WHEN Steve Clarke swapped the Rugby Park dugout for Hampden, you could have been forgiven for assuming that Kilmarnock would slide back down the table in the wake of the 56-year-old's two-year stint in Ayrshire.

The widely-held opinion was that Clarke had moulded his side to consistently punch above their weight and continually exceed the sum of their parts. Killie's third-placed finish last season, the argument goes, was the ultimate manifestation of all of this. Without Clarke at the helm, Killie were expected to slide down the table as they regressed to the mean after a sustained period of over-performance.

It's fair to say that Angelo Alessio's appointment as Clarke's successor came out of left-field and the news had a somewhat mixed reception. Some pointed to the Italian's impressive CV as evidence that Alessio represented something of a coup for Kilmarnock, while others were skeptical that his experience as Antonio Conte's assistant would translate into success in his first managerial role.

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Eight games into the season, though, Alessio has made the latter camp look decidedly foolish. Kilmarnock are currently sitting in seventh place in the table, which doesn't sound all that impressive, but are only a single point off of Aberdeen in fourth as it stands. And while it hasn't been plain sailing for the former Juventus, Italy and Chelsea assistant, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the club's future with Alessio in charge.

Let's start with the elephant in the room. There's no getting away from it: Kilmarnock's elimination from the Europa League qualifiers at the hands of Connah's Quay Nomads was a truly dreadful result. Kilmarnock should have won that game and it is mystifying and frustrating in equal measure that they didn't. But there are several mitigating factors at play here that deserve consideration.

Firstly, the match arrived very early on in Alessio's tenure at the club. New managers always require time to get their ideas and methods across to players and in this instance, Alessio did not get it. He isn't the first manager of a Scottish team to get caught out in this manner, either. Brendan Rodgers lost his first competitive game as Celtic manager to Lincoln Red Imps. Gordon Strachan's Celtic were battered 5-0 by Artmedia Bratislava. Even Rangers legend Walter Smith, in his second season in his second spell at Ibrox, saw his side unceremoniously dumped out of Europe by Lithuania's FBK Kaunas. These matches arrive early in the season and shocks are not all that uncommon.

Secondly, a number of key players had departed Rugby Park in the off-season - Jordan Jones, Greg Stewart and Yusuf Mulumbu to name but a few - and were not been replaced in time for the qualifiers. And thirdly, the two legs of the Europa League qualifier against Connah's Quay Nomads were something of a statistical anomaly; over the two legs Killie had 39 shots to the Welsh side's five. Kilmarnocks cumulative expected goals (xG) from the tie stood at 3.92, Connah's Quay Nomad's was 1.52. In short: Kilmarnock were the better side and can consider themselves unfortunate not have won.

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What has been truly eye-catching, however, has been the work Alessio has done on Kilmarnock's defence. In their last eight games in all competitions, the Ayrshire club have kept seven clean sheets. Only Neil Lennon's Celtic have breached Alessio's defence in Killie's last 773 minutes of football: a truly remarkable achievement.

Alessio has somehow taken Clarke's team - that was built on a solid, resolute defence and quick, counter-attacking football - and made the defence even stingier. No team will enjoy playing Kilmarnock at the moment as they rarely, if ever, give anything away at the back.

There are issues further forward that are a little concerning - right-back Stephen O'Donnell is Kilmarnock's top scorer in the league with two goals - but one would imagine that, given time, Alessio's side will improve in the final third. It is hardly uncommon for a new manager to focus on building a team from the back and now that the defence looks sorted, we can probably expect to see a greater focus on improving Killie's attacking play in the near future.

Alessio was undoubtedly given a short shrift by some media outlets upon his arrival and Kirk Broadfoot's criticism of the Italian's coaching methods upon his departure from Kilmarnock only strengthened these beliefs. But since then, Alessio has proved them all wrong. Killie are playing with a clear identity and Alessio has relied upon evoluton, not revolution, as he imposes his own style upon the team. Clarke may have laid the groundwork in this team but Alessio has improved the defensive foundations and is quietly picking up where the Scotland boss left off.