The Scottish Premiership often gets a bad rep for being a one-sided, predictable league which is ultimately dominated by Celtic. Yet over the past 10 match-days it isn’t Brendan Rodgers’ Scottish champions that have amassed the most points. It isn’t Aberdeen or Rangers either. It is none other than Kilmarnock, the side coached by José Mourinho’s old No.2, Steve Clarke, and the man intent on breaking up the status quo north of the border.
The Rugby Park side may only sit sixth in the top tier, yet since Clarke touched down in Ayrshire the centre of gravity within Scottish football has slowly but surely began drifting from Glasgow, south down the M77 towards Kilmarnock. Not only have Killie turned their form around but they’ve done so in superb fashion.
Before the turn of the year Clarke’s side hosted Rangers in a tight affair that ended with the Glasgow side travelling home without a point. The week after that Kilmarnock travelled through to Edinburgh and earned a hard-fought draw against a Hibernian side hoping to pip their Ibrox rivals to second place. And just three weeks ago Celtic arrived in Ayrshire and were duly overturned by a defensive masterclass straight out of Mourinho’s own playbook.
Kilmarnock have picked up so many scalps in such a short period of time that some are now tipping them for a quick assault on this season’s Scottish Cup and a late charge towards the Premiership top four. Not bad for a club that was staring relegation in the face just six months ago.
Indeed, the comparisons to the current Manchester United manager aren’t based on simple hyperbole. As odd as it may sound, if you were to watch Kilmarnock under Clarke’s stewardship this season it wouldn’t take long for eagle-eyed fans to note simple comparisons to Mourinho’s own tactics down the years. And they’re working wonders in Scottish football.
At the heart of Kilmarnock’s success is a well-trained side recently taught and then mastered in the dark arts of pragmatic, defensive football. Under Clarke, the Rugby Park side have gone from an open, attacking team with honest intent but little success, to a side that defend in numbers and overpower their opponents with slick passing and suffocating tactics.
Although Kilmarnock may not have the best defensive record in the division – they had conceded 13 goals in nine league matches before Clarke arrived – they do lead the Premiership in the number of defensive duels per 90 minutes, outranking both Glasgow giants and Craig Levein’s uber-defensive Hearts team.
In typical Mourinho fashion, Clarke’s Kilmarnock have married staunch defensive actions with a complete irrelevance to the need to keep a hold of possession or over complicate their game with needless passes. To little surprise Killie not only have the most defensive duels in the division, but also have the second-lowest average possession and number of passes per game too.
Of course, Clarke hasn’t simply taken one of his old manager’s templates and applied it to a team of players. The former West Bromwich Albion and Reading manager has also made a point of focussing on key individuals within the squad to get the very best out of them and it has also worked wonders so far.
Perhaps the most obvious turnaround is in the goalscoring form of the club’s talisman, Kris Boyd. Although the former Rangers and Scotland striker has always been known for his ability to find the back of the net, eight goals in 29 games last season suggested his best days were behind him. That was, of course, until Clarke showed up.
In the 15 Scottish Premiership matches Boyd has featured in since Clarke took over at the club, the 34-year-old striker has scored nine goals. With a tally of 15 in all competitions the former Kilmarnock youngster currently looks as good as he ever has in Scottish football.
A large part of that upswing in goals has come from left winger Jordan Jones and right-back Stephen O’Donnell enjoying weekly escapades down either flank – regardless of the opposition – and firing cross after cross in to the box for their favoured target man to knock in.
However, the clear engine behind Kilmarnock’s turnaround was the capture of Youssouf Mulumbu and the manner in which the former PSG and West Brom central midfielder has not only thrived individually within Clarke’s team but built important partnerships alongside his team-mates.
While the Congolese international’s ability has been highlighted through the manner in which he has outshone his opposite number in clashes with Celtic and Rangers, to describe Kilmarnock as a one-man team following the roaming talents of Mulumbu across the pitch, would be a grave under-appreciation of the hard work Clarke and his team have done in Scotland.
Rather than individual talent, it is the defensive, industrious midfield trio Mulumbu has formed alongside Gary Dicker and Alan Power that has offered Clarke the foundations to build the tactical system that has allowed Kilmarnock to dominate across the pitch and flourish under his tactics.
Clarke has turned Scottish football on its head and he’s done so with some clever, astute tactics and his superb ability at getting the very best out of his key players. Mourinho will most likely never coach in the Scottish Premiership but while Clarke is coaching Kilmarnock we can get a pretty clear idea of what it would look like.