The Hamburg Resurgence of Lewis Holtby

2010 was a thrilling year for German football. An exciting, young team finished third at the World Cup in South Africa; Dortmund were Herbstmeister and on the way to their first Bundesliga championship under Jürgen Klopp; and Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz side were near the top of the table after a stellar start to the season through victories in each of their first seven games.

Because of these big stories for German football, Germany’s 0-0 draw in November in Sweden received less attention than it might otherwise have merited. The match was notable for the debuts of Dortmund duo Marcel Schmelzer and Mario Götze and Mainz duo Andre Schürrle and Lewis Holtby.

Holtby, who started and played 77 minutes against Dortmund before being replaced by Schürrle, was named man of the match by many German newspapers. At just 20 years of age, Holtby was enjoying a stellar season at Mainz and was considered one of Germany’s top talents.

“In Löw’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system, Holtby can play in the three-man midfield behind the lone striker. If he maintains the good form and consistency shown in the early stages of this season over a longer period of time, he stands a good chance of becoming a national team regular for Germany.” – Kicker magazine’s Uwe Röser

Since his debut and breakout season with Mainz in 2010/11 however, Holtby has failed to match the promise he looked so certain to fulfill. While Schürrle and Götze have gone on to make 97 appearances for Germany between them and win the World Cup in 2014, Holtby has managed just two more appearances for Germany, and none since 2012. The rise of the likes of Marco Reus, Ilkay Gündogan and Julian Draxler along with Holtby’s loss of form at club level has resulted in three years without a call-up from Jogi Löw.

Where did it all go wrong for Holtby?

Following the 2010/11 season, Holtby returned to Schalke from his loan spell at Mainz ready to establish himself in Ralf Rangnick’s team. Unfortunately, while he was away Schalke brought in Real Madrid legend Raúl to play in Holtby’s preferred number 10 position. In order to get into the team, Holtby was forced to play in a defensive midfield position often alongside Marco Höger or Jermaine Jones. While still an effective player, playing in a deeper role caused Holtby to lose some of the spark that made him such an exciting player at Mainz.

With his contract running out at the end of the 2012-13 season, English Premier League side Tottenham signed Holtby in January 2013 at a bargain price of just €1.75 million. His time in England was not a success however, Holtby struggled to break into the starting lineup and was eventually loaned out to Fulham in January 2014. Fulham were duly relegated and Holtby fell out with Felix Magath. In just 18 months in England, Holtby made a respectable 55 appearances in all competitions, but scored only 4 goals.

New Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino decided that Holtby was surplus to requirements at White Hart Lane and was loaned to Hamburg for the 2014-15 season. Despite failing to reach his previous form in the Bundesliga and a long injury lay-off that limited his appearances to just 25 in all competitions, Hamburg decided to buy Holtby from Spurs for over €6 million.

Revival 2015

Holtby arrived permanently in the summer, signing a three-year deal for the Bundesliga Dinosaurs. In his loan spell at Hamburg he was often shifted around in numerous position including both wings, attacking and defensive midfield. This term under Bruno Labbadia, Holtby has enjoyed a settled role in the team, starting every match for HSV in a central midfield role. While Holtby’s role has been a stable one, his midfield partner(s) have changed frequently. This season alone he has played in midfield alongside Gideon Jung, Marcelo Diaz, Albin Ekdal, Gojko Kačar and Aaron Hunt!

Holtby has not let these consistent changes in the middle of the park impact his performances at all. He has been Hamburg’s standout performer, as the club enjoy their best Hinrunde in three years.

Lewis has evolved incredibly over the past few months. – Hamburg boss Bruno Labbadia

Holtby for Germany?

Holtby’s return to form this season should place him back into the thoughts of national team boss Joachim Löw once again. The sheer amount of German midfielders though, could block Holtby’s return but based on his performances, he should be given a run-out in the March friendlies prior to the European Championships in the summer.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Ilkay Gündogan appear to be locks to make the tournament roster leaving just one, maybe two more spots in central midfield. Top contenders are Christoph Kramer, the Bender twins, Johannes Geis, Leon Goretzka, and Emre Can.

In his best role as a box-to-box midfielder, Holtby is in direct competition with Khedira, Kramer, Lars Bender, Goretzka and Can. Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Gündogan and Geis all play in different roles.

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Lewis Holtby’s durability and stamina deserves note, especially with the injury concerns regarding Sami Khedira and Lars Bender. Holtby offers the greatest threat in attack, scoring the most goals and providing the most key passes. In defense, only Lars Bender makes more tackles than Holtby, while his 1.5 interceptions per match is higher than world-champions Khedira and Kramer.

Holtby has compiled these impressive stats while playing for Hamburg, a side that has played in two consecutive relegation playoffs. Hamburg don’t dominate games in the same manner as Leverkusen, Schalke, Liverpool or Juventus.

Germany’s March friendlies against England and Italy are a perfect time for Löw to give Holtby another chance with the National Team. Who knows, maybe Holtby can fulfill his undoubted potential after all.

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A long-suffering Hamburg fan, Nikolas has been following German football for as long as he can remember. You can follow him on Twitter @NikolasBoehm

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