Lewis Holtby's loan cycle continues with another trip to Hamburg
A week ago, the transfer window closed after the usual frenetic last-gasp activity. By general consensus, in the Bundesliga, Mainz were among those who made the most of it. The club had already signed highly rated Serbian midfielder Filip Djuricic (from Benfica) in August. Then, on the final two days of the summer transfer period, they also grabbed defender Philipp Wollscheid (from Leverkusen), midfielder Jonas Hofmann (Dortmund) and striker Sami Allagui (Hertha).
All four should really help the team but, barring unforeseen developments, all four will do so for only one single season. They have all been sent to Mainz on loan.
We have covered the ever-increasing number of loan deals before (see: Loan sharks -- the future of football, Nov. 4, 2013). They are now so prevalent that some smaller clubs, such as Mainz, are in danger of effectively becoming farm teams, having to start from scratch when summer comes and all those talented loanees return to the clubs that own their contracts.
But it's not only the clubs for whom all these loan deals can be a problem. What about the players? Some of them can never really become part of a team, let alone a club, because they seem to be constantly on the move. If they don't do well for the club that has loaned them out, they are sent back. If they excel, they are called back. And even if they're not, the small club can rarely afford a proper transfer or even the player's full wages.
Chelsea's Gael Kakuta, who's been loaned out to six different clubs in five countries in less than four years, may be a particularly extreme case, but there's also a very promising German player whose career is now shaping up to be dominated by temporary forays: Hamburg's Lewis Holtby.
On the last day of the transfer window, Hamburg made some important deals. The club loaned out defender Jonathan Tah to Dusseldorf and midfielder Kerem Demirbay to Kaiserslautern, both second-division clubs. Then they added two players on loan: Julian Green from Bayern Munich and Holtby from Spurs.
Holtby is still a young man, yet this is already his fourth loan spell. He first made headlines some five years ago, when he was playing for Alemannia Aachen in the second division. In July 2009, Schalke announced they had signed the German under-19 international to a four-year contract. The transfer sum was not disclosed but rumoured to be 2.8 million euros.
"Lewis is one of the greatest talents in the German game," Schalke's then-coach Felix Magath said. "I'm happy he's joined us, because he had the chance to sign with some other Bundesliga teams. I'm sure he's going to do well, become one of our key players and will one day knock on the door of the national team."
But during the first five months of the season, Holtby started only three games and never went the distance. In late January 2010, shortly before the winter transfer window was slammed shut, Schalke loaned him out to Bochum, then also in the top flight. The idea was for Holtby to stay with Bochum until June 2011 and then go back to Schalke.
"Back in the summer, half the league was after him," Bochum's business manager Thomas Ernst said. "He's got everything to make us a better team. During our talks with Lewis, we won the impression that he wants to go places with us during those one-and-a-half years." Then he added: "We couldn't afford an option to buy him outright."
In his first match for Bochum -- a home game against league leaders Leverkusen -- the 19-year-old Holtby was fielded on the left side of midfield. The visitors went ahead and were looking for an insurance goal when Bochum hit them on the break. Holtby set up Zlatko Dedic, who made it 1-1 to earn his side an unexpected point.
But it was a false dawn for both the club and their young loanee. On the last day of the season, and with Bochum fighting for survival, Holtby sat on the bench when the crucial game against Hannover 96 began. He watched helplessly as the visitors scored three goals before the break to send Bochum down.
On the same day, Schalke closed out the season away at Mainz. After the game, Mainz's smart business manager Christian Heidel chatted with Magath. At the time, the reporters watching the lively discussion from a distance figured that the two men were talking about striker Aristide Bance, who was thought to have an offer from Schalke.
Instead, Heidel asked Magath about Holtby. The player was surely too good to see out the remaining year of his loan deal with Bochum in the second division. Schalke, meanwhile, already had a few creative midfielders with the sort of playmaking abilities that made Holtby such an interesting player, men like Ivan Rakitic and Alexander Baumjohann, who was expected to break through any minute. Mainz's manager Thomas Tuchel was a bit sceptical of his club's chance, because he told the press a few days later: "Once a player has been with a club like Schalke, he's almost too big for us. That's when we come up against our limits."
