks like he’s on the verge of being … he’ll be a damn valuable player.

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:09 am #

          Thanks for reading Chris. Paulinho looked tired last season, maybe this is from continually playing club and international football. He arrived after a full season in Brazil and then played Confederations Cup. Then he had a season with us and then the World Cup. The man just looked gassed at times and i’d have liked it if someone at the club had just given him a month off after the World Cup and said we’ll work you back in on your return.

      • Mark 12th August 2014 at 9:52 pm #

        Mark, great article, and I want to preface my question, with the understanding that I’ve only been watching the Spurs now for a little over season and half, so my knowledge of the players and even the game itself is pretty small.

        Anyway, why do you think Paulinho would score more goals than Holtby in the Box-to-Box role? From what I saw last year Paulinho really struggled with his striking. I lost count how many times he sailed balls over the crossbar. I know you mentioned fatigue possibly being an issue, but do you really think that’s all it was?

        Don’t get me wrong, a lot the Spurs players struggled with finishing last season, so I’m not trying to single him out, but since the article is talking about his main competition for the spot, I’d really like to get your full take on Paulinho’s strengths/weaknesses.

        Other than that, I really hope Dembele can adapt to Pochettino’s system, as I really like him on both sides of the ball. Do you think it would be asking too much to have both him and Holtby at the midfield spots?

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:43 am #

          Hi Mark, apologies for your comment not appearing, it went in to Spam for some reason. I’m checking out to see why.

          Paulinho gets in the box more than Holtby and is also a threat from set pieces. He struggled last year, but i do put that down to fatigue, but also coming to a new League and the changing manager situation. He had some troubles with Sherwood and i think this affected him also. I do worry he’ll still be tired after the World Cup also.

          I will probably have to do a post on his strengths and weaknesses, as you can see with this one i like to go in-depth ;)

          Dembele and Holtby can play in the same midfield, but as said in another comment, i think they will get overrun against more technical midfields that load this area eg Liverpool and Arsenal. Against teams that we’d expect to dominate, then i see it as being a viable and aggressive option.

  2. Tony 12th August 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    great article. I am fairly new to your blog and have to say i thoroughly enjoy your analysis. Makes a welcome change from the usual drivel on newsnow that i force feed myself!

    I’ve never thought Holtby has the composure to play #10 and after reading this i agree that a box-box role could suit him better and, as you put it, make much better use of his bound up energy.

    With him and capoue holding, and possibly bentaleb and paulinho as back ups, i dont see much room for Sandro and Dembele in the squad.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th August 2014 at 6:31 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words Tony and welcome to Spurs Fanatic.

      I’m curious to see how Dembele fits in to what Mauricio Pochettino wants. He is difficult to dispossess, but he is a ball carrier rather than a passer and i’m not sure how that will work in Pochettino’s midfield. Sandro will be in competition with Capoue for the holding role, but Etienne’s range of passing and distribution to quickly alter the angle and position of attack is something Sandro doesn’t have.

      Although both players may not be in the starting eleven, this is a squad game and so having options at each position is what Pochettino wants with so many fronts to compete on and games to play.

      • John Williams 12th August 2014 at 7:44 pm #

        When Holtby first arrived my sense was that the speed with which he moved the ball on was too quick for the other players or the system AVB had. He was always looking for give and gos but failed to entice the others to participate. I would love to see him in over Paulhinno who doesn’t appear able to tackle effectively or shoot worth a darn. Sure, he gets about the pitch but creates and finishes very little percentage wise. To my mind Holtby would surely outscore and assist him if given the games. And Holtby HATES losing.

        Then I’d prefer to see Dembele as DM. He has a better engine than Capoue or Sandro, tackles extremely strongly and is rarely dispossessed if required to bring the ball out. He can make routine passes vertically or horizontally as well as anyone. He just doesn’t seem to have what it takes to make ‘killer’ passes. Maybe it’s because he lacks the vision. It seemed last year he was trying to be the saviour, doing a Bale with his dribbling but had no real end product a lot of the time because he missed the opportunity to shoot or pass at the right juncture. My sense is that Pochettino could easily fix Demebele’s shortcomings by better defining his role.

