Their chances of winning on the night only decreased after Olivier Ntcham’s sending off. With the Frenchman now suspended, Youssouf Mulumbu could make his Scottish Premiership debut for the club this weekend.
The 31-year-old signed for the reigning champions on a free transfer on summer transfer window deadline day, and Brendan Rodgers was excited by the player’s arrival. “We were always on the lookout for a really aggressive number eight to play midfield,” Rodgers said.
“Youssouf was exceptional last year, he was very keen to come and play at a huge club and fits the profile and has the experience of being up here. All being well, it’ll be a really good move for us.”
Mulumbu was always going to have a fight on his hands getting starts for Celtic, but Ntcham’s temporary unavailability has opened the door to the first team. Ironically, the prevailing circumstances mean he could make his league debut at Rugby Park, where he revived his career last term.
Steve Clarke took over at Kilmarnock last October and led them from bottom of the Scottish Premiership table to a comfortable top-six finish. His signing of Mulumbu was a vital ingredient in the team’s upturn, but now the player could return to haunt his old boss and stamp his mark on his new manager’s tactical plans.
Mulumbu and Ntcham: The stylistic differences
Considering Mulumbu is the clear candidate to step into Ntcham’s role for Sunday afternoon’s trip to Kilmarnock, it’s worth analysing how the two differ stylistically in order to understand how one replacing the other might affect Celtic.
This can be done by looking at last season’s data, as they got a similar amount of game time – the former played 1419 league minutes, while the latter played 2048.
The aggression that Rodgers spoke of when discussing his new signing was visible last term as Mulumbu helped Killie into the top six primarily through exceptional defending. Heavily involved in the team’s pressing game, he engaged in 8.97 defensive duels per 90 minutes whilst also averaging four interceptions and 14.24 recoveries.
That his numbers in these categories were higher than Ntcham’s is no surprise given the tactical difference between Celtic and Kilmarnock – the former tend to dominate possession; the latter tend to concede the majority of it – but the percentages help to paint a more accurate picture.
While involved in far more defensive duels, Mulumbu’s success rate was just 0.6 per cent lower than Ntcham’s. Furthermore, he not only made twice as many recoveries, but 60.9 per cent of them came in the opposition’s half compared to the Frenchman’s 50.7 per cent.
Evidently, the former West Bromwich Albion man isn’t just about engaging in lots of duels – he’s also astute when it comes to reading the opposition and pressing, particularly in advanced areas of the pitch.
Mulumbu isn’t just a defensive worker, however. While Ntcham completed a higher percentage of his passes last season, including passes into the final third, his new midfield colleague succeeded with a much higher percentage of his through balls – 57.1 per cent to 39 per cent. This isn’t just down to the fact he attempted far fewer on average – he is a precise passer capable of opening up defences.
In addition, he is strong breaking forward. This is shown by the fact he not only attempted more dribbles than Ntcham, but had a 3.1 per cent higher success rate. Perhaps this has something to do with playing in a team more focused on attacking transitions into space than Celtic, who spend a lot of their time trying to break down low defensive blocks, but Mulumbu certainly isn’t short on dynamism.
How will Mulumbu affect Celtic tactically?
Last season’s statistics suggest that Mulumbu is not only a more aggressive defender than Ntcham, but a similarly progressive attacking force when it comes to dribbles and penetrative passes.
These are aspects he highlighted in his first interview with Celtic TV. When asked what he would bring to the side, he stated: “[Combativeness], energy; I like to chase the ball to win it and to go forward.”
At Kilmarnock, his role varied from sitting at the base of midfield and setting the tempo of the team’s possession to playing behind the lone striker, helping to defend from the front and fighting for second balls. Throughout his spell, however, he showcased several qualities that could help him adapt to life at the heart of Celtic’s tactics.
He showed he could break the lines of opposition defence with a single pass, as seen in the below screenshot. Here, against Heart of Midlothian, he spots a teammate on left-hand side of the opponent’s penalty box and finds him with a ball that eliminated five defenders at once.
Mulumbu could improve or progress the attack in other ways, too. Along with quick one-touch passes to speed up possession, he used intelligent movement to find space and link moves.
Below he runs behind a teammate challenging for an aerial duel and secures the second ball before releasing another teammate into space in front of him.
If asked to play with more restraint and sit deeper, the Paris Saint-Germain academy graduate had no problem adjusting. With his strength and assertiveness, he was able to handle building possession under pressure.
Below is an example of this – here he receives with his back to goal, but handles his marker with composure before finding a teammate between the lines.
Playing for the Scottish champions comes with different expectations, both tactically and in terms of results. They set out to win every single domestic match they play, and rarely find themselves on the back foot.
Mulumbu will have to adapt to the Celtic way quickly, but he has the technical and physical qualities to thrive. If Rodgers introduces him to the starting line-up this weekend, he can help the club get back to winning ways on his old stomping ground.