Why underrated Kilman can impress at West Ham


Steve Bull is surely Wolves’ greatest-ever signing, brought in for a pittance from West Bromwich Albion and going on to become the club’s all-time top scorer. But there are now 40 million reasons why Maximilian Kilman’s name is in the frame.

At 27, he departs Molineux for around 1,000 times the fee that was paid to Maidenhead for his services in 2018. He has been superb for Wolves, captaining the club this past season. The question now is whether he can be even better for West Ham United.

Kilman should not be underestimated. Even his colleagues have made that mistake in the past. A conversation with Jose Sa, in particular, comes to mind. The goalkeeper knew most of his new team-mates upon arrival but not the fresh-faced lad at the back.

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Watch Kilman’s best bits from the 2023/24 Premier League season

“I talked with him,” he told Sky Sports. “I said, ‘Max, the first training session here, when I saw you, I said to myself that this guy cannot be a player’. In that first session, when we were defending, he did not run. I thought that was impossible. This guy doesn’t run!”

His confession to Kilman came months down the line by which point he had realised the truth. “I had to say sorry to him because after that first session all I was thinking was that he did not run and he did not tackle. I eat my words. He is amazing.”

Kilman is not a defender who tends to catch the eye with last-ditch tackles, although he did rank among the top three in the Premier League last season for headed clearances and possession won in the defensive third. It helps that he did not miss a single minute.

Max Kilman's stats for Wolves in the 2023/24 Premier League season

His strength, alongside this unusual durability, is his calmness in defence. It has become something of a running joke that references to Kilman’s rise cannot ignore his time playing futsal for England but it is an inescapable element of his development.

A different kind of defender?

Michael Skubala, now head coach of League One side Lincoln City, was the England futsal manager during Kilman’s time in that game. Speaking to him when Kilman first emerged at Wolves, Skubala told Sky Sports: “His journey is quite unique in England.”

He added: “Max did not do futsal within a football environment, he did futsal within a futsal environment. That is to say, he had come out of the professional football system and was in the futsal system being coached by futsal coaches.”

That meant that he was not your average non-League centre-back. He was exposed to another style of play throughout. “By twin-tracking, he was getting all of these elements and he was doing it for years. He used futsal to make him a better footballer.”

And he used his early football career to prepare him for the physicality that futsal could not. Skubala called it “getting across the grass” in reference to making that adjustment to the wide-open spaces of the football pitch. A loan to Marlow helped him progress.

Mark Bartley, his manager there, explained: “You do not need to be crashing into tackles to impose your physicality on a game and ball retention comes naturally to him. A lot of players who step up have to adapt but moving the ball quickly is part of his make-up.

“He has great ball-manipulation skills. He can draw opponents into certain areas and then just manoeuvre his way out of them. It catches you off guard because it is that old cliche, good feet for a big man, but he does have tremendous feet.”

Skubala agreed. “He is really good at rolling out of pressure. He never gave the ball away in tight areas. You could always rely on him security-wise to keep possession of the ball.” Those qualities have remained a feature of his game even at Premier League level.

Lopetegui’s plans for Kilman?

Positionally, it will be interesting to see what Lopetegui has planned for him at West Ham. The most obvious explanation for the appetite for his acquisition would be the exit of the left-footed Nayef Aguerd, opening up a like-for-like space in the Irons’ squad.

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Could Kilman partner Konstantinos Mavropanos in a new-look West Ham central defence? Initial reports indicate that Lopetegui is open-minded about it and will assess the situation during pre-season, something possible because of Kilman’s flexibility.

For instance, Nuno Espirito Santo and Bruno Lage both used Kilman on the right of a back three despite being a natural left-footer. Playing on the opposite side allowed him to collect the ball and then carry it forward with a pass out wide easily available.

Asking Lage about this at the time, he explained: “He drives with the ball. He goes inside and when the guys come towards him he finds the spaces.” Gary O’Neil would later shift Kilman back to the right of a three-man build-up, again hailing his adaptability.

Putting that position question to O’Neil, he said: “Sometimes I really like him on the right because he gives us different solutions. And then sometimes he gets the ball and I think we could do with a right-footer there. That he can do both is important.”

Max Kilman's positioning under various different managers during his Wolves career
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Kilman was used very differently by Lopetegui when at Wolves

Lopetegui, Kilman’s manager at Wolves in between Lage and O’Neil, had a more conventional approach. He deployed him as the left-sided centre-back in a four-man defence. Kilman was part of eight clean sheets in his 11 home games under Lopetegui.

The new West Ham manager was impressed by his work ethic and his character, as well as his willingness to take on new ideas. A relative introvert, he has added even more to his game under O’Neil, taking on greater responsibility as a leader in the dressing room.

Lopetegui is banking on all of that to help make a difference as he prepares for his first full season as a Premier League manager. He believes Kilman’s peak years are upon us and it would not be a huge shock if that England call-up soon comes.

Wolves may welcome the fee but they will miss the player. There will be more spectacular signings this summer but few more sensible. This is a defender with no obvious weaknesses in his game. Lopetegui and West Ham will be the beneficiaries.



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