From Golden Boy to Unemployed – The Rise and Fall of Lewis Holtby

September 25, 2010 is a date Lewis Holtby will likely remember for the rest of his life.

The then-promising youngster was on loan at 1. FSV Mainz, and his club was faced with the enormous task of encountering Bayern München at the Allianz Arena. Most teams struggle to get anything from their away matches in Munich, but Mainz came with a clear-cut plan and a very young team ready to execute it. Coach Thomas Tuchel had set the creative force of André Schürrle and Lewis Holtby in support of his strikers Adam Szalai and Sami Allagui.

Mainz won the game 2-1 through goals from their two strikers. Holtby, Schürrle, and Szalai celebrated the Hungarian’s goal next to the corner flag by imitating a rock band, and thus the “Bruchweg Boys” were born. All three players seemed to be looking at very promising careers ahead.

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In Holtby’s case, all that promise of almost a decade ago was never really fulfilled.

Early Beginnings

Born in Erkelenz in the Rhineland, the midfielder took his first footballing steps at Sparta Gerderath. At his youth club, Holtby developed into a fine footballer early. Playing football indoors during the winter time was a great help when it came to sharpening his senses:

“[Futsal] allows for more fluent passing and combinations that lead to more goal-scoring opportunities. Another difference is you have proper sidelines, no walls or boards, which greatly reduces the chance factor of the game. All this works wonders for younger players’ ball control.  If you’re looking for a really good method to teach you skills and technique, Futsal is the game to play.”

His talents were soon recognized, and an 11-year-old Holtby was swooped up by Borussia Mönchengladbach’s youth set-up. Being picked up by a Bundesliga club at such an early age doesn’t necessarily mean that a youngster is going to have a promising career. Most youth players, in fact, don’t manage to get through the eye of the needle that is playing professional football for a club in Germany’s top flight.

At the age of 14, Holtby faced a major road bump in his career. The dribbling midfield ace was spending most of his time on the bench. The other boys at Gladbach were physically a step or two ahead of him. Holtby’s development wasn’t progressing as the club would have hoped.

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A move to Alemannia Aachen made all the difference. Holtby managed to capture a place in the senior side, making his debut in the Bundesliga 2 against FC St. Pauli. At Aachen, the midfielder went from youthful hope to a player the team could count upon, which in turn saw several Bundesliga sides taking an interest in the youngster. After 33 matches and 8 goals in the Bundesliga 2, the time had come to move to bigger and better things.

Schalke and Mainz

Holtby joined Schalke in the summer of 2009. Back then the Royal Blues were managed by Felix Magath, whose hard training sessions and strict rules don’t necessarily accommodate younger players. Holtby was neither the first, nor the last, young player to struggle for playing time under Magath.

At first, Holtby was loaned to struggling VfL Bochum, where he managed to secure a starting place in the line-up during the 2009-10 Rückrunde. Initially, the loan should have lasted for one-and-a-half seasons, but as luck would have it for Holtby, Bochum were relegated, meaning he would return to Schalke. Felix Magath quickly decided that more playing time elsewhere would be the best thing for the midfielder.

The 2010-11 season would be the season where Holtby makes a name for himself in Germany. His loan spell at Mainz saw him play a vital role in Thomas Tuchel’s set-up, making him a media darling and one of the hottest commodities in German football. Holtby, it seemed, had been waiting all along for a coach like Tuchel.

His role within the team changed throughout the season. He could fill-in as a lone striker, play wide on either wing, or fill the number-ten role behind the strikers. Holtby was made for Tuchel’s high-pressing and high-intensity running game.

Even German national team coach Joachim Löw took notice of Holtby and the other youngsters at Mainz, stating, “I like them; they do have a lot of potential and can develop.”

Holtby made his debut for the German national team in a 2010 friendly against Sweden and featured in a 2011 qualifier match against Azerbaijan.

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Back at Schalke, Holtby was moved into the central midfield despite having played on the wing and behind the striker at his previous stations. Even so, the youngster managed to impress with great performances, helping the Royal Blues finish the season in third to reach Champions League.

