Clarke still has work to do to recapture last season’s form

Clarke still has work to do to recapture last season’s form

By James Cairney

The Scottish Premiership is back this weekend after the international break as club football once again takes a front seat. The fixture list has thrown up the usual intriguing matches but the weekend’s most eye-catching one will be taking place at Easter Road on Saturday afternoon, with Kilmarnock the visitors.

 

Both Hibernian and Killie have had mixed starts to the campaign as they look to regain last year’s form. The Hibees started the season in impressive fashion in the early qualifying rounds of the Europa League but have stuttered in recent weeks domestically. Meanwhile, Kilmarnock suffered a slow start but looked to be back to their best in their last fixture, a 2-0 win at Pittodrie.

 

With neither side entering the match in the best of form, Saturday’s fixture represents a great opportunity to pick up a morale-boosting win to kickstart the season. Below, we’ve taken a look at how Kilmarnock’s play differs from last season and what areas of the pitch Clarke should seek to exploit.

 

 

Problems in attack

 

If Steve Clarke wants to get Kilmarnock back to the level they were at last season, the former West Brom manager will be keenly aware that improvements are required in attack. Killie’s success last year was primarily built on their defensive solidity, but Clarke’s side were equally effective at nicking goals at the opposite end. But, so far at least, this year’s attack has yet to click for the Ayrshire club.

 

Last season, despite Clarke’s preference for defensive organisation, Kilmarnock were one of the most creative teams in the division in terms of the number of goalscoring opportunities they fashioned for themselves. A key pass is a pass that leads to a shot – a shot assist if you like – and last year, Kilmarnock produced key passes at the third-highest rate in the Premiership.

 

 

This season, however, it’s a different story. Kilmarnock are averaging 0.72 key passes per 90 minutes, tied with Hamilton in dead last when measured by this metric. This is a serious problem for Clarke, as it highlights the fact that Killie aren’t creating enough opportunities through teamwork, instead relying on moments of individual quality to see them through. The 2-0 win over Aberdeen the other week is a great example of this – Eamonn Brophy’s free-kick and Greg Stewart’s slaloming dribble were both fantastic goals, but had little to do with teamwork: the foundation of Kilmarnock’s success last year.

 

Kris Boyd finished as Kilmarnock’s – and the Premiership’s – top scorer during the 2017/18 season with 18 goals but the veteran striker is yet to get off the mark in the league this season. The 35-year-old has never been the most mobile player and requires lots of service if he’s to be an effective poacher. However, as we’ve seen, this simply isn’t happening for Killie so far this season. If Clarke wants to leave Easter Road with all three points, then he cannot rely on individual moments of brilliance to do so. Neater passing in the final third is a must.

 

Go wide

 

A lot of Kilmarnock’s best play last season came from out wide and was in no small part down to the contributions of their full-backs Stephen O’Donnell and Greg Taylor. Both players would constantly push up into midfield, overlapping the winger ahead of them and delivering cross after cross into the opposition box. It proved an effective strategy and it’s one that could cause Hibernian trouble this weekend.

 

 

Half of the goals that Hibs have conceded this season have come from crossing positions out wide, either from the initial ball in or from failing to effectively clear it in the immediate aftermath. This is one of the areas where Killie excelled last season but this year there’s been a slight drop off; the team’s crossing accuracy has fallen by 6% and they’re attempting fewer crosses per 90 minutes. O’Donnell showed how dangerous he can be when encouraged to attack for the national team against Albania; if Clarke uses him similarly, then he can surely hurt Hibs.

 

Neil Lennon’s side have also looked vulnerable when attackers have dribbled directly at them, with the Hibs defenders occasionally over-committing to tackles and leaving themselves exposed. Both of Livingston’s goals a fortnight ago typified this – the Hibs defence flew into tackles, desperate to deny the threat but after some neat footwork found themselves completely undone. This should be music to the ears of Jordan Jones – the English winger was one of the best dribblers in the Premiership last season and could be a potential match-winner for Clarke on Saturday if given the opportunity to drive at the Hibs defence.

 

Saturday’s encounter looks like the weekend’s most compelling Premiership fixture and both sides will be looking for a win in what feels like an important match for both. Moreover, it will be a good yardstick to measure each team’s progress this season so far. Hibs have won just one of their last six matches in all competitions and will be desperate to get back to winning ways while a win for Kilmarnock would likely result in them consolidating their position in third.

 

Hibs proved something of a bogey team for Kilmarnock last season – the Edinburgh club won two and drew two of the two sides’ four league encounters last year – but look a little unsettled this time around and there are areas that Clarke can exploit.

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