Having arrived in the Premier League in last year’s January transfer window, Lewis Holtby was expected to be another cog in Tottenham’s attacking machine.
Following a year on the White Hart Lane bench, the Germany international has gone from rising star to plateauing, due to a lack of opportunities under both Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood.
Now he has the chance to show what he can do, as a key component of Fulham’s fight against relegation after signing for the west London club on loan until the end of the season. He is seen as the spearhead in a side going nowhere fast and who cannot defend, something Holtby won’t be able to help with.
Rene Meulensteen has handed the former Schalke man the No.10 shirt, hoping his guile can provide the service his forwards have lacked this season, but seems to have overlooked giving anyone the authority to marshal their back four.
On his debut against Southampton, Holtby started out of the right-hand side of a five-man midfield, but with the license to come inside to influence play and support the isolated Darren Bent upfront.
All set-pieces seem to have delegated to Holtby, whose left foot has the quality to cause problems in the box. He first impacted the game, when his corner found Brede Hangeland, but the Norwegian’s header was clawed away by Artur Boruc.
Considering the height of Hangeland, his central defensive partner, Dan Burn, and new signing Kostas Mitroglou, the added threat of a competent exponent of the dead-ball could be the difference between survival and relegation.
In open play, Holtby helped set up Bent for a chance by dropping his shoulder, losing the Southampton defenders, before chipping one into the box for the striker to volley on goal, following a little help from Scott Parker.
Fulham operated with three men in the centre of the park - Parker, Steve Sidwell and new boy William Kvist. Between them they have the pace of a minor celebrity trying to navigate their way down the slopes, meaning Holtby’s ability to up the tempo in the final third could be significant, as his team-mates struggle to cope with the top-flight pace at times.
His companions in white were operating very deep, forcing Holtby to hold the ball up almost every time Fulham tried to attack, also inviting pressure onto the defence when Southampton retrieved the ball and counter attacked.
The Fulham defence wiped out the memories of Holtby’s early promise in the final 30 pitiful minutes at Craven Cottage.
Following Saturday’s defeat at home to Southampton, Fulham have now conceded 53 goals this season in the Premier League, ten more than their nearest relegation rivals.
The Saints attacked with pace, their first goal coming from Adam Lallana, who found space alongside Hangeland, before firing across a poorly positioned Maarten Stekelenburg.
A quick break down the right from Nathaniel Clyne was finished by Rickie Lambert, as the striker was allowed five yards to himself inside the area, as Fulham’s defence was easily dragged all over the place.
Sascha Riether was out of position for the majority of the game, Hangeland’s best days are behind him, as showed by inviting Jay Rodriguez inside to score Southampton’s third, Burn is incredibly naive and Kieran Richardson is generally just quite inept at defending.
If they continue to look beyond amateurish at the back, the impact of Holtby at the other end of the pitch will be completely redundant and it doesn’t look like Johnny Heitinga is the man to reinforce the league’s worst defence.
Meulensteen has already simplified the issues for himself, saying after the game: “We have conceded far too many goals and we haven’t scored many goals.”
Unfortunately for the Fulham fans, they don’t look like scoring, they don’t look like keeping a cleansheet and they certainly don’t look like staying up.