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.
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.
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.
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.
Here he doubles up with Aaron Lennon against two Schalke players as Rose recovers his position.
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.
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.
This one to Jermain Defoe in the Capital One Cup against Aston Villa was my favourite pass of last season.
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.
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.
He was also running forward from behind the play when setting up Emmanuel Adebayor for the opening goal.
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.
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.
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.