“He’s the all-round midfield player – he’s got a bit of everything.”
Neil Lennon – August 2010
Towards the end of the summer transfer window ahead of the 2010-11 season, Neil Lennon raised eyebrows by signing relatively unknown Israeli midfielder Beram Kayal. It was a surprise for a number of reasons: the speed of the transfer – from rumour to completion in only a matter of days; his muted European reputation arriving from obscure Israeli side Maccabi Haifa for around £1 million; but most of all the fact that Celtic were at the time well endowed with quality central midfielders – in fact probably at it’s strongest level since the playing days of Lennon.
To break into Celtic’s initial 4-4-2 setup, Kayal would have to force his way beyond Joe Ledley, Efrain Juarez and Ki Sung-Yeung to join first pick (and Captain) Scott Brown in the centre of the park. It wasn’t until a month after signing in the Europa League against Utrecht where Kayal was able to make his debut. With Joe Ledley covering at left-back, Lennon also opted for a three man centre-midfield – finding space for Kayal alongside Brown and Juarez. It was a tantalising taste of things to come with an impressive, bullying performance – setting up Juarez for a goal with a slick through ball and seizing the man of the match award.
But the strong start was cut short, sustaining an arm injury in training that ruled him out until January.
Position and role
By the the point of his recovery, his manager had settled very much on close variations of a lop-sided 4-4-2. Depending on injuries and suspensions, Lennon would accommodate all three of Brown, Ledley and Kayal – either by using Brown at right-midfield (to great success), or more rarely Ledley on the left. Despite the nominal 4-4-2 formation, the fourth midfielder (often Kris Commons)
would be used in an advanced position, and therefore Brown, Ledley and Kayal would for all intents and purposes be deployed as a robust midfield three. The image on the left demonstrates this idea (lineup from the 3-1 win over Dundee Utd in February) and shows exactly where Kayal fits in.
On the occasion where Lennon has opted for a 2 man central midfield (with for example Forrest and Commons on the wings), this has usually been dictated by one of these central 3 being unavailable. Nevertheless the manager is more than confident pitting Kayal in a central 2 against an opposition 3, as Lennon described after May’s 4-1 win over Dundee Utd:
‘I thought Kayal was world-class. He and Brown were magnificent from start to finish. They had to cope with three United players in there because we wanted to play with a bit of width with James Forrest and Kris Commons.
‘Kayal and Brown had to really work hard and the effort, strength and power they bring to the team is fantastic. It is as good a midfield as we have had for a long time here. Allied to that, you have Joe Ledley, who is out, and you can drop (Shaun) Maloney in there. We have Efrain Juarez and Ki Sung Yueng, so we are pretty strong in that area.
‘But Kayal and Brown have been fantastic for me this season.’
Style of Play
Kayal is most comfortable occupying right of centre and likes to drop deep in search of space. Considering the scenario in Scotland where Celtic rarely (if ever) enjoy an extra man in midfield, there is always one member of the opposition applying aggressive pressure. To circumvent this, Kayal has three main strengths: a stocky, low centre of gravity, significant upper body strength and a wicked burst of acceleration. Combined, a nightmare to deal with – difficult to knock over and quick to get away.
The other immediate impression is his work rate out of possession. He looks to close down the opposition at full pace, especially just after possession is lost. This gives an impression of leading by example – maximum effort and urgency, with tackling that is powerful, aggressive and accurate. Consequently, he picks up a proportionate amount of yellow cards and in fact the highest in the squad. 12 yellow cards compared to serial offender Scott Brown’s 10 – and that’s having played 9 games less (27 starts). This could be one of his weakest areas – again despite missing much of the season he managed to finish 5th in the SPL yellow card charts. If he is to continue his development at the top he’ll have to be more intelligent with his tackling (and/or fouling).
The low centre of gravity, strength and aggression previously described could easily refer to the Neil Lennon of old; the classic ‘Makelele’ defensive midfielder, and yet there is more to Kayal’s game. He has good close control and likes to use that turn of acceleration to lose his man and get into dangerous attacking areas. Two great examples of this, are his two goals which can be found here and here. His shooting from range has been excellent (in contrast to say, Scott Brown) also coming close against Aberdeen hitting the post in a similar scenario. Like his propensity to burst forward in search of shooting opportunities, Kayal’s head is always up and looking for a pass. An excellent example is his debut assist against Utrecht, splaying a long pass through to Juarez to score (regrettably unavailable on youtube, but can be seen in gif format here)
Perhaps his most evident weakness is top speed – despite the strong acceleration, in full flight over larger stretches of the pitch he can be found wanting, but as far as central midfielders go, his pace isn’t too shabby.
In line with his aggressive, bustling style, of all Celtic’s regular starting XI, Kayal has a habit of being one of the first to be substituted from games – ideally where an unassailable advantage has already been acquired.
Given his importance to the squad, there can only be two explanations here. The first is purely a “campaign” decision: Kayal’s kitchen sink approach to matches means Lennon needs to manage energy levels and protect against injury – he’s simply too important to lose to “cheap” or unnecessary injuries or fatigue. Perhaps someone more used to the pace of the Scottish game like Scott Brown can contribute at the same dynamic level twice a week over the course of the season, at least initially it doesn’t appear that Kayal has been able to.
A secondary mooted explanation attributes the reasoning to yellow cards and suspensions. Again, a player of Kayal’s nature given his importance to the side can’t be picking up too many cards – not when league titles come down to solitary points or goal difference. It certainly isn’t to protect against second yellows, as Kayal has been substituted around that 60 minute mark without being present in the book. It can be noted that in less congested months such as March, Kayal played every minute of every game. Conversely, as can be seen in the grueling January schedule the substitutions were far more frequent.
It may be fair to say that it’s a combination of the two – primarily a chance to rest an “all or nothing” style player whose bulk of appearances was during the fearsome winter while just getting used to the Scottish pace, and also guarding against unnecessary cards.
End of season speculation
Kayal’s explosive impact on the SPL has ignited the tabloid rumour columns, and while Arsenal, Manchester Utd and Barcelona have all been mentioned at the more dramatic end of the rumour spectrum, a more plausible story centres around Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers, who were said to have tabled a £2m bid at the beginning of June.
Peter Lawwell is too savvy to accept such a lowly offer, but it’s perturbing for Celtic fans that bidding seems to have started at such an early stage of the summer. Even more worrying has been Kayal’s choice of representative, having signed up with “the world’s one and only super-agent” Pini Zahavi. Zahavi, who sensationally managed to garner £3m from a £7.5m player transfer, greased the wheels of Roman Abramovich’s most extravagant dealings and whose friends include the rich and elite (read: slimey) of World Football, such as Kia Joorabchian, Alexandre Gaydamak, Abramovich and Peter Kenyon.
Many will fairly assume that Kayal, in the hunt of a deserved improved contract has only appointed the most qualified man possible (as opposed to a family member) in negotiating a reasonable contract, and coming from the same nation, someone he can trust. But a pessimist would argue that Zahavi is a particular breed of agent, a top of the range, A-list operator. He only works with silly money.
Reading between the lines, is Kayal now gunning for an elite club? A Manchester Utd (who are in the market for a central-midfielder or two) or an Arsenal? It’s too early to say, but what is now clear is that after less than one incredible season Kayal has already proven himself to belong to a higher level than the SPL and still improving. Neil Lennon and Peter Lawwell face a real battle to retain his services. Progress in the Europa League might sway Kayal’s decision, and a guarantee’d place in the group stages before the transfer window shuts would helper matters. But if he is to leave, potential suitors will likely have to consider an 8 figure sum to prise the midfielder away.