In January, I wrote he was significantly better than Ricardo Clark; In March, I said if there was a draft and I had to choose between Clint Dempsey and Holden — I would pick Holden; In June, I argued he should start against England in the World Cup. Holden ended up playing four minutes in the World Cup (enjoy Bob Bradley Aston Villa!!!) and though I easily could write 1,500 words just on that, for my own well being, and yours, I won’t.
But after watching Holden play 90 minutes in Bolton’s first two Premiership matches this season it’s worth trying to answer the question in the headline: How good is Stuart Holden? The former Houston Dynamo player (I still chuckle when I write Houston “Dynamo”) didn’t exactly look like a Xavi clone against Fulham and West Ham, but he did look like an above-average Premiership central midfielder. Is he?
Let’s first look at what we can quantify. Here is Holden’s passing chart against Fulham and West Ham:
And against West Ham:
Going 48 for 62 (77 percent) is good, but not great (Aston Villa’s Stiliyan Petrov, who is a similar player, completed 64 of 67 in his first two matches). What’s encouraging is when Holden missed a pass it usually was in position that didn’t put Bolton’s defense in a bad spot. Still, in a league that punishes turnovers, Holden missed a few too many easy passes and generated too few goal-scoring opportunities.
When it comes to shooting, Holden’s highlight of the first two matches was his strike from outside the box against Fulham. The low, hard shot beat David Stockdale on the near post, but hit the woodwork. He had a shot on target against West Ham, but it was an easy save for Robert Green (if there is such a thing).
Where Holden’s been really impressive is when Bolton doesn’t have the ball. He’s won 13 of 16 tackles (8 of 9 against Fulham), but Bolton fans will love him for his work ethic. He runs hard constantly and when he loses the ball he gets the “oh no you didn’t” look and works hard to win it back.
(Note: Why doesn’t anyone publish distance statistics for the Premiership? Actually, why does the EPL, which is probably the most popular league of any sport in the World, have a Web site that would have been outdated in 2004?)
The numbers might not be overwhelming, but Holden passed the “eye test” in both matches. He just looked like one of the best players on the field. His technical ability, and more specifically his ball striking skills, are at an elite level, even for the Premiership. I’ve called him a poor man’s David Beckham in the past and he really is that good on free kicks. Unfortunately, Martin Petrov is exceptional on corners and free kicks too, so it’s not clear yet how many dead ball opportunities Holden will get.
So is he an above-average Premiership central midfielder? Probably not, yet. Two matches is an extremely small sample size but Holden’s performances have been solid, if not spectacular, against probably a top 10 team (Fulham) and probably a bottom five team (West Ham). But the talent level is so high in the EPL, it would be a little ridiculous to call Holden one of the 20 best central midfielders in the league after two matches.
That said, as Holden continues to play regularly (which he hasn’t done in a year) and becomes more comfortable with his teammates, it seems more likely than not Holden will improve as the season continues. By January, he might be considered an above-average central midfielder and it might not even be much of a debate.
What is already clear, and should have been clear a year ago, is Holden is one of the best American footballers on the planet and a must starter for the United States national team. Can you imagine a Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Holden central midfield in South Africa? The U.S. would have ran teams into the ground. Well, on the bright side, at least we got a large dosage of Clark and Robbie Findley. I’m completely over the World Cup, no, really, I am.
(Note: I just realized I wrote consecutive stories on Bolton. They are my Premier League sleeper, but no more Bolton articles in the foreseeable future. I think.)