Scotland in a good place but problems to solve ahead of World Cup showdowns
and live on Freeview channel 276
The Scotland manager does so with considerable justification on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run, stretching back to last September, which has undeniably engendered a feelgood factor around the national team.
But while Clarke publicly declares that Scotland ‘are in a good place, don’t worry about that’, privately he will appreciate better than anyone the issues he and his coaching staff need to address ahead of the play-off semi-final against Ukraine at Hampden and potential final against Wales in Cardiff.
In the limited periods he is able to spend with his players on the training pitch, Clarke has steadily and successfully established a system which generally brings the best out of the resources at his disposal.
As for any manager, however, his tactical approach is only as effective as the personnel charged with carrying it out.
Over the course of the friendly matches against Poland at Hampden last Thursday and Austria in Vienna on Tuesday night, fixtures which replaced the postponed World Cup play-off ties, there was evidence that Scotland’s three-man central defensive set-up is a cause for concern.
Too many opportunities were presented to the opposition in both games. Against the Poles, the warning signs were there when Bartosz Salamon sent a free header over the bar and Billy Gilmour had to scamper back from his midfield beat to clear off the line after more uncertainty at the back.
The vulnerabilities in defence were even more pronounced against Austria where only the brilliance of goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who made four excellent saves, spared the Scots from defeat as they saw a 2-0 lead wiped out in the second half.
Scotland’s back three against Poland was composed of Scott McTominay, Grant Hanley and Kieran Tierney - in Austria, Jack Hendry replaced McTominay.
While Tierney excelled in both matches - his role on the left of the three can be considered unchallenged - there were question marks over the positioning of the other central defenders at key points in both games.
When the summer comes, Clarke will hope to have two other options at his disposal in that department. Leeds United captain Liam Cooper and Hearts defender John Souttar, who missed out this time because of injury, were both outstanding when they lined up alongside Tierney in the 2-0 win over Denmark at Hampden last October.
When everyone is fit and available, the evidence suggests that looks like the most reliable defensive trio Clarke can field.
There are surely no worries over the wing-back positions. On the left, captain Andy Robertson is a certain starter and his link-up play with Tierney on that flank is a huge asset for the Scots.
On the right, Nathan Patterson belied his puzzling lack of game time at Everton with his enterprising and energetic contributions against Poland and Austria.
For the two central midfield roles, it now looks like a case of perming any duo from the talented triumvirate of Gilmour, Callum McGregor and Ryan Jack.
Regardless of his own issues at club level, where his loan move to Norwich City has hardly been an unqualified success, Gilmour continues to shine whenever he pulls on a Scotland jersey.
He was one of the most accomplished performers against Poland and his status was perhaps only enhanced by how much he was missed when he was left on the bench along with McGregor in Vienna.
Lewis Ferguson struggled to impose himself on his first starting appearance as Scotland lacked the kind of midfield control they had enjoyed in many of their previous games this season.
During Jack’s long injury absence, Gilmour and McGregor have emerged as the go-to midfield partnership for Clarke. But he remains a huge admirer of the Rangers midfielder who has previously combined so well with McGregor, most notably in the Euro 2020 play-off final win against Serbia.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Scotland’s development over the past 18 months or so has been their attacking threat.
In their last 16 games, they have only failed to score on three occasions. John McGinn, deployed in one of the two advanced midfield positions, has been the driving force behind that greater menace in the final third of the pitch.
The Aston Villa player has been selected in Clarke’s starting line-up more often than any other player and is perhaps as close to being considered indispensable as any of them.
McGinn’s 12th goal for his country brilliantly finished off a superb move in Vienna which perfectly illustrated why so much optimism currently surrounds this Scotland side.
While Ryan Christie and Stuart Armstrong currently head the candidates for the other attacking midfield position, with James Forrest and perhaps Ryan Fraser capable of forcing their way back into contention, the central striking role now looks as if it belongs to Che Adams.
The Southampton player fills it with admirable tactical awareness and an uncomplaining willingness to stretch opposition defences for the greater good of the team, even on occasions when chances to score are few and far between.
Adams’ recent performances have edged him ahead of Lyndon Dykes for the number nine position, although the QPR man’s run of four goals in his last five Scotland appearances provide Clarke with welcome options in an area of the pitch which was once such a problem.
So Scotland can definitely be seen to be in the ‘good place’ referred to by their manager. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to be tackled by Clarke to ensure Scotland can maintain an upward trajectory when they reconvene in June.