        So, my team would comprise of Lloris, Walker, Dier, Vert, Davies, Dembele (DM), Holtby, Eriksen, Lamela, and three out of Townsend, Lennon, Ade, Soldado. I say Dier rather than any of the others because we need to create a defensive partnership. Kaboul is good but rarely fit, Dawson is Dawson and Chiriches is a bit of a David Luiz. I saw the young guy Milos V against Toronto alongside Kaboul and was impressed

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 9:58 am #

          Great post John. Holtby will probably start as Paulinho has only just returned to training after the World Cup. I’d like to see how Paulinho reacts to Pochettino’s system first as i haven’t seen him try to play in it. However, i think he may be of use in here against bigger more physical midfields where Holtby may just get muscled out.

          I also would like to see how Dembele copes, as he is more of a ball carrier than an adept passer. He too has a big physical frame and is difficult to get the ball off. Last season his role was to get the ball out to the wide players, which meant a lot of sideways passing, whereas for Pochettino he will need to pass it more vertically.

          I too like Milos Veljkovic. Its probably too soon to see him in the first team this season and a loan for regular playing time would do him good. Pochettino has a reputation for developing young players and Milos would be one i see him bringing through.

          • John Williams 13th August 2014 at 1:17 pm #

            Agreed for the most part, however, having watched Paulinho at the WC it would seem that he played just the same – inept tackles. sideways passing and generally getting in the way as opposed to adding anything. For the more physical encounters I would tend to favour adding Capoue and/or Sandro into the mix and releasing Dembele to fulfill the box to box role.

            Nevertheless, if Paulinho can recapture the form he had in the Confed Cup back when no one would be more pleased than I. At the moment though last year’s performances make me think that his previous form was the aberration rather than the norm.

  3. White Hot Lane 12th August 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    I think Holtby can be an important factor this season, maybe in the PL but def in the EL and cups. He needs to hold onto his amazing energy and drive but at the same time maybe just calm down a bit. I think the latter will come with experience because at the moment he has great touches and creates chances for others and himself interspersed with flashes of running around all over the place like a headless chicken!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 9:47 am #

      Agree that he needs to calm down White Hot Lane, but that seems to go with his high energy game. He can foul opponents, but i’m putting the rash two-footed lunge down to the fact he was playing his former team and was getting some stick from their fans. Maybe he needs to learn to play the game rather than the occasion though.

      • White Hot Lane 13th August 2014 at 12:17 pm #

        Yes I think that the occasion got to him maybe, but aside from that kamikaze challenge that would have seen him sent off in the PL, I think he was pure genius and a real thorn ion Schalke’s side throughout. If he can maintain his pre-season form I reckon Poch will utilise him a lot this season. Don’t really understand why TS loaned him out to Fulham to be honest, but then the owl did a lot of strange things.

  4. Chris 12th August 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    Thanks for yet another considered, balanced and intelligent article Mark.

    Like Tony (and many others I’m sure) I too force feed myself the drivel spewed by idiots that populates Newsnow like zombie infestation. Your posts are an order of magnitude more nourishing for those of us hungry for intelligent and meaningful analysis of our beloved spurs.

    For the love of god man, keep writing!

    I completely agree about Holtby and see him competing/rotating with Paulinho for the box-to-box role.

    I actually think Sandro is the odd one out of our returning World Cup players, as Dembele is very capable defensively and much better on the ball than Sandro. If Pochettino instructs him to release the ball forward quickly like Capoue, I think he could continue his re-invention that he started in 2012/13 when he was widely recognised as one of the best players in the two man pivot position in the premiership.

    We will see.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 9:50 am #

      Thanks for reading Chris, glad you enjoy my work. Enjoy the banter in the comments also.

