“Scotland ended 22 years of hurt by qualifying for Euro 2020”
“Scotland dominated games away to Slovakia and Israel but lost both”
“Scotland went from conceding 13 goals in 4 games, to conceding 7 in the next 11 games”
“Scotland have scored 3 goals from open-play in the last 10 hours of football”
Having taken the time to reflect on this international break and having seen all four of these (equally factual) statements thrown around online, I felt it was time for a bit of perspective on Clarke’s reign so far.
As with everything in life, the conclusion is complex. Clarke has built a team and a system that is hard to beat first and foremost. Do they create enough chances or score enough goals? No. Are they going to Euro 2020? Yes, they are. Is there work to be done? 100%.
With the Euro 2020 cycle ended, we can reflect on Clarke’s reign so far and look ahead to the challenges of the future.
Steve Clarke arrived to the Scotland job in May 2019 to find a group of players devoid of confidence. Two months earlier his new side had travelled to Astana to kick off the Euro 2020 qualifying section. Much was made in the media about how the team would stay in a ‘time-zone bubble’, remaining on UK time to ensure peak performance.
Whatever the plan was, Scotland fell two goals behind inside the first ten minutes. There would be no fightback as the Scots sunk to a 3-0 loss, one of the lowest moments in our wilderness years. Despite a 2-0 win in San Marino, the decision was made to relieve Alex McLeish from his position as Head Coach.
Clarke Arrives – Pre-Lockdown
Clarke’s first game in charge was at home to Cyprus. It looked like Andy Robertson’s screamer would secure the three points until Scotland conceded to Kousoulos’ 87th minute equaliser, a hall-mark of Scotland sides in recent years. Oliver Burke was the hero though, finishing his own rebound in the 89th minute.
Over the next four games, the scale of the task facing Clarke would be made abundantly clear. In Belgium, Scotland defended manfully before conceding on the stroke of half-time. Then a second. Then a third.
At home to Russia John McGinn opened the scoring before the team spent the remainder of the game dropping deeper and deeper. Artem Dzyuba gave our defenders a torrid time before scoring. An O’Donnell OG sealed the win. Three days later, at home to Belgium things got worse. The Scots barely laid a glove on their opponents, going down 4-0.
The score line was the same in the next international break in Moscow. Scotland held firm until the 57th minute, then conceded three more in the next 24 minutes. The fragility of the side was deeply worrying. Scotland came back to Hampden for a relatively meaningless but morale-boosting 6-0 win over San Marino.
November brought some positive signs of growing mental strength in the group. In Cyprus, Scotland rode their luck (the Cypriots denied a goal after a ball bounced over the line) before Christie opened the scoring. Cyprus equalised but Scotland, undeterred re-took the lead through McGinn.
In the final qualifier at home to Kazakhstan, Scotland went in at the break 1-0 down. In the second, they rallied, turning the game round to win 3-1 thanks to Naismith and a McGinn brace. The opposition may have been relatively poor, but in two games Scotland had been tested and fought back. Green shoots were emerging.
Our Playoff path was set – Israel at home then either Norway or Serbia in March. Were we ready? We would have to find out.
Then Covid happened…
Steve Clarke emerged from lockdown having clearly spent the long summer nights plotting a path ahead for Scotland. Defensive fragility had to be addressed.
In our opening Nations League game of 2020 – a new system was debuted. Gone was the 4-3-3 of 2019, in was a 3-5-2 with Scott McTominay lining up in defence.
There were teething problems. Scotland were unconvincing in a 1-1 draw at home to Israel and a 2-1 away win against the Czech Republic’s scratch side (replacing their A team due to Covid issues).
In the September international break, the system started to click. In the Playoff Semi Final v Israel, Scotland held the visitors at arm’s length, limiting them to one shot on target in 120 minutes. In the penalty shoot-out, every Scotland player scored. When the pressure was highest, they delivered. Another sign of growing mental strength in the group.
Scotland followed that with back-to-back 1-0 wins against Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In both, Scotland scored with one of their only decent chances. This conversion rate was clearly unsustainable. At the other end, Slovakia were limited to few chances while the Czech’s conspired to miss several gilt-edged chances. Still, the wins were secure, and momentum was building.
Which takes us to this international break. In Belgrade, the sixth game using this new system, Scotland delivered one of the most complete away performances in years. Playing dominant, front-foot football they deservedly led into the closing stages. One lapse in concentration from a late corner and Real Madrid’s €60m striker Luka Jovic had nodded the Serbs level.
Weaker Scotland teams might have crumbled at that set-back. 2019 Scotland teams might have crumbled. This one didn’t. Scotland held firm through extra time before slotting another 5 nerveless penalties in the shootout. Through force of will, Scotland had fought their way to Euro 2020.
The following two Nations League games against Slovakia and Israel followed a worryingly similar pattern. Scotland’s chance conversion chickens had come home to roost. In both games, Scotland created enough chances to win (ironically, more and better chances than they had in the wins against Slovakia and Czech Republic in October), yet lost both 1-0.
Having gone behind, substitutions came on to change the shape of the team but failed to turn the games around.
Euro 2020 is a destination reached, but the journey isn’t over
As we’ve discussed, Steve Clarke came into a Scotland side whose confidence was on the floor, a squad that would retreat into its shell or completely capitulate when a goal went against them.
From there, Clarke has built a team and a system in his image. They are tight at the back, give up far fewer chances to their opponents and have demonstrated much improved mental strength. Coming from behind, winning penalty shootouts and in the biggest game in 13 years they put in their best performance.
However, there are still areas for improvement. Since bedding in this new tactical system, every game has been on a knife-edge, decided by one goal. With more clinical opponents, our wins could have been losses. Conversely, with better finishing, our losses could have been wins.
The 3-5-2 Plan A has shown itself to be successful when the game is 0-0 or when Scotland are defending a 1-0 lead. The worry for Steve Clarke will be what happens when we go behind? Is this system set up to chase a game? What is Plan B?
Admittedly, you can’t build a house without first laying foundations. Given the fragility of Scotland’s defence in 2019, locking the back door was priority one. Clarke’s attention must now turn to how Scotland create chances and convert them, especially if our new talisman Lyndon Dykes is off his game (as he was in Israel).
This week has been incredibly draining for the squad. Three away games in 6 days with all the travel that involves would be difficult for any team to cope with. The 2021 international calendar has two triple-headers included for World Cup 2022 qualification (March & September). Avoiding away triple-headers would be welcome.
Steve Clarke had a very long way to travel with this squad. We’ve come a long way and qualifying for Euro 2020 is a success to be celebrated, but we’re far from the finished product.
At the end of campaigns, we’re used to conducting the bi-annual post-mortem of the Scotland National Side. This time, the patient is very much alive. We can go into the World Cup Qualifiers in March with pride of our strengths while continuing to work on our weaknesses.
As I have done in the past, I look across the Irish sea to Northern Ireland. When Michael O’Neill took over, he won one of his first 18 games (7 draws and 10 losses). From then, Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 and came within a Playoff win of World Cup 2018 and Euro 2020. Replacing a culture and mindset of failure takes time.
Thanks to Steve Clarke, Scotland have dropped the emotional baggage of 22 years of hurt. It’s up to him and the players to ensure that success is just the beginning.
Yes sir, we can boogie. See you for the World Cup 2022 Qualifying Draw.