More questions than answers for Scotland and Steve Clarke
Boss has plenty to ponder despite his side topping Nations League group
Only Scotland could manage to emerge from the return to international football sitting top of their Nations League group on four points while at the same time creating an impression of having gone backwards.
Are fans more or less confident than they were this time last week that Scotland can negotiate a way past Israel at Hampden in just under a month. It’s not difficult to gain a sense that they are more anxious – and this is before getting to the question of what might happen against Serbia or Norway if the Scots can progress to the Euro 2020 play-off final.
The contrast in mood of selected figures during the press conference following Scotland’s 2-1 win over Czech Republic on Monday was instructive. Scotland manager Steve Clarke seemed defensive, careworn, tense. Those members of the opposition invited to offer their views were jovial and breezy.
“Maybe I will see you again in another four years when I come out of retirement again!” joked the 36-year-old Roman Hubnik, one of two members of the Czech Republic side with previous experience of full international football, just not since 2016 in his case.
It’s easy to understand why Clarke seemed so agitated. “What more do you want?” you could tell he was dying to scream.
Those busy forecasting doom with something approaching zeal on the eve of the clash against the hastily assembled hosts had been put in their place. Clarke’s team delivered a comeback win in difficult circumstances away from home against a higher ranked nation to go top of their group. Lyndon Dykes, persuaded by Clarke, pictured below, to opt for Scotland over Australia, had scored one of the goals. The Queens Park Rangers player already looks a natural fit for the No 9 jersey.
Scotland, meanwhile, had extended their unbeaten run to five games. By the time Clarke’s side are next in action, it will be two days short of a year since they last suffered defeat.
Of course, a near ten-month hiatus helps to this end. Deeper scrutiny also reveals the truth of a somewhat fortunate draw v Israel and exposes the extraordinary back story of the win over the depleted Czech Republic. An asterisk will not appear next to this result in the record books. However, those wishing to assess its worth in the context of the forthcoming clash with Israel are impelled to exhibit caution. As a preparation exercise for this long-awaited game, it threw up more questions than answers. The win in Olomouc would seem to have justified Clarke’s decision to retain his three at-the-back system. There should therefore be no debate about deploying it again next month.
But there is debate. Plenty of it.
The question of what to do with Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney is far from resolved. After starting twice in succession at right centre-back, Scott McTominay would normally expect to play there next time. This, however, would risk a riot. Scotland is united on one thing: McTominay is no right-sided defender. Worse, he’s wasted there.
Clarke’s justification for playing a Manchester United midfielder in this role is that he lacks a quality right-footed centre-back. Steven Caulker has already communicated his desire to switch nationality from England and play for Scotland. He played on the right of a three-man defence at times last season for Alanyaspor in a season where they secured a European place.
The Turkish league season starts this weekend and he will be up to match speed by 8 October. But the logistical complications of registering for another national team will preclude him being available in time for next month. In any case, Clarke appears settled on his defensive options, even if arranging them in a satisfactory formation continues to elude him. Indeed, possibly the most success he’s had to date in this area has been when uniting Declan Gallagher and Scott McKenna in the centre of defence.
Sometimes it’s possible to over think things. Czech Republic showed the benefits of just going out and getting on with it. Clarke excelled while predominantly favouring 4-4-2 at Kilmarnock.
Aside from the results, Clarke’s principal remit admittedly, is there any evidence to suggest Scotland are better for playing three at the back? They offered up chances galore against a makeshift Czech Republic side. Israel, too, finished the stronger side last Friday. Defence is not the only enduring puzzle. There are other equally concerning areas. The lack of certainty in midfield is particularly alarming given we’ve been congratulating ourselves for the perceived strength of this department for what seems like years now. And yet, who is any clearer about the identity of a first-choice midfield?
Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor, reckoned to be the established double act at the heart of midfield, were considered dispensable on Monday night following undistinguished performances four days earlier.
Indeed, for all the combined ability, when did a Scottish midfield last take a grip of a game? When can we say Scotland took control of proceedings in the middle of the park, as they will surely have to do in order to prevail against Israel?
There was plenty for Clarke to ponder as he drove home to England yesterday after an exacting few days back on the international front line. Of course, he is never off duty. He has plenty to occupy his mind before the press conference at the end of this month to announce his next squad.
Another three weeks before a question that seems more urgent than ever: “Any further thoughts on where best to play Kieran, Steve?” It’s taken a long time to get not very far.
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