If there is one position in the Rangers side that has been in desperate need of an upgrade over the last few transfer windows, it is Defensive-midfield (DM). While the role has changed over the years, in most sides there is that one player tasked with screening the back-four. As fans we've often thought who of our current players can play the role, even going so far as to say Kiernan should be given a shot! But, perhaps the answer has been staring us in the face all along: Jason Holt.
The most successful teams will generally have a world class player who screens the defense. The likes of Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, and Edgar Davids excelled in the position in their heyday. Makelele brought a renewed focus to the role, being praised for his understated contribution to his teams.
As we do not have the financial muscle to acquire world-class DMs, we've had to look at more modest options. Invariably, that role has went to Halliday. Throughout his career he has tended to play further forward, therefore his skill-set is not best suited to the role: his first-touch is awful; his reading of the game leaves a lot to be desired; he tends to want to burst forward, leaving the defense exposed; and, most importantly, he doesn't win his share of physical duels.
These issues are compounded by the fact we tended to use a lone pivot, which often left our defense exposed when opponents counter-attacked in numbers. Quite frankly, we do not have any one player that is entirely suited to the role.
However, we've seen a move away from the more destroyer-types to more deep lying playmakers -- although they are still needed to defend, they do so as a collective instead of team's relying on that one individual to make that tackle etc. Busquets, Alonso, Toni Kroos or Marco Verratti are all more playmaker-types compared to the old destroyer-types. Here, Rangers have more options.
Pedro Caixinha's arrival has brought a slight change in formation, which now includes a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2. Instead of having one player that must do all jobs, we can now use two that complement each other. In this way we can utilise our limited players; using their skill-sets collectively for the benefit of the team.
When you think about the top DMs in the game today, very few are known for their purely defensive qualities -- like the Keane's and Veira's of old -- Kroos, Alonso, Thiago, Weigl, Verratti, Carrick and Fernandinho are all preferred, not because of their tackling ability per se, but because of other attributes.
Modern DMs are expected to act decisively, keeping a detailed picture of what is around them; they have to be composed in possession, because it’s their job to get the ball off the back four and create, while also reading any danger; they need the vision and technique to execute crisp passes into space or into feet; they need to be good under pressure, and able to shield the ball from opponents; and, they need to be able to keep it simple -- over-complication leads to danger.
The current Rangers team has a few players with these qualities: Hyndman, Toral and Holt. While they don't have the physique of the old-type DMs -- we've seen with N'Golo Kante that you don't need a player built like a brick shithouse to break up play -- but their vision, technique, energy and passing ability lend themselves well to the more modern style DM. Rationally, these players seem unsuited to the role, considering their sight statures, but when they are used as a collective unit, they become something more than the sum of their parts.
Holt in particular has been nothing short of a revelation in the role. Holt's energy and stamina allows him to cover every blade of grass, giving us that early wave of pressure as soon as we lose the ball. His vision and reading of the game allows him to make key interceptions and cover our Full-backs; and his passing ability and technique allows us to build from the back.
A slight tactical shift has freed Holt to play to his strengths. Caixinha has sought to use his vision, ability to create angles and his passing range - which is more short-ranged - and sought to use it deeper, which has allowed him to use his energy to its greatest effect, to hound players. Playing deeper also allowed him to arrive into the box late, where he has the natural ability to find space.
Holt's slight frame has seen him play further forward earlier in the season - he does have the technique and movement with an eye for goal - but his most valued assets have been has boundless energy and vision. However, according to TheSPFLRader (@TheSPFLRadar ), he's not been performing in a forward role, being involved in very few chances created.
Holt's statistics have been quite remarkable in a deeper role. He was involved in more defensive duels against Aberdeen than any Rangers midfielder has in a single game this season. Only 4 times has a Rangers midfielder had 10+ interceptions in a game, 3 of which were in the last 5 games. Holt is only the one to do it twice. Again, in Saturday's game, no Rangers player was involved in more defensive duels than Holt. In the last 3 games, Holt has retrieved the ball 33 times.
Moreover, Holt's influence on the rest of the team has been similarly impressive. For example, Aberdeen's Ash Taylor averaged 35 passes per game, but against Rangers he had 60. Rangers' midfield structure forced Aberdeen to very often go backwards. However, the most important statistic in Caixinha's 5 games as manager, is that Rangers have only conceded 1 goal.
Rangers' Defensive-midfield has been in desperate need of a upgrade. While we've been hoping for an old-fashioned destroyer-type, perhaps a modern playmaker-type DM has been here all along. Holt has been a revelation; the number of physical duels he has been involved in is superior to any other player we have; moreover his ability to intercept and retrieve the ball is a key aspect of this new set-up under Pedro Caixinha. We may have indeed uncovered the white Kante!
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