      I’m concerned that Sandro may not have the passing range to play as the DM in Pochettino’s system. His defensive abilities have never been in doubt and he will excel here, but distributing the ball, especially over distance, has never been his strong point.

  5. Steve Parry 12th August 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    Thoughtful, sensible article – congratulations. I agree with almost everything in it, but the downside is of course that Germany will have another young world class player coming through to replace Ozil who I think is now going backwards. Every silver lining huh? If Schneiderlin does finish up at Spurs, do you think he and Holby could form the two at the base of midfield?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:02 am #

      Interesting question Steve. I could see them playing together against weaker teams where we would dominate possession. I’m not sure how they’d cope against teams that overrun and have very good technical players in the midfield eg Liverpool and Arsenal, as they are both box-to-box midfielders and neither is naturally a holding player. We have so many midfielders at the minute, that i think the selection of the three players in the centre of it really depends on how to match up best against the opposition.

  6. Lewis Holtby 12th August 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    Great post. If it’s not too much, can you post gifs instead of still images in the future? It helps the readers understand the play style visually better.

    Thanks, and good read.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:03 am #

      Surely you must have access to these videos at Hotspur Way Lewis? ;)

  7. Colin 12th August 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Fully agree with your article. Well done.
    Holtby will always give you 120% effort and fully deserves to be first pick in the starting eleven. He has vision and so much energy and should be considered before Paulinho, Bentaleb and Dembele. I feel Holtby is the complete package,as he can pass,tackle,read the game, and also weigh in with the odd goal or two.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:05 am #

      He has two goals and four assists in pre-season so far, not bad!

  8. Paulo 12th August 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    @John Williams, i reckon your team would stand a chance of CL qualification……. Not least because it’s got 12 players…!!

    • John Williams 13th August 2014 at 4:00 am #

      Hey thanks Paolo – I meant two more out of Ade, Soldado, Lennon and Townsend

  9. Paulo 12th August 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    Great article! If playing alongside a defensive midfielder I wonder if there’s enough end product coming from the pair if Holtby is the box-to-box player… Only 5 assists and 2 goals in one and a half seasons in the premier league isn’t great but then again I recall he got the most assists out of any player in his last season in the Bundesliga….

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:11 am #

      Thanks Paulo. Holtby is not a natural goalscorer, but 2 goals and 4 assists in pre-season is not a bad audition for the role.

  10. Frank 12th August 2014 at 10:46 pm #

    Just read much of your archive – this just became my new favourite spurs site!

    Mark, based on what you have seen, who you you think are the candidates for the exit door?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:24 am #

      Thank you for reading Frank, glad you are enjoying the site.

      I don’t get to see the players in training, only in games and i haven’t yet seen how the World Cup players will respond to Pochettino’s system. Eg Holtby has responded better than i thought and someone like Chadli who looked lost last year may do the same, but he could also falter again and not fit in.

      So far, from watching those who have actually played in the pre-season games, for me, Dawson, Naughton and Lennon are three candidates that don’t look to fit. Others to follow.

      • Frank 14th August 2014 at 10:00 am #

        Based on this article I now have Holtby in my dream team, £5m – bargain if he plays as I think he has assists and the occasional goal in him.

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 14th August 2014 at 11:09 am #

          Shrewd move in the early weeks of the season.

  11. Bretto 13th August 2014 at 12:12 am #

    I must admit that I’m a big fan of Holtby. He is an infectious, positive team member who has not been used particularly well. I think he is quite well suited to the Schneiderlin role. He has a good engine, reads the game well and is quite astute tactically. If you explain in your football philosophy he will adapt that to unusual situations. If my memory serves me correct he played his best football for Schalke and Mainz when he was playing the deep lying playmaker. I think the number 10 role is not suited to him as he prefers to be deep and playing in space – not as good in tight areas from a stand still position but good at ghosting past players. He just needs to get better at his finishing to be really devastating.

