Few even bothered raising an eyebrow when Eamonn Brophy moved to Kilmarnock on a three-year…
Over the last twenty years or so, the role of the full back has changed dramatically. Initially seen as a position of little consequence, it wasn’t really until the emergence of Brazilian legends Cafu and Roberto Carlos that the football world learned of the attacking and creative potential of the position, so long as defensive duties did not suffer as a result. Pep Guardiola’s sides went one step further, utilising wide defenders primarily as creative outlets. This evolution of the role has continued to the point where full backs can now be considered one of the most influential areas of the pitch and the balance between attack and defence has never been more difficult to strike.
Since Steve Clarke arrived at Rugby Park this season, there have been many players who have been rightly praised as integral to the sudden change in fortunes of the Ayrshire club. Jordan Jones and Kris Boyd both made the team of the year, Yusuf Mulumbu has caught the eye in midfield while Killie’s preferred centre back pairing of Stuart Findlay and Kirk Broadfoot has been a huge success. All of these players have picked up the plaudits this campaign, but it’s Clarke’s two full-backs who deserve a fair bit of credit too.
Greg Taylor, on the left, and the right-sided Stephen O’Donnell have slipped under the radar at times this season. It’s easy to see why. Clarke is a very talented coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Full-backs in his sides play a simpler, more functional role with an emphasis on defence. But, as we shall see, Taylor and O’Donnell have contributed plenty going forward as well.
To get an idea of their importance to the team, we only need to examine the number of appearances the pair have made this season. Taylor has started every league fixture this year, while O’Donnell started 35. Out of Kilmarnock’s nine cup matches, they’ve both missed just one game apiece. These are two players who have played virtually every minute of every game for Kilmarnock this season – their importance to the team cannot be understated.
Let’s take a look at O’Donnell first. The defender was rewarded for his form this season with a debut for the national team against Peru and the 26-year-old will know that a string of good performances could see him become a regular in what has been a problem position in recent years. In defence, the right back’s stats are fine but going forward is where he really impresses.
In terms of key passes – passes which lead to an attempt on goal – the defender has really excelled this year and finds himself in the Premiership’s top ten most effective players in this regard. O’Donnell averages more key passes per game than Tom Rogic, Scott Sinclair or Stuart Armstrong – all of whom enjoy the distinct advantage of playing for a Celtic side a level or two above their nearest domestic rivals. Yet here we have a right back who’s creating more chances than the champion’s best playmakers.
In terms of total defensive duels – that is, a combination of tackles, headers and interceptions – O’Donnell is once again in the league’s top ten. Taylor also excels here and is only bettered by Graeme Shinnie in this regard – aside from the Aberdeen midfielder, no Premiership player has been attempted more.
This brings us nicely onto Taylor’s role in the team. Where O’Donnell is tasked with bombing down the line and teeing his teammates up, Taylor is more focused on the defensive aspects of the role. With Jones providing a creative outlet further up the wing for Kilmarnock,Taylor is left to prioritise the defensive aspect of his game whilst providing some support going forward.
Despite this reluctance to attack, Taylor has still proven himself to be effective while his team are in possession. Where O’Donnell looks for openings in the defence, Taylor prefers to look for men in the box and deliver crosses from deep positions. The 20-year-old has hit the eighth-most crosses from the left in this season’s Premiership, with a good degree of success too – around 36% find their target. This is a significantly better rate than Kieran Tierney, for instance, who is surely the best left back in Scotland.
Taylor is helped, of course, by firing crosses in towards Boyd and Eamonn Brophy, two forwards with a great deal of aerial prowess. But it’s Taylor’s workrate, determination and willingness to fight for every ball that makes him such a promising prospect. He’s handy offensively, but his defensive ability is what catches the eye the most. If it weren’t for the sudden abundance of world class Scottish left backs, it’s hard to imagine Taylor being overlooked by Alex McLeish for much longer.
If Clarke is to build on this year’s success then his full backs will need to carry forward their form from this season into the next. So far, both O’Donnell and Taylor have excelled at every opportunity given to them by the ex-West Brom coach. The core of Clarke’s Killie might change with players moving on or getting snapped up by bigger clubs. But as long as their defensive duo keep quietly running the show, Killie will remain a threat.