When Lewis Holtby moved to Spurs in January, he was expected to slide naturally in to the number ten position, a role he had regularly played for Schalke.
Arriving fresh in to a side, in a new league, with a different style of play, midway through a season isn’t easy. We we’ve only seen flashes of the performances he showed for Schalke in the Champions League, as Holtby has flitted in and out of the team.
Prior to Gareth Bale’s injury, we’d only seen him complete a maximum of 68 minutes in a match, as he was either substituted off or came on late in games. Throughout March he had to be content with a place on the bench, playing in just 22 minutes of our four Premier League encounters.
His recent fortunes in the absence of Gareth Bale have been different. Our last two matches have seen him play the full 90 against Everton and all 120 minutes away to Basel, but in two different positions.
At home to the Toffees, he played as a number ten. Then against Basel, he occupied a much deeper role alongside Scott Parker, often alternating with Moussa Dembele in the number ten role.
Could this tactical ploy to move Lewis Holtby deeper, actually allow us to open up the midfield?
Lewis Holtby against Everton
If we firstly take a look at his performance in the number ten role against Everton, we can see a lot of what Holtby’s time at Spurs has been like.
The German international has played with a lot of energy, is always available to receive a pass, but has failed to provide the killer ball. At Schalke he was creating 1.5 chances per game and had 7 assists in 19 Bundesliga matches. So far for Spurs in the Premier League he is creating 1 key pass per game and is yet to provide an assist.
The match with the Toffees saw Lewis Holtby receive the ball 63 times right across and through the formation. His through passing was limited though to a couple of longer balls towards the area that failed to find their targets. Whilst three incomplete crosses came in from the right wing.
Without he ball he made 1 interception, but one thing we have seen is that Lewis Holtby can play defensively, something we saw more of against Basel.
Lewis Holtby against Basel
In our Europa League Quarter-Final 2nd leg, Lewis Holtby was moved deeper in to midfield in an attempt to push Moussa Dembele further up the park.
The German’s boundless energy meant that he was always available to receive the ball, but this new role still allowed him to be as effective as against Everton.
First of all he was able to transition the ball quickly across the formation to the wider players, something our attack hinges on. But he was also still able to play through balls, albeit from a deeper position.
Without the ball and now more in the heart of the midfield battle, he was able to make an impressive six tackles and six interceptions.
Could moving Lewis Holtby open up our midfield?
The match against Basel demonstrated a couple of things for me.
Firstly, that Lewis Holtby can be a factor in winning the ball back effectively, then transitioning it forward. Secondly, with Scott Parker struggling to come to terms with his new role this season, Lewis Holtby could be used instead of him in order to open up our midfield?
Under Harry Redknapp last term, Scott Parker was just asked to be a defensive midfielder, winning the ball back and moving it to Luka Modric to distribute. He was averaging 3.7 successful tackles and 3.1 interceptions per game in the Premier League.
This term, Andre Villas-Boas has asked the player in this role, whether it be Sandro or Parker, to be more fluid and take an increased role in the attack. As a result, Parker’s successful tackles and interceptions have massively fallen to 2.3 and 2.2 respectively, whilst his chances created have increased. I explored this more in ‘Sandro is more than a defensive machine’ and ‘Can Scott Parker change his game?’ If you want to delve further in to this position’s role change this season.
On the flip side, we have struggled to create openings without Gareth Bale. Moving Lewis Holtby deeper, could allow us to play Moussa Dembele with another attacking player. This would still give us a defensive grounding with both Holtby and Dembele being able to win back possession. However, it would then allow us to bring a more adept passer in to the number ten role or Gareth Bale back when he returns to full fitness.
Other options include using Tom Carroll or moving Gylfi Sigurdsson in from the left to his preferred central area.
The Icelander excelled for Swansea, but struggled when playing here for us due to the fact that he didn’t have a player to move the ball through the midfield zone. Sandro and Jake Livermore were at the base of midfield at that time and neither player was able to get up the field and link the play for the Icelander.
With Lewis Holtby and Moussa Dembele filling this empty zone in the chart above from our opening day match with Newcastle, it would afford Sigurdsson support.