The following season, Holtby was given the chance to play behind the striker after Raul had left the club. His four goals and seven assists during the season highlighted his qualities in that role, but Schalke decided to sell Holtby, as his contract was expiring at the end of the season.

England – The Struggle Begins

A move to Tottenham at the age of 22 saw Holtby’s career turn toward a downward trajectory. The fight for the places in the starting line-up was immense at Spurs, even more demanding than the one Holtby had faced at Schalke. Those who know Holtby say that he needs to feel the confidence of the coach and his surroundings in order to thrive, far from givens in the cut-throat environment he had landed in.

After only 11 matches and a meager 508 minutes of playing time, Holtby was loaned out to Fullham the following season. His time at Craven Cottage wasn’t great with only 13 appearances to his name the following season and Fullham getting relegated.

Holtby told German football magazine 11 Freunde that he regrets cutting short his time in England, saying “I learned more during the one-and-a-half years I spent in England than during any other time I’ve been a professional.”

Roller Coaster Ride at HSV

At this point, Holtby’s choice of club for his next big move was crucial. He chose HSV, despite being warned that the club could destroy careers. However, the midfielder secured a place in the starting line-up under Josef Zinnbauer, Bruno Labbadia, and initially during Markus Gisdol’s stay at the club.

But that changed during Gisdol’s final season. At that point, Holtby thought he might have to look for other options, but the club decided to fire the coach, bringing in Bernd Hollerbach, who didn’t fancy the midfielder either. After a streak of seven winless matches, Hollerbach was gone as well, and HSV took a long shot, installing U23 coach Christian Tietz for the rest of the season.

Holtby and Tietz were familiar with one another, as they have the same agent, and Holtby had used his new coach as a mental trainer. It was Tietz’s plan to build a team around Aaron Hunt and Lewis Holtby. Despite being relegated to the Bundesliga 2 after a disastrous 2017-18 campaign, the former German national team player decided to stay. Tietz’s vision appealed to him, and he wanted to get the club back into the first division.

However, Hamburg and its press are merciless when it comes to evaluating the performances of HSV. Despite being close to the promotion places, Christian Tietz was let go on October 23rd, and a new coach was brought in. Hannes Wolf had managed to get VfB Stuttgart back into the Bundesliga one season earlier, and the officials around sporting director Ralf Becker were convinced that he could a better job than his predecessor.

For Holtby, the new coach meant that his place in the team wasn’t a given anymore. The vice-captain was suddenly substituted off the pitch, and Wolf seemed to trust other players more than him.

Things came to a boil for the midfielder when he realized that he wouldn’t be included in the starting line-up for the important match against Union Berlin. He told Wolf after the final training session ahead of the match that he didn’t need to travel with the rest of the team as he clearly wasn’t needed.

Holtby regretted his words shortly afterwards and asked the coach, after having taken a shower, to be included in the squad after all. Wolf told the player that he would consider his request. However, Holtby wasn’t included, and the coach told the press what had happened, meaning that Holtby’s hopes of the incident never reaching the public were crushed.

At that stage, the midfielder had already been told that his expiring contract wouldn’t be extended. Holtby had signed a one-year deal at HSV after the relegation because he liked Tietz’s vision. In order to stay on, he had decided upon taking a 50% pay cut. The midfielder wanted to be part of HSV’s rebirth, giving the fans something to cheer for instead of being the laughing stock of all of Germany. As things turned out, the season ended in disaster for both Holtby and the club.

Next?

Currently, Holtby is a free agent looking for his next club. The 28-year-old brings a wealth of experience to the table and has shown himself to be a very versatile player throughout his career. However, he arrived at HSV wanting to get his name back into contention for the German national team and left as a disgraced player from a side failing to gain promotion to the Bundesliga.

The next chapter in Holtby’s career might very well be the last. Currently, there are only rumors linking Holtby to moves abroad, but nothing substantial has materialized so far. One could only hope that it turns out to be a happier one than his time at HSV.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

2 Comments

  1. I’m a Spurs fan, always had great respect for him as a player and person. It’s such a shame that it didn’t work out for him at Spurs, I would have loved to have seen him do well there. Hopefully his career will get back on track soon.

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