The Royal Blues may have salvaged some cash by allowing 22-year-old Lewis Holtby to go to England on Monday. But Tottenham Hotspur got a bargain, while Schalke are left borrowing players to save their sputtering season.
Lewis Holtby's landlord will hope he remembered to clean out the icebox.
“I've still got my apartment, and the fridge is full,” the young Schalke midfielder said on Saturday when asked if he was imminently heading to London and Tottenham Hotspur, the club he had already agreed to join this summer.
Barely forty-eight hours later, Schalke gave in to Holtby's desire to leave early for a reported 1.75 million euro ($2.35 million) transfer fee, which allowed them to bring in Brazilian Michel Bastos from Olympique Lyon on loan as a replacement. The deal was perhaps unavoidable since the Royal Blues would have lost Holtby for nothing this July anyway. The “best solution for all involved” was how Schalke sports director Horst Heldt spun the news - a euphemism for making the best of a bad situation.
Still, there is plenty of ambiguity about this move. Holtby is forgoing the chance to play Champions League football for the first half of 2013. Schalke are giving up one of the players touted as being central to the club's future. And Tottenham are hoping Holtby is ready to make the transition from young talent to team mainstay.
So who, if anyone, will come out ahead?
Holtby celebrated goals at Mainz by playing air guitar with the post
Given the small transfer fee, it's hard to see that Tottenham have gone far wrong with the 22-year-old. It wasn't long ago - the 2010-11 season to be precise - that Holtby and André Schürrle formed the “boy group” that rocked the Bundesliga in Mainz.
Holtby is a fantastic dribbler, one of the few players who can pull off Zinedine Zidane's patented stop-and-spin move without falling flat on his face. He's also versatile and durable, featuring in every match thus far for Schalke this season. His pass completion rate is a sensational 82 percent.
Skills like that made him a regular member of Germany's under-21 national team. And the fact that his father is English may well ease his transition to the Premiership. All reasons for people in White Hart Lane to be rubbing their hands.
And yet at both the club and the national level, there's been a sense that Holtby has yet to realize all of his enormous potential. Unlike his former teammate Schürrle, the midfielder has never been able to establish himself in Germany's A-team. He's only been capped three times. Germany's Die Welt newspaper once even tar brushed him as “a right foot of wood, the left foot of a virtuoso.”
He was also involved in a clash of egos after Schalke's meek 2-0 loss to Leverkusen in November that precipitated the Royal Blues' dip in form and led to the firing of coach Huub Stevens. Spurs coach Andre Villas Boas should keep on his good side.
Boots made for walking
Many people have attributed Holtby's desire to play in the Premiership to the fact that he's half-English, but as an Everton fan, signing with Spurs is all about career prospects and, of course, money. And it fits in with his nomadic career trajectory thus far.
Holtby grew up not in Gelsenkirchen, but on Germany's Dutch border and came up through the youth ranks of Mönchengladbach and Aachen, playing for the latter in the second division. Schalke snapped him up at the start of 2009-10, but after half a season, the Royal Blues loaned him out first to Bochum and then to Mainz.
With Schalke having fallen to sixth in the Bundesliga, while Spurs sit fourth in England, Holtby no doubt sees Tottenham as the next rung on what has been an ascending ladder. In the immediate term, though, it's a step down. Spurs are only in the Europa League – coincidentally or not, their next opponents are Lyon.
And it's harder to qualify for the Champions League in England than in Germany. Tottenham has managed that feat only once in club history, while Schalke's qualification rate in the past decade is better than fifty percent.
Spurs hope Holtby will put them over this all-important hump, but if he fails to produce immediately, the mood could turn against him at White Hart Lane – as it did in Schalke in December, when he announced he would not be re-signing for the Royal Blues.
Youth for sale
The big losers in the deal are Schalke. Holtby's departure sends another tremor through a team that has won only one of its last eight league matches. Heldt has plugged the possible hole in Schalke's midfield by signing Bastos as well as playmaker Raffael on loan, but it's far from sure that they can turn the tide and help the Royal Blues achieve their stated season goal - Champions League qualification.
“Two Brazilians who join a nervous team in the middle of a German winter - one is allowed to be somewhat skeptical,” the news magazine Spiegel remarked archly.
What's more, Holtby's departure marks the end of Schalke's attempt, begun in 2009, to build a title-contending team around young talent rather than pricey veteran transfers. Bastos and Raffael are 29 and almost 28 years old respectively, and the median age of the Schalke eleven that were lucky to eke out a draw in Augsburg last weekend was between 25 and 26. The Royal Blues have only one young offensive up-and-comer left: 19-year-old Julian Draxler.
The patience Schalke showed in loaning out Holtby for 18 months of his four-year-contract did not yield any returns. The midfielder envisioned as the team's future rudder choose to say “cheerio” instead, leaving Schalke adrift and needing stop-gap signings to get back on course.