Tom Carroll would also be a natural choice with his excellent range of short passing and an eye for a through ball, as we’ve seen in a number of recent matches.
Andre Villas-Boas has brought him on late in games to open up tired opponents with his passing. Now could be the time to give him a greater opportunity.
Gareth Bale could return here when healthy, but could also pay as an inside forward from the left if we were looking to accommodate either Sigurdsson or Carroll centrally.
Scott Parker has struggled so far this season. Moving Lewis Holtby in to his deeper role may just allow us to open up our midfield whilst still retaining a defensive presence.
Another top article, and something which I’ve wondered why AVB hasn’t tried earlier ever since Spurs signed Lewis.
Holtby appears to have many of the traits required for a great deep-lying playmaker, he has the ability to make an excellent pass, is good on & off the ball, and what he lacks in natural strength in defence he makes up for with his boundless energy and work rate and ability to steal the ball from the opponent quickly.
I think a real reason why his assists have been so low this season is that Spurs currently lack any real attacking options that are brilliant off the ball to receive such a pass. We have Adebayor – say no more! The key passes made to him often result in him spurning 1 on 1 chances. Bale is still getting used to his role in the centre and is definitely better on the ball than off there (I do think he’d be more effective sometimes playing as an inside forward as you mentioned, and a DLP could easily play through balls to him), and Defoe has been injured.
If Bale, Defoe and Lennon were back against Man City, a line-up like the following could be really fierce, especially if Lennon & Bale played on the wings are were instructed to cut inside off the ball.
Walker – Dawson – Vertonghen – BAE/Naughton (good article the other day on them!)
Parker – Holtby
Lennon – Dembele – Bale
I’m waiting to see Dembele shine too. He’s been incredible as a deep midfielder but I’m personally hoping to see him in a more attacking role – if he receives the ball in the final third and only has one player to beat before unleashing a shot, I can imagine many, many goals from him!
Will be interesting to see if AVB tries something like that. Whilst Bale’s move into the centre has created many more chances for him (another good article by you!), I do feel that there are other, potentially more fruitful tactics for AVB to try.
Massive match on the weekend against City that could go a long way to deciding Top 4 fate.
COME ON YOU SPURS!
Spurs Fanatic - Mark says
Thanks for all the mentions, i agree with you about the lack of assists being due to the identity of our centre forwards – Adebayor has dropped off to link the play too much this season compared to last in my opinion. As for Dembele, he did start at Fulham as an attacking midfielder behind the striker. I do remember him creating plenty of chances for team mates and taking a lot of shots but not scoring too often – I could be wrong, but have to check.
I still cannot understand the positioning of Ade for most of the game. Right when Spurs need him in the centre to be on the receiving end of a cross or a good pass, he seems to drift out to the wings – it’s almost as if he’s scared to score this season!
At my most frustrated, I often wonder sometimes whether AVB has lost the plot and is actually saying in his team-talk “Stay on the wings as often as you can, we don’t need you in the centre to score goals when the ball is in the final third!” or whether Ade is just disregarding his instructions or getting in the wrong place at the wrong time, almost every time.
Yeah, a cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that Dembele only managed 5 goals in 62 appearances for Fulham but I think the dynamic of Spurs tactics and formation would mean that not only would he get more chances to take on his marker and win (due to other players stretching the defensive line and drawing other defenders away with runs/positioning) but also the quality of the ball he would receive would be better owing to the fact that Spurs are a better team overall (no disrespect to Fulham).
As we’ve seen, Dembele is also a good passer of the ball so he’s definitely adept at creating chances – so long as there is actually a striker there to take them!
I often wonder whether AVB does try these options in training and is just waiting to use them in an effective situation. For all the reports of his tactical astuteness and thoroughness, I cannot believe that he hasn’t at least considered trying something different with the talent at his disposal.
Spurs Fanatic - Mark says
From what i’ve read, heard and seen, AVB does a lot of situational practice in training so everyone knows what is required of them, where they are to go and what they are to do – part of the reason you see him constantly gesturing on the sideline during matches. I think he’s probably tried a few things out on the training field and then decides whether to use it in a match – usually this manifests itself in his substitutions which have brought about plenty of late goals for us.