    As for the Moose, I think he could be well suited for the Wanyama role. I could see him collecting the ball a lot and have the extra benefit of when his options are tightly marked he can set off to dribble until those options present in advantageous positions. I think last year was an off year because everything was so disjointed. The previous year under AVB he was quite adept at fizzing the ball out the field with great accuracy.

    Sandro will go, not because he doesn’t fit into the system, he can if given time but because you cannot rely on him physically. He’s 25 and already picked some big injuries. Only going to get worse. Get some money while you can.

    Paulinho. Not sure about. Last year I think he got too caught up in trying to be the “next Frank Lampard”. He seems to be all action like Holtby but with less of a footballing brain – but not sure if that is a consequence of listening too much to Tactics Tim and his reminisces about the glory days at Blackburn.

    Anyway, barring any injury Holtby willbe in the side as he has adapted to MoPo’s footballing philosophy much faster than anybody else. So has Capoue. Whether they can maintain the starting lace come October/November is another question. Soldado will be the striker too. Ade comes into midfield too often and for too long at the moment. Slows down the build up. Roberto is more of the give and go that MoPo wants.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:31 am #

      Great comment Bretto. Holtby and Capoue would be the starting combination for me, but like you say, when it comes to October/November, then all the players should be up to speed with the system and their own fitness, so things may well change.

  12. calum 13th August 2014 at 12:57 am #

    I just wanted to add that I like your analysis too. Looking forward to going through the archive.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2014 at 10:25 am #

      Thanks Calum, there’s quite a back catalogue! :)

  13. sena 14th August 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Great article as usual, I’m still not completely convinced about Holtby in a deep-lying role though. He has the most energy and tenacity in the team which suits him to the role Poch would like, but I still think his defensive positioning is a little suspect which can lead to things like that horror tackle that’s a definite red if it isn’t a friendly. Nothing a good coaching can’t fix, and I agree with you that he should at least start the first few games while the WC players are still settling in, hope he can calm down and really make the position his.

    There’s one name I feel you haven’t talked about though, and it’s Nabil Bentaleb. Do you think he has a future in Poch’s system? I feel that he’s our best youth prospect, and after the baptism of fire last season (got his first start in Emirates, for one) I don’t think he need anymore loans despite still being young. Surprised to see him being played as holding midfielder against Schalke though – do you think it’s only due to Capoue’s absence (and it’s clear Poch really doesn’t think Sandro has a place in his system), or will his future be there? Because I think he have good incisive passing and can be good going forward, I prefer to see him in the box-to-box alongside a defensive DM like Capoue or Sandro to cover and allow him to let loose.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 15th August 2014 at 10:14 am #

      Great comment Sena. Bentaleb has a future and i think that he along with Kane and Veljkovic are the younger players that Pochettino will try and bring through. I think against Schalke he was used as a holder as Capoue was out and Sandro wasn’t up to playing 60 minutes plus yet.

      Going forward i can see him filling either role. Pochettino requires his DM to be able to pass and move the ball accurately to the advanced players and full backs on the run, so i can see him playing both here and the box-to-box role. For me, he is a rest or rotation option at the minute, as there are others in front of him in the queue.

  14. YouShubes 15th August 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Great work as always Mark.

    I love Lewis Holtby but I fear his energy could cause him to commit fouls that could cause him to be sent off ala Danny Rose against Villa. That said I prefer his energy to Chadli’s lethargy.

    Unlike Scott Parker I fear he is not strong nor calm enough in the tackle, and unlike Luka his passing can be too inaccurate. That said he is young and if Poch is the great COACH we all hope he can be then someone like Lewis who has a good first touch and tremendous engine may benefit. He is one of the player who is more about refining his skill set than adding to it e.g. Dembele

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 15th August 2014 at 11:57 am #

      He can be impetuous, I put the Schalke challenge down to playing his former club and he was taking some stick from their fans. Ade got sent off at the Emirates in similar circumstances and he seems to have chilled out now when he plays the Goon squad. I expect Holtby to do the same as he matures and learns to handle the occassion as well as the game.