Why Kilmarnock job makes sense for Derek McInnes as Aberdeen transformation sets blueprint
On his unveiling as Kilmarnock boss, Derek McInnes kept returning to one theme: “connection” with the fans.
As is often the case when a new manager takes over, confidence is low and disgruntlement high amongst the fanbase.
That is certainly the case at Rugby Park. Or was.
Killie were fully expected to be leading the Championship under Tommy Wright. Back when the Northern Irishman was appointed, you would have had to have something resembling a crystal ball to predict the former St Johnstone boss would exit with the club fifth in the second tier.
But that’s the position the club found themselves in. One only worsened by the team’s style. Or more accurately, lack of. There was no connection with fans who had grown weary with the soporific displays.
Simply put, being a Killie supporter hasn’t been fun. They have failed to score in six of their 19 leagues games. They have collected the same number of points at home as rivals Ayr United, albeit they have played a game fewer. After eight clean sheets in the first 12 league fixtures, there has been just one in seven.
Yet, McInnes isn’t walking into a precarious position. His mere presence has already engaged the club's supporters. The club are now fourth, five points off league leaders Arbroath and with a game in hand.
There is certainly an argument that Tommy Wright would have steered the team to the league title. But with the team slipping backwards it wasn't a risk worth taking. This season’s goal is promotion and promotion only.
Plus, he has taken over a club in a much worse position before and displayed his transformative powers.
Transformation in the north
Aberdeen were heading towards a fourth consecutive bottom four finish when he replaced Craig Brown. He turned them into the best of the rest and European regulars. But more than that, he restored pride in the club amongst the city and the support.
From the moment he took over, he talked about giving the fans a team to be proud of. That was certainly the case for six of his eight seasons at Pittodrie.
Things may have started to unravel towards the end when he couldn’t rediscover the synergy from those early seasons. But for Killie fans, they will be looking towards the immediate impact he had, using many of the same players he inherited.
His team were bright, lively, quick and aggressive. Willo Flood was a key addition to inject control in the midfield beside Ryan Jack, while Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes benefited providing the team with an exciting edge.
McInnes said it would be only fair to give the current squad the chance to prove themselves but he’ll already be looking to the transfer market in key areas. He proved himself in his first January window at the Dons with both Shay Logan and Adam Rooney adding so much to the squad.
Areas that need TLC
The forward area isn’t one which should give him too much concern. Oli Shaw has proven he can score goals, while Callum Hendry has impressed on loan from St Johnstone. McInnes even signed him for Aberdeen last season. If they can hold on to him he has the potential to be the perfect focal point for the second-half of the season, sharing some of the qualities which make Lyndon Dykes such a dangerous but equally annoying striker for defenders to play against.
The area of the pitch which will likely require the most TLC is the midfield area.
As mentioned, Kilmarnock have not been a team to rouse feelings of excitement and joy. If anything it has been emotionless. They have been too cautious, too one-paced, too predictable.
They have the highest average possession share in the league. Yet, in terms of shots per 90, they are fifth and third for touches in the opposition box. They don’t tend to play through teams, instead a lot of focus is on crossing, a metric they lead the league in.
McInnes will have to add more unpredictability to the team, both in the centre of midfield and wide attacking areas. Give the team more strings to their bow.
One player already linked is Rangers starlet Kai Kennedy. The forward didn’t have a productive loan spell at Dunfermline Athletic but has shown before, especially with Inverness CT, that he has the capacity to entertain. He can take players on, play infield and has an eye for a pass.
No signing, however, will be as important as McInnes.
The Kilmarnock board are due credit for once again making an impressive appointment after Steve Clarke and Wright, even if it didn't go the way many expected.
McInnes mentioned it during his unveiling. People may be surprised that he has ended up in the Championship after his eight-year spell at Aberdeen. It’s only reasonable to expect someone of his ilk to have had more appealing offers down south or even in the Premiership.
He may take the view that he is a more attractive proposition when in a job and doing well.
The 50-year-old has already set his sights on a top-six challenge in the Premiership in a year's time. Longer-term, he may look towards what Clarke achieved with the club and where that took him, the Scotland national team job.
But first thing’s first, building a connection with the Kilmarnock support and a Championship title win.
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