Lewis Holtby – Germany’s Most Versatile Footballer

by Cristian Nyari

Tottenham Hotspur supporters should be brimming with excitement after it was announced that Schalke’s Lewis Holtby will join the club at the end of the summer. In Holtby, Spurs will get a tremendously versatile and engaged player.  His fitness and workrate along with his technical qualities and creativity have allowed him to play a multitude of roles and positions successfully so far in his young career.  It’s rare for a young player to be as well equipped and adaptable at such a young age but it speaks to the maturity and quality of the player and the potential ceiling he can reach in his career.

Rejection and Futsal

Although he is now considered one of the biggest young talents in Europe, Holtby’s trajectory and development as a footballer started on a sour note.  At the age of 11 Holtby was recognized and picked up by Borussia Mönchengladbach but was released three years later because of “physical deficiencies” and his small frame.  He didn’t let a roadbump like that get in his way though and moved to Alemania Aachen where he really began to excel at youth levels.

All the while, Holtby credits futsal as a big part in his development as a young player and traits of the game are still visible in his great close ball control and creativity on the pitch. Growing up in Erkelenz in the winter where the game was moved indoors, Holtby admitted to learning a lot playing in the tight spaces and quick actions of the game, “[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.”

And there was no question about how quickly Holtby was learning.  In fact, he soon attracted the attention of half the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen, Schalke, Hamburg and ironically enough, Borussia Mönchengladbach, showing interest among others. Even scouts abroad started noticing his talents with Manchester United, Arsenal and PSV all monitoring his development. Aachen weren’t going to let him go that soon though and gave him his professional debut at the age of 17 in the 2007/08 season. He only made two appearances that season  but little did they know what a player he’d turn out to be.

Alemania Aachen – 2008/09 – Left Midfield/Left Winger

It was with Aachen that Holtby first made a name for himself in the 2008/09 season in the 2. Bundesliga at the age of 18.  There, Holtby was used primarily on the left in coach Jürgen Seeberger’s team. Aachen started that season playing a traditional 4-4-2 with Holtby making his first appearances as a substitute in left midfield but as the season progressed he established himself as a starter in what eventually morphed into a 4-2-3-1.

It didn’t take long for Holtby to make the left wing his own with several fantastic performances, most notably in a 2-0 win against a Rot Weiss Ahlen side that featured a young Marco Reus and Kevin Grosskreutz.  That game might have been the best of the season for Holtby, outshining everyone on the pitch including a future German footballer of the year. Another was Aachen’s two wins over Mainz that season and perhaps most notably, the 6-2 destruction of Nürnberg in which Holtby showed for the first time what a dominant player and presence he can be.

Aachen just barely missed out on promotion that season but it became clear that, like Reus later with Gladbach, the player was quickly outgrowing his club and there was no way they were going to be able to hang on to him for much longer.  Sure enough, following his impressive first full season, Schalke immediately pounced to sign the youngster, offering him a four year contract in 2009.

VfL Bochum – 2010 – Left Midfield/Wing & Attacking Midfielder/Support Striker

Things didn’t get off to a great start at Schalke though.  Holtby struggled for playing time under then coach Felix Magath and only started four matches before the winter break.  Realizing that the move to a club like Schalke had perhaps come a bit too soon both parties agreed a loan was the best option and promptly sent him to Bochum for the remainder of the season in January of 2010.

Sure enough, at Bochum Holtby got the playing time and experience he needed albeit at a club struggling to stay up and to get results. Switching coaches midway through the season didn’t help things either. Holtby didn’t have the free reign he did at Aachen and was constantly switched from left midfield/wing to playing behind the striker.

The lack of continuity didn’t help Holtby or the club much.  Bochum were relegated by the end of the season but Holtby got some valuable experience and was still one of the club’s better performers in the five months he was with them.  Again, Holtby showed an impressive ability to adapt to a different environemnt and thrive under difficult circumstances.

Mainz – 2010/11 – Playmaker/No. 10/Attacking Midfielder

If Aachen was Holtby’s arrival as a player and Bochum a great learning experience then his stint at Mainz was definitely his breakthrough. Together with Adam Szalai and Andre Schürrle, Holtby formed one of the most formidable attacking trios in the league as Mainz took everyone by surprise with their dynamic and entertaining brand of football.  Mainz had their best ever finish at the end of the season and booked a spot in Europe.

Holtby meanwhile went from being one of the best on his team to one of the best in the league. He turned out to be the ideal player for Thomas Tuchel, who is very much a tactical chameleon himself.  Few players took to Tuchel’s high pressing, hard running, attacking system better than Holtby.  Mainz had a brilliant first half of the season, winning in Munich and at Schalke.

His role at Mainz was particularly interesting because it continued to change during the season with Tuchel’s formation changes. Holtby played out wide at times, on the right this time, off a lone striker, or behind two forwards in a more traditional No. 10 role in formations ranging from a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, a diamond and whatever else Tuchel thought of.  No matter how Mainz lined up, Holtby excelled, especially as the team’s playmaker and conductor.  National team coach Joachim Löw also took note of Holtby that season and gave him his first cap in a friendly in November of 2010.

Schalke – 2011/12 – Central Midfield

It seemed that after two successful loan spells Holtby was primed and ready to return to his club.  Under Tuchel, Holtby appeared to have found his best position playing behind or off the striker and honed his game well enough to finally be a regular for Schalke.  Schalke lacked a playmaker like him ever since Brazilian Lincoln left the club in 2007 bo Holtby’s disappointment, Schalke had already found him the year before. His name was Raul.

Rather than starting up front, Raul was deployed in the hole by coach Huub Stevens behind striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, which meant that if Holtby wanted to play regularly he had to again convert. Holtby would play the majority of the 2011/12 season in central midfield, a position completely unfamiliar to him in his professional career so far.

There is a reason many coaches prefer more seasoned players in central midfield.  It is a mentally demanding and physically exhausting role but like he did at Aachen, Bochum and Mainz, Holtby adapted and performed well enough for Stevens to keep him there. He didn’t equal the level of performances he had at Mainz but he more than held his own and managed to score more goals than he had the previous season.

If anything, taking on a more defensive role and having more responsibility on the pitch might have even improved him as a player. It wasn’t the most memorable season for him but it was a crucial one in his development, especially having a player like Raul around him to learn from. The maturity in his game was seen all throughout 2012 as he captained and almost single handedly led Germany’s U-21s to the European Championship taking place later this summer.

Schalke – 2012/13 – Attacking Midfielder/Support Striker

Following Raul’s departure in the summer Holtby was finally ready to take over as Schalke’s No. 10.  Unsurprisingly, Holtby performed immediately once the new season was underway.  Until November and Schalke’s dip in form, Holtby was one of the standout players in the league. The vacuum Raul left and thought to cause problems became an afterthought.  His best performance so far might even have come against a team he was linked with so often, Arsenal, in the Champions League.  Unfortunately talks about his contract extension and rumors linking him with a move abroad became a bigger talking point than the actual football as the season progressed until the player himself finally put an end to the speculation and confirmed he won’t be renewing with the club.

With the future sorted out now, Holtby and everyone else can get back to what really matters, the football. People are always skeptical when players arrive in new leagues, especially when it comes to younger inexperienced players, but if there is anyone who can adapt to new surroundings and circumstances it’s Lewis Holtby.  Whatever the formation, position or role, Holtby will approach his new adventure in England with the same confidence and verve he did when thrown into the deep end at Aachen at 17.

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Author:Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari
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