Tottenham Hotspur’s decision to sell Rafael van der Vaart last summer, regardless of what the Dutchman could do on the pitch, supporters simply didn’t want to see him leave North London.
Of course, the now Hamburg-man’s eclectic range of attacking skills was always likely to leave a gaping hole in this Spurs side, but it was in his passion, his desire and the way that he played the game, that supporters were really loathsome to see him head for the exit door.
Although while it may be very early days within the Tottenham career of one Lewis Holtby, there’s a sneaking suspicion that not only has the club managed to replace the No10-like presence it’s been missing since Van der Vaart left the club – they may have also found a new fan favourite, too.
With Holtby only three games into his Spurs career, it’d be premature to label him as much more than an incredibly promising talent within Andre Villas-Boas’ side. In both the games against Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion, the young German changed the game with his bursts of sharp movements and incisive one and two-touch passing.
But it was within his home debut during the weekend’s 2-1 victory against Newcastle United, that supporters were really given a taste of what Holtby’s made of.
His process to acclimatization within this league won’t happen overnight and although he perhaps wasn’t firing on all cylinders against Alan Pardew’s side, the home crowd was treated to a magnificent display of effort from the 22-year-old. Holtby’s work ethic was there for all to see and the former Schalke-man ran his socks off before being replaced by Emmanuel Adebayor for the last 20 minutes.
Certainly, for all his wonderful goals in a Spurs shirt, Van der Vaart wasn’t exactly renowned for his tireless shifts on a matchday. If nothing else, Holtby offers a little more graft in attack for Villas-Boas’ side.
But every team needs a bit of character and since Van der Vaart departed, who can’t help that with him went a little bit of this team’s heart and aggression. It’s not an observation that all may agree with, nor is it one that would seem visibly apparent to the neutral.
But during your London derbies and your fixtures against the league’s biggest teams, Van der Vaart was always the man the White Hart Lane support would look to for a spot of inspiration and a dashing of passion. When he scored, he’d celebrate every goal as if it was his last and subsequently, you have to go as far back as perhaps David Ginola to find the last time supporters celebrated a foreign import in quite the same way.
First and foremost, Holtby is always going to be judged on what he contributes with the ball at his feet, not his theatrics once the ball has gone in the back of the net. But in his short time at Spurs he’s endeared himself to supporters simply by showing that Van der Vaart-like youthful enthusiasm for the game. When Gareth Bale fired Spurs ahead against West Bromwich Albion recently, Holtby could be seen hunched over the advertising hoardings screaming as if he was part of the travelling party at the Hawthorns. It might not seem like much, but you can’t help but feel sometimes there isn’t enough of that within this Spurs side.
And as we approach the looming North London derby next month, it seems poignant that the recent comparisons between Holtby and Van der Vaart have taken such prominence in recent weeks.
It would be foolish to claim that the Dutchman breathed new life into the first fixture that Tottenham fans look for when the list is released, but Van der Vaart did all he could to make that game his own during his stay in N17. His goal record against the Gunners certainly helped endear himself to the fans, but it was the little things, too, that made such a difference.
Be it putting his finger to his mouth in a silencing motion in front of the away support or simply not being afraid to fly into a meaty tackle, Van der Vaart came alive during his North London derbies and you got the impression he knew what it meant to the fans. Within Holtby, you get the feeling he’s not a million miles away in character.
Most importantly, Lewis Holtby needs to be producing the goods within matches, before he can think about endearing himself to fans in the same way Van Der Vaart did. After all, the Dutchman’s popularity with fans stemmed from the fact he was a superb footballer with a wonderful habit of scoring big goals in important matches. Holtby may play in a similar position, but as more of an architect than a goalscorer, we might not see him wheel away in celebration quite as many times as what Van der Vaart did.
But with two London derbies coming up in successive league games, Holtby has the chance to show us what he’s made of in handling the pressure cooker that both matches will bring. There will only ever be one Rafael van der Vaart, but should Lewis Holtby play with even half of the heart, style and passion that Van der Vaart brought to N17, then you can expect the current adulation thrown his way to last a very long time to come.