Tottenham's £1.5 million January signing spent time at the Gunners' training ground 14 months ago but Arsene Wenger chose not to pursue him because he "didn't rate him enough"SPECIAL REPORT
By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
Lewis Holtby will line up in the white of Tottenham on Sunday afternoon for his first north London derby.
But the attacking midfielder could have been starting for the opposition and wearing a red-and-white shirt had he convinced Arsenal of his merits just over a year ago.
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Goal.com can reveal that Holtby spent time at Arsenal's London Colney training headquarters during the 2011-12 Bundesliga winter break.
It was not a formal trial but Holtby, who was a key figure in the Schalke side that came third in the German top flight last season, was shown around the training ground and is believed to have taken part in a few light sessions.
Arsenal were in pole position to sign the playmaker. His Schalke contract, which was due to expire in the summer of 2013, had only 18 months to run and the part-English midfielder was yearning for a move to the land of his father.
Yet manager Arsene Wenger chose not to pursue a move for Holtby.
"He was carrying an injury at the time, which was a factor, but that was not the main reason Arsenal pulled out," a source told Goal.com. "Wenger just didn’t quite rate him high enough. He was looking for a playmaker at the time and Holtby was one of the players on his radar.
"If Wenger had really pushed, he could have had him in January 2012 for a reasonably good price. Holtby was keen to join but Wenger was not convinced he would improve the team."
The Arsenal boss had tried to sign one of the technically gifted Spanish pair Juan Mata or Santi Cazorla in the summer of 2011 as a replacement for Barcelona-bound Cesc Fabregas.
The asking price for Mata proved too prohibitive and he joined Chelsea, while Arsenal waited another year to capture the versatile Cazorla from Malaga.
"In the end, it came down to Holtby or Cazorla. We all know what happened there. Wenger decided to stick with Tomas Rosicky for the second half of last season rather than sign Holtby and then get Cazorla when Malaga were willing to sell."
Even as late as last November, with Holtby’s Schalke future a subject of constant speculation, the Germany international spoke of his willingness to move to Emirates Stadium.
“For me it was always a dream to play in the Premier League and it was always a team like Arsenal that I would like to play for,” explained Holtby. “Now I play for Schalke and I am happy to be here."
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But the ship that could have taken him to Emirates Stadium had long since sailed.
By that point, the strongest interest in Holtby came not from Arsenal but the other north London giant and a deal that would take him to Tottenham was agreed in principle in mid-December.
Spurs announced in early January that the 22-year-old had signed a pre-contract to move to White Hart Lane in June on a Bosman free transfer.
But Andre Villas-Boas had lost a body in midfield – Sandro was out for the season after undergoing knee surgery – and the manager was keen to bring forward Holtby's arrival.
Seventy-two hours before last month’s window shut, Spurs completed the signing of Holtby for £1.5million, widely considered to be a bargain for one of Germany’s brightest young talents.
"The January market is very, very demanding," said Villas-Boas. "Transfer fees can be ridiculously high. But on Lewis's case, it was the opposite so we managed to make a good deal and bring him in early."
Like Cazorla, Holtby’s versatility is his strength. Since moving to White Hart Lane, he has principally been used in the No10 position behind the main striker.
It is a role he will most likely be tasked with in the cauldron of a north London derby that could have major ramifications in the race for the Champions League places. Holtby might reflect that it is a position he could so easily be filling in the same game for Arsenal.