Can Kilmarnock finish in the Premiership top six this season?

Can Kilmarnock finish in the Premiership top six this season?

By Stefan Bienkowski

Kilmarnock’s resounding 5-1 win over Partick Thistle on Saturday was not only an outstanding performance from Steve Clarke’s side, but also a notable statement of intent. The Rugby Park side are no longer a team floating around the bottom of the table, worried about the constant threat of relegation.


Although the relatively new coach may have been far more modest in his post-match interviews, there’s no doubt that Clarke didn’t come to Kilmarnock to simply avoid the drop. His ambition is set on a top-half finish with this Killie side and considering the way they’ve been playing since he arrived it’s not the most farfetched idea.  


Predicting the future


The most obvious way of defining how well Kilmarnock are doing this season and deducing how high up the league table they can finish in May, we must first turn to the teams that have done it before them.


Over the course of the past three seasons, the average points needed to finish sixth in the Premiership stands at 45. With Partick Thistle managing to sneak in last season on just 42 points from 33 games.



If we then plot the average needed and Thistle’s own points tally throughout the 33-game run alongside Kilmarnock’s so far this season we ge something that looks like the timeline plotted above.


Here, we can see that the start of the season under Lee McCulloch offered very little in terms of points progression, which was evident from the manner in which the club were more concerned about avoiding relegation rather than aspiring to the lofty heights of a top-half finish.


Then came Clarke. From matchday 10 we can see Kilmarnock’s points total make a notable jump and leap upwards, as the club’s form drastically improved under the new coach. We can also see – to the undoubted optimism of Killie fans – that their form notably intertwines with Thistle’s own run last season. In fact, Kilmarnock currently have a better points tally right now than Alan Archibald’s side did at this point last season.

We then took the average points per game Kilmarnock have been picking up under Clark so far and then used it to predict where the Rugby Park side will finish this season. On current form it suggests that they’ll finish on 42 points. Just below the average needed for a top-half finish over the past three seasons, but crucially above the total Thistle managed last season.


Immediate improvements


Of course, we can’t spend all day speculating on what the future may hold for Clarke’s Kilmarnock. But we can take a look at the present and appreciate the quick turnaround he’s done at Rugby Park in a remarkably short period of time.


The most striking figure is Kilmarnock’s points per game since Clark arrived at the club. Under McCulloch, Killie were claiming just 0.7 points from each match yet under the former West Brom coach they’re now picking up 1.5. Which means they’ve effectively doubled the amount of points they’re picking up from one game to the next.


To put that in to context, it’s worth noting that since the start of the league campaign only four Premiership teams have maintained a PPG (points per game) total above 1.5. Even Motherwell, deemed one of the most improved teams in the league this year and a near certainty for a top-half finish, are only averaging 1.43 points per game.


Although reality doesn’t tend to play out as simply as this, you could argue that if we were to assume Kilmarnock’s form under Clarke isn’t an initial blip in form and is indeed how they intend to perform under him, then had he started at the very beginning of the Premiership season Kilmarnock may have found themselves sitting around fifth in the table.


That’s quite the “What if…?” scenario which rival fans may – perhaps quite rightly – roll their eyes at, but it does go some way to illustrate Kilmarnock’s notable jump in fortunes since Clarke arrived at the club. They may be sitting eighth in the league table, but they’re playing like a top-half side.


Encouraging sings across the board


Of course, the improvements at Kilmarnock aren’t just in the form of points won. The general consensus seems to be that Clarke has fortified the team’s defences, shown by their ability to grind out results, but in reality it’s actually the attacking line that has seen a drastic improvement.



Kilmarnock’s goals per game have jumped up from 0.8 goals to 1.5, while their expected goals (xG) in each match has risen from 1.16 to 1.73. An impressive feat considering their defensive stats are almost identical to what they were like before Clarke took over at the club.


Indeed, what’s perhaps even encouraging for Killie fans is the fact that not only were Clarke’s initial results far better than his predecessors, but we’ve also seen Kilmarnock improving on them.


Draws at Celtic and Rangers and a win over lowly Hearts are all impressive, but in recent weeks we’ve seen results like a draw with Dundee become wins in Perth or a thorough thumping of rivals, such as the 5-1 win over Partick at the weekend.


If Kilmarnock’s form under Clarke so far was in fact nothing more than the “new manager bump” then we would have seen results and performances tail off and revert back to the mean. Yet instead, we’ve seen the Rugby Park side get better and better.


Kilmarnock not only look immediately better under Clarke, but they’re improving each and every match day. Relegation no longer seems like a concern and there’s no reason why this side can’t begin aiming for a top-half finish.


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