When Fulham made the short trip across London to face Tottenham at the weekend, they did so without Lewis Holtby. Having signed for the Cottagers on loan from Spurs in January, league stipulations denied the player from turning out against his parent club.
In his absence, Fulham succumbed to a 3-1 defeat in Saturday's early kick-off and despite the best efforts of top scorer Steve Sidwell to drag them to a positive result, Felix Magath's side lacked the tenacity that Holtby brings to the midfield. The youngster has become a prominent figure in the German's starting XI since he took over at Craven Cottage in February and Holtby is expected to play a key role in the final 3 games.
Holtby is currently Fulham's highest rated player (7.13). The club have lost all three of the Premier League games he hasn't started since he moved to Fulham, while they are scoring more goals per game with him in the starting XI (1.22) than without (0.67). Even though he is deployed in behind the striker, it's no coincidence that Fulham concede fewer goals when Holtby starts (1.78) than when he doesn't (3.67).
The defensive input of the 23-year-old has seen him develop a strength of 'defensive contribution' and while the Cottagers are shipping more than they should if they are looking to stave off relegation, Holtby's inclusion in the starting XI is vital in their pursuit of top-flight safety. The energy he brings to the midfield has galvanised the team and gives them a fighting chance of remaining in England's top tier, regardless of the loss at the weekend.
This enthusiasm in the middle of the park means Holtby is able to charge across the pitch, not only in pursuit of playing a pass that will create a goalscoring opportunity, but to win possession for his side. As a result, only Sidwell (3.2) is averaging more tackles per game than Holtby (3.1) of every Fulham regular this term. Moreover, the Germany international is committing a low number of fouls per match (0.6); this return highlighting how successful he is when robbing the opposition of the ball.
The midfielder's relatively slight stature means he is never going to be a physically dominating performer in the mould of a Yaya Touré or Mile Jedinak, who utilise their power to break up play. Rather, Holtby's impressive reading of the game means he can win possession without conceding potentially harming free-kicks.
This in turn allows for him to control proceedings in the heart of midfield in his own way. Holtby's greatest asset is his passing ability, with the player boasting statistically calculated strengths of 'key passes' and 'through balls'.
Granted, he doesn't have the best pass success (75.3%) for the Cottagers in the league this season, but this could simply be down to his attempts to execute a more daring pass instead of looking to keep it simple. As a result, Holtby is playing the most key passes per game (1.9) at Fulham, while no player has registered more assists than the midfielder (3) despite the fact he has only been playing for them for a few months. A lack of goals may be problematic for a player in his position - Holtby has netted just once for Fulham - but he's evidently more effective at creating than he is scoring.
His average number of shots per game (1.7) is bettered by only two players currently at the club - Kostas Mitroglou (3.5) and Pajtim Kasami (2). This highlights the confidence in his ability to test the opposition goalkeeper, perhaps stemming from his match-winning goal from distance for Spurs earlier in the season, that coincidentally coming against Fulham.
While Holtby isn't quite the finished package, he's clearly improving with playing time. His utilisation by Magath is allowing him to display his qualities to the watching world and undoubtedly has Spurs fans rubbing their hands with excitement for his return to White Hart Lane once the season reaches its climax.
Until then however, the midfielder will undeniably give his all for the good of the club in order to maintain their Premier League status, in the process maintaining Magath's record of having never been relegated in his managerial career. Be it defending or attacking, the avidity he is bringing to the team hugely improves their chances of remaining in England's top tier, in turn showcasing his talents to those that have doubted him in the past.
How big a role do you think Lewis Holtby will play for Fulham between now and the end of the season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below
All statistics courtesy of http://www.whoscored.com where you can find yet more stats and player ratings.