How Can Scotland Improve Ahead of Moldova?
After a sobering return to normality against Denmark, faith in Steve Clarke’s side seems to be running critically low. Jack Donnelly evaluates what the Scotland boss need to do to improve ahead of Saturday’s clash with Moldova at Hampden.
Historically, international breaks bring with them a sense of dread and pessimism for fans of the Scotland men’s national team. Bleak, uninspiring qualification campaigns plagued The Tartan Army year after year, with an entire generation being born into a cruel and unforgiving life as a Scotland supporter. That was the harsh reality – until November 2020 bucked the trend completely.
Somehow, someway, in the most dramatic of circumstances, Scotland qualified for a major international tournament (their first for 23 years), filling that forlorn generation with a feeling unfamiliar to them in their time following Scotland – elation. David Marshall’s heroic leap to deny Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrović in the final penalty of a tense shootout saw Steve Clarke’s boys in blue reach nirvana in the form of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament. In what had been one of the worst years, where so many were disconnected from their loved ones, Clarke and Scotland had unified the country through hope, tenacity and a video of an Aberdeen defender in drag dancing to a 1977 pop anthem – maybe that last one was down to Andy Considine, and Andy Considine alone.
No Scotland, No Party was the stance that the nation adopted, as we geared up for two home matches against the Czech Republic and Croatia, with the small matter of a trip south of the border to face England at Wembley sandwiched in the middle. In any scenario, the summer of 2021 was set to be the biggest party that fans of the men’s national team had experience this century.
Sadly though, a party cannot last forever. As our dreams were dashed in our final group game, Thursday’s loss away to Denmark acted as the agonising and unforgiving hangover from the festivities, and it’s going to take Steve Clarke a lot more than a couple of Neurofen and a fry-up to make things better.
Scotland’s trip to Copenhagen acted as the first of a triple header of World Cup qualifiers and after inexplicably dropping points in winnable games, each game of the three would be crucial in mounting any serious case towards qualification. While not much was expected from the match against Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark, especially with a few players in Clarke’s initially selected squad rendered unavailable through self-isolation or injury, what transpired over the 90 minutes of action left Scotland fans overcome with those familiar feelings of pessimism and frustration.
With Denmark’s stock on the rise across the continent, Clarke opted for a heavily defensive starting XI in his favoured 5-3-2 formation. For once, Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney would not share the same flank, with the former being shifted to right-wing-back in place of the absent Stephen O’Donnell and Nathan Patterson. One man who could have occupied the wing-back role was Ryan Fraser, but Clarke played the Newcastle man alongside Ché Adams in a strike partnership – an odd selection, considering Lyndon Dykes has been favoured up front and has had a positive start to the season domestically. With a midfield (comprising of Callum McGregor, Billy Gilmour and Kenny McLean) lacking any clear creative influence, the game plan was painfully basic – absorb pressure from waves of Denmark attacks before launching a long ball up for Fraser and Adams to chase.
Given the tone of this piece so far, it’s obvious as to how well that plan went for Clarke and Scotland. Denmark took complete control of the game and scored twice in quick succession to give them a healthy 2-0 lead. After Joakim Mæhle’s well-taken effort, the home side eased off the gas, but Scotland were unable to capitalise or even look marginally fired up. Granted, they looked better in the second half and created more, but that comes with the caveat that Denmark were strolling the tie in second gear for the majority of that second period.
Scotland fans were outraged at this display and were very vocal about their dissatisfaction across social media. Given that the decision to extend Clarke’s tenure as Scotland boss until 2024 was announced a week prior to this result, Clarke and the SFA were the main targets in a tartan tirade of tweets. The tactics, the starting squad, the lack of attacking impetus, the lack of a plan B… there were plenty of grievances that were made very clear after this match, leaving Clarke with plenty to mull over ahead of Saturday’s must-win match against Moldova. As Moldova are one of the supposedly weaker sides in Scotland’s qualification group, the former Kilmarnock manager has a golden opportunity to make amends with the Tartan Army.
So, what exactly can Clarke do to improve on that disastrous night in Denmark?
The Starting XI
Let’s say that Clarke, in his mission for consistency and a team built on a strong defence, decides to stick with his 5-3-2 system, which has begun to demoralise Scotland fans to no end. If he does go down this route, he cannot play a similar team to the side that played in Copenhagen.
