When, at some point in the distant future, the Scottish public look back on 2020, it is unlikely to be with any fondness. The devastating effects of Covid-19 have overshadowed every aspect of life; yet as the year draws to a close, Scotland’s men’s football team are offering a glimmer of hope for the months ahead.
Steve Clarke’s side stand on the brink of a first major finals since the 1998 World Cup. A showdown in Serbia is the final obstacle between Scotland and Euro 2020; the prize of two group games at Hampden Park next June and a third against England at Wembley mean the stakes could not be any higher on November 12.
An eight-match unbeaten run – the longest in 32 years – has coincided with a change of shape, to leave Scotland suddenly on the threshold of something very special. Yet they have reached this point purely by design, rather than accidentally.
2020 has also been the year of the “staycation”; with foreign holidays off the agenda, tent sales have gone through the roof. As every savvy camper knows, the priority when pitching a tent is to make sure the pegs are well hammered into the ground.
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This analogy wouldn’t be lost on Clarke, who used lockdown to decide he wouldn’t get very far if he didn’t solidify the foundations of his side. Scotland conceded 14 goals in his first five matches, albeit two of those games were against the world’s number one team Belgium. It became clear that Scotland were a liability at the back; not only had they run out of tent pegs, they also had water gushing through holes in the roof.
Time was against Clarke in how he could resolve the problem. He has often discussed his preference for playing a back four, which he utilised with success at West Brom, Reading and Kilmarnock, who he guided to third place in the Scottish Premiership. This was the system he used in his first eight games with Scotland, and it’s likely he would have used it in the playoff semi-final if the match had gone ahead as scheduled in the spring – before the pandemic hit.
The hiatus bought Clarke time. September’s Nations League fixtures, and the return to fitness of Kieran Tierney, offered an opportunity to try out a defensive three. This increased protection at the back, while allowing Tierney and captain Andy Robertson to play together with neither unduly affected by a change of position.
Last month’s games were uncomfortable watches. With little time to bed the new system in during training, Scotland at times appeared tentative, with Scott McTominay looking somewhat lost at right centre-back. Doubts remained about whether Clarke would persist with the system in the play-off, but he was content with what he had seen.
The game with Israel should have carried a health warning for those watching. Scotland were composed in defence, but struggled to create, leading to a nerve-shredding penalty shootout. Against Slovakia, they began to express themselves; Lyndon Dykes’ winner was a delightful goal, and they largely dominated the game. The Czech Republic were a step up, and put Scotland under constant pressure, but they rode their luck and Ryan Fraser’s early goal proved enough.
Clarke consistently had faith that the back three would work. “There’s always a process of evolution when you make a change to the system,” he said on Tuesday ahead of the Czech Republic game. It has provided the biggest talking point of his tenure, and there is no doubt initial criticism of it has irked him, as has the focus on certain individuals within it – specifically McTominay.
The Manchester United midfielder had arguably his best game for Scotland against Slovakia, and has clearly benefited from time on the training pitch with Clarke. At 6ft 3ins, he is a physically imposing presence, but possesses a composed demeanour and ability on the ball that could serve him well at centre-half. Given his club side’s recent struggles at the back, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be wise to consider the 23-year-old as a viable defensive option.
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Clarke had the foresight to see McTominay as a solution to his own problems, despite the fears of the sceptics. Tierney’s return, coupled with the excellence of Liam Cooper and Declan Gallagher’s improvement, mean there are now options in a historical area of weakness; the injured Scott McKenna and latecomer Andy Considine will add further to the depth.
The back four hasn’t been consigned to the dustbin, but it is hard to see Clarke straying from it against Serbia. Scotland have had three shutouts in a week, and those who’ve succeeded are now in line to start in the playoff final.
The formation switch has influenced change further up the pitch, where Scotland are now playing with two strikers. Lyndon Dykes has become Clarke’s first pick, with two goals and an assist in five games, and his ability to hold the ball up and feed those around him has been missing at international level since Steven Fletcher was at his peak.
Dykes has a natural knack for finding the net, and both his goals have been classic poacher’s finishes. Scotland have struggled to unearth a consistent striker since Kenny Miller retired a decade ago. Since Gordon Strachan’s departure in 2017, the only forward to score more than once has been Steven Naismith, with three.
Clarke is too long in the tooth to be swayed by those baying for the immediate return of the mercurial Leigh Griffiths, but the Celtic striker offers a different option if he stays fit until November. He also flourished in a front two alongside Odsonne Edouard at club level before lockdown. The prospect of Griffiths, Fraser or Ryan Christie buzzing around Dykes is a tempting one.
All this positive evolution has come about due to Clarke’s willingness to embrace change and trust his instincts. Sound defensive resilience has been gradually married to increased confidence in attack; Scotland are now an awkward proposition for anyone they meet.
Serbia will be favourites to win the playoff next month, and rightly so. They disposed of Erling Haaland and Norway in their semi-final, and possess some top-class players of their own, but Clarke will fancy his team’s chances.
A year ago, many would have considered Scotland to be cannon fodder in this tie. Not so now – the tent is no longer in danger of being blown away.
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