How Kilmarnock’s central midfielders are key to their success

How Kilmarnock’s central midfielders are key to their success

By Niall Murray

It’s now Ayrshire’s worst kept secret; Youssouf Mulumbu is pretty good at football. The midfield maestro has been instrumental in Steve Clarke’s continuing success at Rugby Park with Kilmarnock now sitting just three points off the top six places.


Indeed Kilmarnock’s best bit of business in January might have been keeping the Congolese international at the club. Mulumbu’s been grabbing the headlines and predictably so. He’s an ex-Premier League player who’s been immense since arriving in Ayrshire. 


However, there are many factors to Steve Clarke’s success at Kilmarnock. You could focus on the defensive unit where he has created an extremely solid veteran centre-back pairing. Similarly, you could look at the attacking threat his side poses with arguably the best winger in the league, Jordan Jones and a rejuvenated Kris Boyd up front.


Conversely, we’re going to focus on the engine room of this team. And yes, Mulumbu is very much a key part of that, but he’s only 50% of it. Simply put, the midfield pairing of Mulumbu and Gary Dicker has been central to Kilmarnock’s ongoing good form.


What exactly does this dynamic duo do for Steve Clarke’s side? We delved into the numbers to find out just that.


Defensive strength and ability to win the back the ball


One of the main attributes Mulumbu and Dicker bring to the table is their defensive strength. Both are good at keeping the opposition at bay and winning back the ball for their team. The latter is particularly important given Kilmarnock have the lowest ball possession out of any Premiership club.


This stat may seem slightly surprising, but what it shows is that they have players who are willing to continuously battle and win back the ball.


The graph above is evidence of both player’s defensive and ball-winning capabilities. Every game Mulumbu averages 10.06 defensive duels and wins 30 percent of them. Dicker on the other hand averages slightly less per game (9.02) but has a success rate of 32.5 percent. It should also be noted that Alan Power’s defensive numbers aren’t to be sniffed at either.


To put this in context, Kilmarnock’s midfield duo are amongst the top 25 players in the league when it comes to defensive duels per match. They also have some of the Premiership’s highest success rates in said defensive contests.


Dicker’s average of 6.43 interceptions also makes him one of the best in the league in that specific category. The Irishman’s defensive skills shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you look at how he performed last season.


Only five players in the Premiership contested more defensive duels last campaign; he was also 11th when it came to interceptions. It’s no wonder he was voted player of the year given the impact he had for the Rugby Park side.


Injury meant he missed out at the start of this season, but since he’s returned under Clarke he’s hit the ground running. You can’t help but wonder if Lee McCulloch would still be Kilmarnock manager were Dicker fit at the start of the season.


Dicker is the true enforcer of this Kilmarnock team. He’s not scared to do the all-important dirty work that makes them resilient and hard to break down; just ask Rangers and Celtic.


Turning defence into attack


Kilmarnock’s central midfielders are also good with the ball at their feet. Retaining the ball is a problem for Kilmarnock so it’s vital that when they have it they make good use of it.



The numbers in this chart highlight how these three midfielders are the nucleus of Clarke’s side. In essence, they are a filter in this Kilmarnock team and a significant portion of play goes through them.


Mulumbu (40.03), Dicker (37.44) and Power (36.1) make up three of the top four Kilmarnock players when it comes to passes per match. Furthermore, they’re also in the top four when it comes to pass completion rates.


What’s even more impressive is that Mulumbu’s in the top 30 players in the Premiership in terms of passes per game. This is no mean feat given that 18 out of the 30 play for either Rangers or Celtic.



The graph also shows that the trio plays a high number of passes into the final third each match. In fact, Mulumbu (7.91) and Power (7.85) both are amongst the top players in the league in this category.


It’s evident how Kilmarnock’s central midfielders are capable of turning attack into defence. Alternatively, you could argue a high number of passes into the final third may mean a significant number of clearances.


What’s perhaps shocking is the lack of key passes. Mulumbu hasn’t played any so far this season and Power only contributes an average 0.07 per game. Conversely, Dicker (0.34) makes the top 30 when it comes to passes that lead to a shot on goal.



When you dig a little deeper the importance of Kilmarnock’s engine room becomes more apparent. Expected goal chain credits a player who has played a key part in a passage of play that’s lead to a shot on goal. This could be a key pass, the pass before that (SSA) or even the one prior to that (EP).


The startling thing about the graph above is that Mulumbu is part of the xG chain 0.54 times per game. No other Kilmarnock player is involved in as many moves that end up with a shot on goal. Simply put, Mulumbu is vital in starting and being involved in passages of play that end in goalscoring opportunities.


Gary Dicker is also influential in this regard with only Mulumbu, Chris Burke and Jordan Jones having higher xG chain averages.


When you add attacking players like Jones, Eamonn Brophy and Boyd to the equation it’s easy to see why Kilmarnock are having so much success.


There’s a good chance both Clarke and Mulumbu could depart at the end of the season. But until then Kilmarnock fans and Scottish football should enjoy them while they are here.

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