Lewis Holtby was supposed to arrive at Spurs this summer on a free transfer. However, given the lack of a creative presence, Daniel Levy came up with £1.5 million and the German headed to the Lane six months early.
Back in January, Andre Villas-Boas hailed Holtby as “the bargain of the century.” He also stated that he would “fill the No.10 position, although he can play on the right or the left and he has also played in a holding role.” Lofty praise continued to flow, comparing the young German to Rafael van der Vaart.
As with Hugo Lloris, it was expected that Lewis Holtby would be eased in to the side. Of the fifteen Premier League games he was eligible for, he started just four and came on in another seven. In our last two pivotal Premier League clashes with Stoke and Sunderland, he had to be content with being an unused substitute though.
The signing of another central midfielder in Paulinho has clouded the matter even further, so where exactly does Lewis Holtby fit in this season?
Lewis Holtby as a number ten
When Lewis Holtby arrived at Spurs, he seemed destined to take over the number ten role from a struggling Clint Dempsey.
The American wasn’t coming to terms with the position and the German seemed a natural fit having operated there for Schalke. Only a few weeks earlier, he had destroyed a Hannover side with three key passes, two of which were converted in to goals. His passing was vertical, aggressive and found the channels.
In the relatively few starts he’s had in a central position in a Spurs shirt, he has failed to show the same spark.
At home to Newcastle was a rare appearance of Lewis Holtby as a trequartista and in spite of his boundless energy, he only played one real aggressive pass of note. Much of his passing was either backwards or square, but he did well to move play quickly to the wide men.
Against Everton was another such start as a number ten. He was always available to receive the ball, but most of his passing ended up once again being sideways as he moved the ball quickly across the formation. There were a couple of passes played vertically in through the channels, but both failed to find their target.
Lewis Holtby on the left
Although Lewis Holtby operated in the middle in his first few appearances, his arrival also coincided with AVB’s decision to play Gareth Bale centrally. In just Holtby’s fourth Premier League match, he would find himself on the left against West Ham.
When out on that flank, the German has played extremely narrow, so narrow that he has actually looked like he was still playing centrally.
In that game, Gylfi Sigurdsson replaced him and has held the left-sided role pretty much since.
The young German did come on for the Icelander in Spurs 3 Man City 1, setting up Jermain Defoe to score our second. A beautifully weighted pass was fed through to the England international, but Holtby had come inside from the left in order to provide it.
Lewis Holtby as a deeper lying midfielder
In two of our final four Premier League games against Wigan and Southampton we’ve seen Lewis Holtby as a deeper lying midfielder.
This is a position he has played before and with Moussa Dembele being withdrawn early in these matches through injury, the German was introduced in a deeper role.
In “What Lewis Holtby will bring to Spurs” I talked about his underrated defensive nature and his ability to make tackles and win the ball. He can also be over zealous at times though, often fouling opponents.
Against Wigan he was used to help recycle possession, as he won the ball back and spread the play to the wings from deeper. He did play two penetrating passes through the inside channels, as well as a layoff on the edge of the area, to create chances as we chased the game.
At home to Southampton he also replaced Dembele, making two tackles and three interceptions in the second half. This helped to get a Saints side under control that had been rampant in the first half.
He didn’t play any penetrating passes, but was key in switching the ball from flank to flank accurately over distance.
The match with Southampton would be his last appearance of the season though. When Moussa Dembele was fit to return, Lewis Holtby once again found himself back on the substitutes bench for our last two Premier League games.
Where does Lewis Holtby fit in at Spurs this season?
With a full pre-season with the team, Lewis Holtby will have a chance to settle having being rushed in to the club at the end of the January transfer window.
He’s played all of the positions that Andre Villas-Boas said he could, filling the number ten role, operating on the left and from deeper.
The arrival of Paulinho should see him only play in a deeper role if we suffer another injury crisis, but where he finds himself this season depends on a number of factors.
Firstly, the health of Sandro and the timetable for his return.
The Beast suffered a bad knee injury and if he isn’t able to come back for a few months, then Lewis Holtby could find his playing time increased. Whether this is in a deeper role alongside Paulinho and with Moussa Dembele in front or if he will operate ahead of these two will depend on the opponent.
Secondly, what formation are we going to play?
If AVB sticks with a 4-2-3-1, Lewis Holtby could find himself as a number ten, backed up by a combination of two from Paulinho, Sandro and Moussa Dembele in the pivot.
If AVB moves to 4-3-3 he may be ousted if the coach wants to play Sandro, Paulinho and Dembele all together when healthy. However, without Sandro, a three of Paulinho, Dembele and the German would seem more likely.
Wherever he has operated, Lewis Holtby looks a better player when he works centrally, whether it has been as a number ten or in a deeper role. His boundless energy and eye for a pass have been evident already, although the killer balls he was playing for Schalke haven’t quite materialised, yet. This campaign, if he fails to hold down one of these central positions, he could well be set for another season of coming in to games from the bench.