Let’s look at the oddities from Thursday night’s XI. Starting Scott McKenna over Jack Hendry makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Hendry was a consistent presence in Clarke’s back line at Euro 2020 and even after that heat-of-the-moment shot that lead to Patrik Schick’s wondergoal in the opening game, he retained his place on the right-hand-side of the three. He has also just made the move from Oostende to Club Brugge for a reported fee of £3.6 million and will be playing Champions League football this season. The only reason I can see for McKenna’s inclusion is that he’s left-footed, but then you could have had Liam Cooper on the left, Grant Hanley in the middle (where he’s played most regularly for Clarke) and Hendry back on the right. This change should be a no-brainer.
Another question mark came in midfield, as from the three who started, it seemed to be McGregor who was playing the furthest forward, often positioned high on the left when pressing Denmark’s back line. While McGregor has been a mainstay of this side, his presence has often been deeper than what we saw on Thursday night. The most baffling thing about this was that despite lacking the presence of John McGinn to occupy the number 10 role, Clarke had not one, but two competent, talented midfielders who have more to offer in the role than McGregor in David Turnbull and Ryan Christie. It has been reported that McGinn will be eligible for selection for Saturday’s match, but given that rotation would be expected on Saturday regardless, it could be a better decision to keep McGinn fresh for the trip to Austria next week and give one (or both) of Christie and Turnbull a start on Saturday night.
Finally, there needs to be a change up front. How Clarke came to the decision to drop Dykes and play long balls up to five-foot-four Ryan Fraser is going to remain as one of life’s mysteries, but up against an impressive, physical Danish back line, there was never any chance that this plan would yield positive results. The obvious option for Clarke if he is to remain with this game plan is for Dykes to be recalled but given that a booking would rule him out of the Austria match, it might be a safer option to limit his game time before Tuesday’s trip. The same can be said for Kevin Nisbet, so instead of Fraser, Christie would be the most likely to occupy this role, having played as a second striker in the past. There is one more solution that could solve any problems with picking a second striker…
There have been calls for Clarke to move away from a negative, defensive, five-at-the-back formation for a large portion of his time in the job – why not now? When your plan to sit back and absorb pressure from teams before countering, you would at least hope you’d be able to sustain pressure effectively. Granted, Denmark were a level above anything Scotland could have put out on Thursday night, and we have seen this system work in some instances, but when the opportunities for being creative and potentially take control of a game are limited as a result of this approach, fans will quickly grow tired of such negativity.
Of course, the system was put in place to accommodate Scotland’s best two players who, unfortunately, play in the same position. Having Robertson and Tierney occupy the left flank together has seen both contribute in both attack and defence, but it has come at the cost of lacking any other attacking game plan, bar a long ball forward to a striker. A switch of system could afford more attacking freedom and, crucially for a side lacking in goals, options.
While both Tierney and Robertson could still play in a back four, Tierney is much better suited to playing alongside his captain in a back five and I would suspect he would be the likeliest of the two to lose his place. You could easily have McGregor and Gilmour alongside each other in a double pivot, with Turnbull ahead in the centre, flanked by Christie and Fraser, all supporting Adams as a lone striker. The players are there for the system, so why not give it a go?
The Lack of Attacks
Forget a change in starting personnel. Forget a change in formation. Should Clarke make the bewildering decision to change very little from Thursday and play the same team, fans will be looking for one thing – a change in mentality.
Yes, the 5-3-2 system has been set up with defence as its primary focus, but there needs to be some attacking impetus in the side. Scotland have been accused of giving teams too much respect in the past – think Austria and Israel, games that were there for the taking for the optimistic Scots – and have been punished for doing so. Clarke needs to stray away from his commanding principles and realise that we’ve got some real quality going forward and we should be looking to utilise that as much as possible.
With the position that Scotland find themselves in the table, qualification is already looking even more unrealistic than it already was and Clarke’s side will need to win games by multiple goals to stand them in good stead to climb a rocky and treacherous table. The current approach and mentality hamper any chance of a goal-fest and Clarke could do worse than having his side go for it against Moldova on Saturday.
As a member of that unlucky generation to have waited my entire life to see Scotland compete at the highest level, the comedown from the high of the summer has been rough, if not expected. Part of me genuinely believed that we would build on qualification and look to become a regular fixture at international tournaments but if things are to remain the same for much longer, it could well be another 23 excruciating years of obscurity. I sincerely hope that Clarke can prove me wrong.
At least Saturday’s match can’t go any worse… right?