He is so eager to confront opponents and rob them of the ball that aggression is often the dominant impression. He is a fierce competitor, but it is his awareness and intuition that is of greater worth to Celtic.
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Against Hibernian 10 days ago, Kayal’s forcefulness was evident in what was initially a real tussle, but so too was his shrewdness. Twice, he delivered sharply precise passes that dissected the Hibs defence and sent Gary Hooper then Anthony Stokes through on goal, with the latter earning a penalty that put Celtic 2-0 in front. The team had been drawn into an untidy struggle, but having imposed himself on the game, Kayal dragged them into the ascendency.
His vision and range of passing is accomplished, even if the expertise is not always recognised. In the opening spell at Easter Road, he also over-reacted to a David Wotherspoon challenge and was then booked for a blunt foul on Ian Murray. There was another early yellow card against Aberdeen on Saturday, and there is a tendency to see him as a militant figure.
He can be reckless, and is occasionally guilty of reacting to tackles rashly. Waving his arms and looking truculent makes him appear histrionic, but at 22 there should be some leeway for impulsiveness. Kayal is an emotive individual and his performances are often shaped by his temperament, even if it is mostly expressed as an urgency to be involved. “I want people to love me as much as I love them. Emotions are good for a footballer,” he says.
In Israel, he is considered a prodigy, and already has 16 caps. Fans of his former club, Maccabi Haifa, prized his fighting qualities because his commitment was endearing. This tenacity has been a boon as he accustoms himself to the rough and ready nature of British football, even although the strident behaviour will eventually become a hindrance if he keeps accumulating yellow cards.
Lennon prizes all of Kayal’s qualities, because they seem so familiar. He, too, was a pugnacious, irascible character and has already spoken of the way he sees much of himself in Kayal’s displays. Celtic have won all but one match that the Israeli has played since returning to the side last December, after two months out with a groin injury.
Scott Brown is benefiting from Kayal’s rigourousness, because it frees him up to be more dynamic. The balance works in Celtic’s favour since Lennon looks to his wide players for creativity, while relying on his two central midfielders to assert their authority. The two points dropped against Hamilton Academical apart, the team has begun to look commanding.
Much of this stems from Kayal’s forthright personality, but it is his versatility that is rewarding. He was signed for £1.3m, as a player who had established himself as a hard-running midfielder, then flourished in a more defensively minded role. He brings aspects of both positions to Celtic, and so would conceivably blend perfectly with Ki Sung-Yueng.
Kayal provides options, and this versatility is an advantage for Lennon. On current form, the Israeli could not be dropped to the bench in the same way that Joe Ledley has been. He has become an integral figure, and perhaps not in a way that the Celtic manager first intended. Lennon was immediately impressed by Kayal when watching Maccabi Haifa last season, but there would have been little logic in spending £3m on Efrain Juarez last summer if Kayal was earmarked as the key figure in midfield.
The Israeli has played his way to distinction, while Juarez has become marginalised. Lennon insists the Mexican remains part of his plans, but he must never have anticipated having to defend the player’s lack of involvement. An acclaimed signing, who had just performed admirably at the World Cup, Juarez was considered Celtic’s most significant piece of summer business.
He has not played since the 1-1 draw at home to Dundee United last November and that kind of alienation tends to encourage rumours. Some of the more fanciful ones have claimed he is unpopular with team-mates, but the reality will be more prosaic. Juarez has struggled to adapt to Scottish football and, in the meantime, others have established themselves.
Lennon does not want to make radical changes to his side when the title race is so finely balanced, and so dependable, wholehearted players are preferred. Kayal epitomises this kind of rugged determination, but at the expense of an appreciation of his other qualities.