By Ewan Roberts
When Fulham travel to White Hart Lane for Saturday's lunchtime kick-off against Tottenham, they do so without a player at the forefront of their revival under Felix Magath. Unavailable against his parent club, Lewis Holtby will watch from the stands as the Cottagers' bid for safety continues without a player who has become the plotting, cerebral hub of the side.
For some players their loyalty might be divided, but the former Germany Under-21 captain, having briefed Magath on his old team-mates, has not been shy in stating his hope that Fulham claim all three points – it is the west Londoners who need the victory more desperately.
Had anyone else made such a remark, they might have been accused of betrayal and treachery, but not Holtby. The half-English playmaker, bestowed with his own Depeche Mode-inspired chant before he had even donned a lilywhite shirt, has won plenty of admirers thanks to his bubbly, intoxicating enthusiasm for the sport.
|HOLTBY'S FULHAM LOAN SPELL SO FAR
BIG CHANCES CREATED
KEY PASSES PER GAME
DRIBBLES PER GAME
TACKLES PER GAME
In an age where footballers can appear disinterested – and disengaged from supporters – Holtby has shown an increasingly rare passion and zest that endears him to fans. It is curious, then, that a player whose dedication and commitment cannot be questioned should have been axed so quickly by Tottenham boss Tim Sherwood.
The 45-year-old head coach, still influenced by the blood and mettle of English football's more agricultural past, has frequently bemoaned a lack of “character” and “guts” in his side, yet was happy to dispense of a player who had those qualities in abundance; Holtby started just one of eight games under Sherwood (playing 84 minutes in total) before joining Fulham on deadline day.
One wonders if Sherwood's despair over a lack of desire would have been averted had Holtby still been in the squad. “That is a mean question,” the former Schalke man told Goal last week. “Every coach has his style and his ideas about football. Me, I am convinced with my way to play football.
“The fans at Tottenham and Fulham always liked it. I give 100 percent and play with my heart. But I am focused on Fulham now and nothing else matters.”
Already familiar with the medicine ball-loving Magath's methods after their time together at Schalke, Holtby has quickly shown the tenacity and willingness to press that his compatriot demands. He has already recorded the fifth most tackles of any Fulham player, while his average of 3.1 challenges per game is bettered only by Steve Sidwell.
Under Magath, Fulham have put in 32.9 per cent more tackles per match than previously, which has in turn reduced the number of shots they face. Prior to the German coach's arrival, the Cottagers conceded 7.7 shots more than they took themselves. Now, that figure has been halved to 3.4. They are better organised, better drilled and more solid.
And the heel-snapping, lung-busting former Bruchweg Boy embodies the style of play Magath has encouraged. “He wants us to show pure will and great belief in ourselves,” says Holtby. “We train very hard to show our quality on the pitch each weekend.”
|50/1||Tottenham are 50/1 with bet365 to draw 3-3 against Fulham|
Holtby, still just 23, has created a chance every 40 minutes since moving to Craven Cottage – in fact, just two Fulham players, Sascha Riether (27) and Alexander Kacaniklic (22), have created more than Holtby's 21 chances, which were recorded in significantly less pitch-time. Further to that, he is already the Cottagers' joint-leading assister (with three) and has created more clear-cut chances (five) than any of his team-mates.
Beyond the stats, it is clear that this Fulham side look to Holtby, their string-puller, for inspiration. Wins over Aston Villa and Norwich were the club's first back-to-back victories since October, and both times Hugo Rodallega's winning goals came thanks to the German's left boot.
Even during a frustrating first half of the season at Tottenham, in which he started just six times, Holtby showed flashes of his class and managed to record 2.7 key passes per 90 minutes, a tally only bettered by Christian Eriksen (3.0 per game).
At times the Dane has been forced to carry Spurs single-handedly – how he could have used a player of Holtby's talents to link up with and tune into the same frequency. Many will wonder, too, how Nabil Bentaleb, though preciously talented, has racked up seven consecutive Premier League starts while Holtby's longest run is just three. It is worth noting that Spurs have only lost one of the 10 league matches the German has started, and that was at the Etihad Stadium.
Holtby joined Fulham to “prove myself every week in the best league in the world”. Far from using the loan spell merely to bolster his own profile, though, he has helped rally the side, sharing their pain and injecting the creative edge they had previously missed.
In doing so, he has shown what an effective player he can be when trusted, and surely done enough to merit a first-team berth at Tottenham next season.
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