How has Steve Clarke made Kilmarnock so hard to beat?

How has Steve Clarke made Kilmarnock so hard to beat?

By Stevie Grieve

On October 1, we saw yet another young manager losing his job in the early stages of the season, as most people would argue – it’s a results business – and results weren’t good enough. Personally I was a fan of the things Lee McCulloch was trying to do, but unfortunately they struggled to create enough really clear-cut chances to offset how open and expansive he wanted them to play.


Enter the hugely experienced Steve Clarke, who having been an assistant manager for many years across many clubs, had a recent taste of management and had shown in the past that he could set up a team to be strong defensively against some of the best sides in Europe, while being able to create scoring chances in transition phases. If ever there was a time for a guy with his experience, it was then.


A big factor between the two coaches, in my opinion, is team selection and players available. Youssouf Mulumbu would arguably improve every team in the SPFL and has been a complete game changer for Kilmarnock.



When Mulumbu plays, Kilmarnock win, and score goals in the process. Before Mulumbu arrived, Kilmarnock looked as though they were in binary. Since the midfielder started playing, the Rugby Park side have started scoring far more goals than before.


I have a question for Kilmarnock fans – if Mulumbu was there when McCulloch was in charge, how different could results have been? Obviously I’m aware of the previous history of Clarke and Mulumbu but given the way McCulloch was trying to play, is it entirely possible they could be in a similar position with a higher quality player such as the former PSG midfielder giving them the ability to score more often?


Changes in defensive shape


One of the main things Steve Clarke has changed is the position of the ‘wingers’ in defensive phases. Under McCulloch, the wingers often played higher and wider than in Clarke’s system, and were used to launching attacks and opening the game up, which, if an attack broke down, left the sides open to be exploited, to force the wingers to recover, eventually leading to fatigue and a reduced influence in the game.


Winger’s defensive positioning v Celtic



We can see Rory McKenzie directly in front of the ball, blocking central vertical passes from Kristoffer Ajer, and confronting him as we know Ajer loves to dribble from the back. This leaves the wide pass into Kieran Tierney as the only real easy pass. To counter this, Stephen O’Donnell plays very wide and close enough to press the wide pass quickly, leaving the space between him and Kirk Broadfoot. Gary Dicker then plays in the space between the two, with McKenzie staying on the inside and tracking the space inside of O’Donnell to block the cut inside.


Mulumbu blocks the passing lane to Eboue Kouassi, while Jordan Jones almost marks Olivier Ntcham to completely control the midfield line. This would be far less effective if Kris Boyd wasn’t doing a great job in screening Scott Brown to control the centre, with Eamonn Brophy on the far side of the centre circle.


This is in stark contrast to Aberdeen who approach games v Celtic playing man-man, which never works as Celtic have better players so have a ‘qualitative superiority’, rather than ‘numerical’ or ‘positional’ superiority which needs to be created against a zonal defensive system to open up situations where the qualitative superiority can be used. Think of Lionel Messi or Neymar v any player – this is where the 1v1 isn’t equal, so the defence needs to send a 1v2, creating a free player somewhere, this is often how Celtic can use Scott Sinclair to open up more space for Brown to dictate games from deep.


Anyway, back to Kilmarnock.



In this scene, we see the impact of playing the wingers in such narrow positions. Jones is able to cover the space behind Mulumbu and Brophy, where James Forrest is lurking to break the midfield line.


McKenzie is again on the inside channel blocking anything diagonal on the inside from Tierney, Boyd is able to quickly press Brown who can now find the gap Celtic really want to attack with Mulumbu and Dicker too far to one side.


If Jones stays in a traditional winger position, six players are taken out of the game and Celtic have a 3v2 on the far side and result in a shot, rather than an interception and counter-attack.


The position of the wingers under McCulloch in a similar scene v Celtic



In this scene, we can see Lee Erwin fails to block the circulation pass into Stuart Armstrong. With this pass allowed, Celtic have the midfield line flat and Armstrong can choose the central pass to Benyu, or the switch to Calvin Miller on the far side. Chris Burke stays wide in a position rather than blocking the most dangerous passing lane into Benyu.


Most teams in the Premiership leave that space open, but against Celtic, it is the most vital space to block as they play a positional game with players in the space between and behind each two players on the midfield line.


Many teams in the SPFL have issues defending circulation as they get too close to opponents on the near side while being unable to access to the ball or control the centre, leaving a couple of easy passes to control the centre before making a forward pass to play through the lines. Often, the CFs will stay with the traditional position of staying close to the CBs often to the detriment of the midfield line who need to compensate by leaving their zone to press, offering up a space between the lines to be penetrated in. A few weeks ago I showed how St. Johnstone have a similar issue defending circulation as they play a very flat line and press 1v1 without re-directing play back towards where they have bodies.


Steve Clarke has done a brilliant job after a slow start at Kilmarnock and has them now on course to attack the top six and potentially challenge for a European slot normally reserved for St Johnstone over the past few years.


Are Kilmarnock ready to become a top six club again? That question comes down to Steve Clarke, and how long the club can keep him there. There is tough competition in the Premiership now with Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen all looking to be in the top three, with several other clubs on the perimeter of breaking into the top bracket. While next season it is likely we will see St. Mirren in the top flight, with the impressive Jack Ross leading the club to a complete turnaround.

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