However, Heidel once more proved his uncanny knack for making deals. In late May 2010, Mainz announced that Holtby would be loaned out from Schalke for the duration of the following season. During the summer, Holtby worked very hard on the training pitch to come to grips with Mainz's demanding game, based on defensive discipline and a lot of running. "That was a Schalke pass, Lewis!" an angry Tuchel would yell whenever Holtby played a speculative long ball instead of the rapid-fire short passes or through balls Mainz wanted from him.
When the season began, Holtby was ready. "He's got vision in the final third of the pitch and he's a goal-scoring threat himself," Tuchel lauded. "All that's missing now is that he's got to became more of a reliable ball winner." The player who broke through in 2010-11 was not Baumjohann but Holtby. Together with Andre Schurrle and Adam Szalai, he formed the "Bruchweg Boys" (named after Mainz's ground). When one of them made or scored a goal they would often celebrate by miming a band: Schurrle on guitar, Szalai on drums, Holtby on vocals.
It was the best season of his young career. Both Schurrle and Holtby were called up to the national team when Germany played Sweden in November 2010. Six months later, Mainz finished the season in fifth place -- 18 points ahead of Schalke, who had flirted with relegation all year long and fired Magath in March.
There were two years left on Holtby's contract with Schalke and this time, under new coach Ralf Rangnick, the club never even considered talking to Heidel about a new deal. Rangnick liked the 20-year-old Holtby so much that he not only played him in the positions he was used to -- left-sided midfield and in the hole behind a striker -- but also as a creative holding midfielder in front of the back four, alongside 19-year-old Joel Matip.
Maybe Holtby's entire career would have worked out differently if Rangnick hadn't stunned everyone by stepping down in September, saying he was suffering from an exhaustion syndrome and felt burnt out. Holtby went through three more coaches at Schalke during the next 14 months. Yet by all accounts he intended to extend his contract, until an offer he couldn't refuse came in during late 2012.
Holtby's father Chris is English (an Everton fan from Liverpool who once had a trial with Luton Town but then joined the RAF). Lewis had always dreamed of playing in Britain. So when Spurs expressed an interest in signing him once his contract had run out, Holtby didn't think twice about it and broke off talks with Schalke.
His decision didn't sit well with Schalke and their supporters, so events unfolded according to a well-known script. In late January 2013, Holtby dissolved his contract with immediate effect and left for London in return for a transfer sum that was reported to be around 1.75 million euros. He signed a four-and-a-half-year deal with Spurs, while Schalke's business manager Horst Heldt said: "We've found the best solution for all parties involved. Lewis signalled he wouldn't mind moving before the end of the season and we have received a sizeable sum for a contract that would have run its course in five months."
But whether this was really the best solution for everyone remains to be seen. Holtby was already familiar with the possible consequences of being bound to a big club for four or more years, so perhaps he should have given the matter some serious thought before signing another long-term contract. Clubs usually encourage such deals since the Bosman ruling in 1995. (Before Bosman, clubs were due transfer money whenever a player moved elsewhere, which means the actual duration of a contract was only of secondary importance.) Yet Holtby was in such an excellent bargaining position that he should have been able to negotiate a shorter contract. But he didn't, so we have to presume it's not what he wanted.
So after only one year at White Hart Lane, the cycle started anew. In January 2014, Holtby was loaned out to Fulham. As was the case with Bochum all those years ago, the team got relegated. Holtby was quoted as saying: "I cried with the club when we went down, and Fulham will always be a part of me," then he returned to the team that held his contract. Barely two months later, he was loaned out yet again, to Hamburg.
As far as I can make out -- and please correct me if you have additional information -- the current record for loan deals is held by Stephen Dobbie, a Scottish striker. During his senior career, the 31-year-old has had no less than nine individual loan spells with seven different clubs. (He was loaned out to Blackpool more than once, first by Swansea, then by Crystal Palace.)
It means there are still a lot of moves for Holtby to make until he gets near the record. But he's only 23. And even if he does well at Hamburg during the next months, the club has so little money that they can hardly afford to make Holtby's loan move permanent. Which means that the former "Bruchweg Boy" will probably remain on tour for some time to come.