Max Kilman loves football.
If you had to guess how any Premier League footballer had been spending their summer, you’d be well within your rights to go for partying in Ibiza, sunning themselves in Dubai or lying on a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean. It would be perfectly reasonable for the players to be relaxing. Lots of them have basically just played football non-stop for 11 months, so they deserve to spend the entire off-season with their feet up.
Kilman has other ideas, though.
After a quick break in Cannes, Kilman has spent a chunk of the summer back in London, the city in which he was born and where he grew up. Long before attention had turned towards next season or Wolves had asked their players to report to the club for pre-season training, Kilman was keeping his eye in in a midweek 8-a-side league in the centre of town.
“Just a bit of fun” were the words he used when asked why he had turned up to play at Coram’s Field in central London to help his friends out. After inspiring his mates’ relegation-threatened team to a 13-1 win two weeks ago, Kilman and co. were on the wrong end of a 4-3 defeat. Word from one of the players on the opposition in that defeat is that Kilman “ran rings around everyone without ever getting out of second gear.”
The point here isn’t that Kilman couldn’t even beat a bunch of 35-year-old amateurs (though it’s hard not to wonder what got in the way), but that he would spend his spare time playing at such a level.
The more you hear about Kilman, though, the more obvious it becomes that he isn’t your typical footballer.
Futsal is a common route into professional football for many players in South America and mainland Europe, but not for many in England. And it is for even fewer centre-backs who were still playing futsal competitively at the age of 21.
While Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Clarence Seedorf and Philippe Coutinho all played futsal as youngsters and have spoken about how much it helped them develop their close control and ability under pressure, there aren’t many English players who can say they did the same.
Kilman, however, was playing international futsal for England as recently as 2018, doing so alongside his 11-a-side football in non-league with Maidenhead United. After completing a sensational move that summer from the National League to newly promoted Premier League side Wolves, Kilman became the first futsal international to make it to the Premier League. Yet Kilman, while clearly excited about finally realising his dream of becoming a professional footballer, also admitted he would be “upset” if his packed schedule with Wolves meant he would have to give up futsal. Given he – quite naturally – did have to stop playing futsal, perhaps playing amateur small-sided football with his mates this summer has been scratching an itch for him.
His past in futsal has simultaneously been a massive help and a hindrance to his development. Technically, Kilman is a wonderful player, and he is accustomed to playing very quick football. That meant the step up to the speed of the Premier League was more manageable than it would have been for many other non-league players. However, having been dropped from the Fulham and Gillingham academies as a youngster, he needed his four years playing lower-level 11-a-side to learn some things about positioning and heading that were neglected somewhat in his futsal days, while developing physically, too.
However, the player he’s become has been worth the wait. It’s easy to see why Serie A champions Napoli are reportedly making moves to sign him.
Kilman was integral for Wolves last season, starting 37 out of 38 Premier League games and playing 3,308 of a possible 3,420 minutes (96.7%) – the 10th most game time of all outfielders. He also played an vital role in possession for a Wolves team who, along with Chelsea, were one of only two teams outside those to finish in the top six to average more than 50% possession for the season. The build-up phase was an important part of Wolves’ game.
Kilman played on the left side of central defence in a back four in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, but Wolves often built in what was more like a 3-4-3:
Manager Julen Lopetegui often set his team up to try and get Kilman on the ball as the spare man in the back three (usually up against a front two) meaning he was the one bringing the ball into midfield.
There are a few reasons for this. It is very much a prerequisite of being a good futsal player that everyone is comfortable under pressure on the ball, and Kilman is no different. He was used by Lopetegui to invite pressure with the aim of creating space elsewhere.
He was pressured 324 times in the defensive third of the pitch last season, which was the third most in the Premier League behind only Aston Villa goalkeeper Emi Martínez (356) and centre-back Ezri Konsa (330), but he still managed to progress play and break lines consistently. Kilman’s net opponents bypassed total – the net number of opponents bypassed with passes, where backward passes that go past opponents count as negatives – for the 2022-23 season, was the seventh highest in the Premier League, behind Lewis Dunk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joachim Andersen, Kieran Trippier, Marc Guéhi and Fabian Schär. Each of Kilman’s passes bypassed 1.8 players on average, and he ranked eighth in the top flight for the number of passes he made that bypassed at least five players.
His pass completion rate of 83.6% wasn’t particularly high, but his numbers will have been affected by him being put under pressure and the fact that he would rarely attempt the easy pass. Of all outfielders to play at least 1,000 minutes in the Premier League last season, Kilman ranked seventh for the average length of his passes (20.8 metres). Of those top seven players, nobody attempted as many passes as Kilman. In fact, Kilman’s passes were, on average, the longest of the 15 outfielders to attempt more than 1,900 passes in open play. He made a decent number of passes into the final third, too.
It’s no surprise to find out that the average pass probability (defined as the average difficulty of a player’s passes, with a value between 0 and 1 assigned to each pass to assess the probability of it being completed) of Kilman’s passes (0.83) was lower than all but three of those 15 outfielders. The three players in that list who made more difficult passes on average than Kilman were right-backs Alexander-Arnold and Tripper, and midfielder Pascal Groß. He gets on the ball often and also usually looks to progress play once he has it with a risky pass.
He also progresses play by carrying the ball forwards. When he was less well known, he was used by managers almost as a secret weapon in bringing the ball out of defence, because at 6-foot-4, opponents generally didn’t expect him to be quite so good with the ball at his feet. In pre-season in 2022, Deportivo Alavés’ players certainly didn’t expect him run through their entire team and score a sensational solo goal after winning the ball deep in his own half.
Kilman obviously doesn’t do that very often. His expected goals total for the whole of 2022-23 was just 1.34, which is disappointingly low considering how tall he is and what a threat he could be from set-pieces . Again, that history in futsal is probably the reason he isn’t used to making an impact at attacking set-pieces. It is, though, at least part of the reason he is so good at bringing the ball out of defence and helping his team gain territory quickly and efficiently. Only nine players in the Premier League – all of whom bar Declan Rice played for teams who finished in the top seven – carried the ball at least five metres more times than Kilman (532). Only eight players made more progressive carries than Kilman (312), where a progressive carry is defined as moving the ball at least five metres upfield.
While he has not had the archetypal footballer’s upbringing, Kilman is now very much the archetypal modern centre-back. In-possession strengths are as important as out-of-possession aspects of the game.
But Kilman is still a more-than-competent defender. He is getting better in the air all the time, and his positioning has improved so much that he made 163 clearances in the Premier League last season, which was fewer than only three other players in the whole top flight, while he also ranked fourth for headed clearances (101).
He plays a key role on both sides of the ball for Wolves, and he will take some replacing if they do end up accepting a bid for him this summer. His story is a fascinating one, and it would be fantastic to see him continuing his rise to play Champions League football next season. There’s every indication he is ready to make yet another big step up, and if he has it his way, he’ll do so while turning that 4-3 8-a-side defeat around next summer.