Steve Clarke got it right the other day when he said Scotland are still a work-in-progress.
The operative words being ‘work’ – there’s no doubt that this is a hard-working crew – and ‘progress’ – no doubt either that they’re moving forward from the dog days of two years ago when they lost 3-0 to Kazakhstan and then toiled horrendously to see off San Marino a few days later.
When you’ve had it so bad for so long it’s understandable that people want renaissance in a hurry, but it was never going to be like that for Scotland. Clarke is a painstaking kind of manager. He never promised a quick fix to the myriad ills he inherited. There’s been frustration of late – from the fans, from the media and from himself in reply – but it’s all part of the growing pains.
They’re competitive in their pursuit of a play-off place in their World Cup group – Denmark are almost home-free already – and they’ve the Euros to look forward to. There’s plenty to pore over in terms of players and systems, but we can do it from a position of relative strength now. We haven’t had to do a post mortem in a while. The grim navel-gazing has stopped for now.
The big picture view shows that Scotland are in a much better place than they have been for many years. They have a defence – be it three or four defenders – that’s not as susceptible to the concession of ridiculously soft goals as it was before.
They have a collection of midfielders that are the best crop in decades. They have a striker in Che Adams who looks like the player Scotland have been waiting on for a long time.
They struggle to win, but they’re harder to beat. It’s a halfway house, the reality of life as a team climbing back out of the abyss.
There are issues but, relatively speaking, they’re first world issues. Instead of bemoaning the hopelessness of Scotland’s plight in trying to qualify for a major championship – the lament for more than 20 years – the biggest talking point now is how best to deploy Kieran Tierney, one of the Premier League’s pre-eminent left-centre backs or left-backs this season, and Andy Robertson, a Premier League, Champions League, World Club Cup winner, in the same team.
Time was when Scotland used to look across the Irish Sea and wonder how the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were managing to advance. Now the envious looks are heading in the opposite direction. Tierney and Robertson, Ryan Jack and Stuart Armstrong, Callum McGregor and Scott McTominay, John McGinn and Ryan Christie, Ryan Fraser and Che Adams. That’s a collection of players that’s getting more comfortable with international football all the time.
When Michael O’Neill was achieving great things with a fairly moderate, but wholly streetwise, group of players in Northern Ireland, part of the success came from the fact his players had considerable game-time. Guys with 40, 50 and 60 caps were commonplace. Scotland, at that time, had more talented but innocent players.
‘Players need to start throwing a shape’
Clarke is getting a lot of caps into his core team. By extension, he’s improving the astuteness of the squad. It’s a slow process, and they have a long way to go, but the talent is there. They’re a team that will get better in time.
There’s not a lot of it before the Euros, of course. The Scotland boss will spend a much-deserved spell with his extended family over Easter – given his recent spikiness he could do with some weeks off – and before he knows it he’ll be submitting his final 23 for the summer, although it could yet be a higher number as Uefa considers larger squads.
Clarke is a man who keeps his cards close to his chest, but occasionally he’ll give you a peek and you can see where he’s at.
He’s happy with his goalkeepers, we know that. Craig Gordon, David Marshall and Jon McLaughlin are in, injury permitting, of course. His eulogy to Grant Hanley after the 4-0 win over the Faroes tells us that the Norwich captain will be one of five or six centre-backs. McTominay, Tierney and Scott McKenna are three others. As a regular with Leeds in the Premier League, Liam Cooper is surely on the list even though he wasn’t in the recent squads. That’s five centre-halves already.
Clarke could well go with a sixth centre-back – Declan Gallagher or Jack Hendry on recent evidence. The Scotland manager will have the vast majority of his squad pencilled in but that may be one of the outstanding issues. Robertson, Stephen O’Donnell and Liam Palmer will complete the defensive players.
The prospect of Bologna’s Aaron Hickey being parachuted in as a versatile youngster who could play anywhere across the defence – particularly in the area of right back or right-wing back – was a tantalising one until his season was ended by a shoulder injury.
Seven midfielders more or less pick themselves – Kenny McLean, McGinn, McGregor, Jack, Armstrong, Fraser and Christie. The question here is whether Clarke is happy with seven or will he want to go again. David Turnbull’s case looks irresistible to many. Alas for Turnbull, the many does not currently include Clarke, who’d be more likely to include John Fleck.
Clarke says nobody needs to be a genius to work this out. He doesn’t sound like a manager who’s going to be pulling rabbits from hats. So, reading the signs, no Turnbull and no Billy Gilmour or Ryan Gauld either. James Forrest is the fascinating one. He’s making his way back into the Celtic team after missing the last five months through injury. Does he have enough time to lay down a claim? Clarke will be watching him closely, you can be sure of that.
Three goalkeepers, nine defenders, eight midfielders. If that’s along the right lines, then it leaves three recognised strikers. Adams is now first-choice. Lyndon Dykes (10 goals in 48 games this season, including six penalties) looks like he’s misplaced his mojo, but it’s impossible to see Clarke abandoning him. That’s two. One more between recent squad men Kevin Nisbet (14 goals in 38 games this season), Oli McBurnie (one in 31) Lawrence Shankland (seven in 30), Callum Paterson (seven in 42), Oliver Burke (two in 26) and Leigh Griffiths (seven in 26). A stellar list of form strikers, it is not. Say your prayers that Adams stays fit, well and in form.
On the eve of the Faroes game, Clarke said he already had his team written on a piece of paper in his pocket. He’s probably got the names of upwards of 20 of his Euros 23 in his pocket now as well. The others would want to start throwing a shape. These months will pass in the blink of an eye.