Scotland's strengths and weaknesses
Steve Clarke's first couple of games in charge will have given him an idea of what he has to work with. In some areas he is pretty well off, but in others he's either going to have to hope some players really improve or he's going to have to compensate for the deficiencies. Here's how his options look at each position, going from our strongest area to our weakest...
Greg Taylor did himself proud in Brussels with a tenacious, committed performance. He's got a bright future ahead of him...as Scotland's third choice at the position. That's how spoilt we are for left-backs. Captain Andrew Robertson will of course be the starter whenever he has two working legs.
Against Cyprus, we could field John McGinn and Kenny McLean, both of whom will be first choices for Premier League clubs next season, and Callum McGregor, arguably the best player in Scotland over the last two years. For the Belgium match in came Manchester United's Scott McTominay and, in a more advanced role, Stuart Armstrong of Southampton. For future matches where an attacking playmaker is needed, Clarke will be able to call upon Tom Cairney - who, going by his willingness to come along just to be a sub, clearly had a beef with Alex McLeish - and Ryan Christie, who missed this double-header with injury. There's also John Fleck, promoted to the English top flight with Sheffield United and who understandably declined to postpone his wedding for this round of games. We may not have an absolute world class talent, but we are pretty stacked at this position.
The setup against Cyprus shows that Clarke is not wedded to the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 that worked so well for him at Kilmarnock - which is just as well as the pace and dribbling of Ryan Fraser and James Forrest are our two best attacking assets. The caveat is that there is not a lot of depth; Johnny Russell started wide against Belgium because of his fresh legs and willingness to do defensive work, while Robert Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie remain out of the international picture and Matt Phillips has disappeared from contention.
David Marshall justified his recall and is probably an adequate option going forward. But I don't blame Clarke for trying to convince Jed Steer of Aston Villa and Angus Gunn of Southampton to join the fray. I also don't blame him for not rushing to anoint Scott Bain as first choice. The best case scenario is that Liam Kelly, still only 23, continues to blossom when he leaves Livingston this summer.
At the moment, the choice is between natural right-back Stephen O'Donnell (or Liam Palmer, though all I've seen of him was that Kazakhstan debacle), former right-back Callum Paterson who now plays his club football in midfield or up front, or shoehorning Kieran Tierney into this position. I personally don't mind the latter, but an awful lot of folk disagree. Regardless, none of the options are ideal.
The potential is there; Scott McKenna and John Souttar clearly have bright futures, while Stuart Findlay thoroughly deserved his call-up and David Bates hasn't disgraced himself when called upon. All four are 23 or under. What odds that two of them can step up and become the type of central defender Scotland used to have loads of in the eighties and nineties? In the meantime, Clarke has felt obliged to insert Charlie Mulgrew into the lineup as much for his experience as anything else, and will also fancy that he has the tactical nous to cover up some of the deficiencies in the backline. Oh, and this is another position I can see Tierney end up playing in...
Given the time constraints, it's so much easier to coach an international team to defend than to attack. And so having a centre forward who can do it on his own can make a middling side so much more dangerous - think Gareth Bale of Wales or Robert Lewandowski of Poland. In the last two matches Scotland played...Eamonn Brophy and Oli Burke. Brophy was a 'devil you know' option who knows exactly what Clarke wants from his front men, which is great in terms of defending from the front but he offered zilch in attacking threat. Burke gave us a microcosm of his career so far; twenty excellent minutes against Cyprus where he looked dangerous and showed his full array of physical attributes followed by a start against Belgium where he looked like a headless chicken and justified concerns about his football IQ with a series of bad decisions. He's still only 22; surely there's a player there?
As for the others, the best long-term hope might be Oli McBurnie who scored 22 goals in the Championship last season, but in the immediate future Steven Fletcher's experience and quality link-up play may make him first choice. Alternatively, Leigh Griffiths may come back from his absence as sharp as he was two years ago. But sadly the most likely outcome is that Scotland are going to have to look to other areas of the team for goals.
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.
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