Jason Holt is reaching his undoubted potential and flourishing within Mark Warburton’s system at Ibrox, writes Craig Fowler.
“A player with a velvet touch and the awareness of a buffalo drinking water at the lake knowing there is a lion in the vicinity.”
This was how a colleague of mine, Joel Sked, on the Terrace Podcast described Jason Holt when remembering his early days after breaking into the Hearts first team. I have pinched this quote and placed it at the top of this article for two reasons: I think it’s an excellent description of the player in question, and it’s just as accurate now as it was then.
Jason Holt is a terrific technical footballer. He has been ever since he started playing regularly in the Hearts under-19s, when this writer first spotted him. Few players possess such qualities in their advanced years, so to see someone take care of the football with such unassuming confidence and dependability was downright thrilling.
This boy was going to be a star. It was never in doubt.
He played the game with his head up, such a rare quality for someone so young. This skill also gave him the ability, somehow, to sense danger coming from behind, like the aforementioned buffalo, at which point he would dart to either side, retaining possession.
He could shoot as well. He didn’t have particularly great power. He was 5ft 8in and built like the side of a fiver, after all. Instead he would use the speed of the ball and strike it in just the right place.
Depending on which school of thought you subscribe to with regards to developing youngsters, it could also be said things fell perfectly for him as far as his ascent to the Hearts first-team was concerned.
His first full season with the squad saw the club gradually relying more on youth, before relying almost exclusively on it the next year after administration struck. Even the team that stormed to the Scottish Championship last term had a healthy dollop of youth in the mixture. And yet Holt wasn’t there to douse champagne over his equally jubilant team-mates when the title was secured. He was out on loan at Sheffield United having been unable to hold down a regular place across any of the previous three years.
Then Sheffield United decided they didn’t want him either. With Hearts holding onto his registration due to his age and time spent with the club, others were scared off trying to buy him. Instead of taking a risk free chance on a young player with talent, a calculated investment had to be made. Scottish clubs don’t like gambling; they’ve lost everything before. So all of June came and went and then most of July. Still no-one had signed the midfielder.
What had gone wrong? The star was quickly becoming, well, a Scottish footballer.
For all Holt’s potential at Hearts, that’s all there ever was; enough flashes to keep the fans believing some day the dominant hero would emerge.
The problem was that Holt’s skills made him what basketball analysts would call a “tweener”. Someone able to play two positions but not well enough to shine at either.
Physically, he didn’t have the strength to consistently battle or knock opposing attackers off stride in the defensive midfield role. Further forward he would often look to keep possession first, take chances second. In the attacking midfielder position, the No.10, a player has the pressure to create, particularly on a team that was struggling, as it was for the majority of Holt’s time at Hearts.
A typical Holt move at Tynecastle would see him to take the ball into feet, back from goal, 25 yards out. A defender would press. He would see it coming. He’d move a yard back from where he came, or off to the side, and find a team-mate, usually on the wing. Nothing wrong with such an action, but occasionally an attacking player needs to try and take on the closing defender. Knock it through his legs or try a through ball for his striker. Especially when the team is relying on you to make such magic happen.
It was suggested in another publication, in an interview with Holt, that he didn’t fit in because of Hearts’ “team of giants”. If he was a defender, sure. But Jamie Walker would eventually take over from Holt in the No.10 role during the title winning season, and size-wise there’s not much to differentiate the two.
The truth was he lacked either the ruthlessness, and perhaps even the confidence to take a game by the scruff of the neck and dominate in the final third. It had been a flaw in his game when he first broke into the senior squad and it was still a problem.
He needed a change of scenery.
Lost in a mixture of their on-field dominance and off-field issues is Rangers’ system. It’s fairly unique in Scottish football terms. To put it simply, it’s a 4-1-4-1. However, to describe it in the detail it demands that you have to mention the playmaker at defensive midfield, the full-backs high up in opponent’s half, the striker dropping deep all over the place, and everyone else ready to crash the penalty area at a moment’s notice.
Holding this organised chaos together is a short, quick passing game that looks to starve opponents of the football. This pushes opponents teams back towards their own penalty area, where they are overloaded by the amount of attacking players coming at them.
Playing a key role in all of this is Holt. His ability to feel the pressure behind him, take a clean touch under control and find the nearest open man without any fuss makes him the fulcrum of this passing attack. It allows Rangers to retain their composure and patience even when the opposition sit in, as the team probe for the right opening. And Holt is doing this on a team that, whisper it, might even be better than the Hearts side he couldn’t find a place in last term.
The signing of Gedion Zelalem threatened to knock him off stride, briefly. The on-loan Arsenal kid does much the same job and initially it was assumed, given his higher pedigree, it was a job he did better. However, what’s been most impressive about Holt since he move to Ibrox has been the increase in confidence. He still hears the footsteps behind him and acts accordingly, but now if those footsteps are at a relative distance, or he doesn’t hear them at all, he won’t hesitate in charging towards the penalty area. His four goals are a testament to that. Zelalem, at present, doesn’t pose quite the same threat.
He isn’t as big of a star.