Scotland’s Playoff Squad
Steve Clarke’s reign as Scotland Head Coach may be only six games old but he has two of the highest stake matches in Scotland’s recent history on his horizon.
Scotland can’t qualify for Euro 2020 through Group I, meaning the escape hatch of the Nation’s League Playoff secured during Alex McLeish’s reign will be required.
Scotland have two remaining matches in Group I, travelling to Cyprus before welcoming Kazakhstan to Hampden for a chance to exorcise the ghosts of Astana. These two matches provide an excellent opportunity to build on the 6-0 mauling of San Marino last time out and build momentum towards the Playoffs in March.
As a reminder, a draw on 22 November will determine whether Scotland play Bulgaria, Israel or Romania at Hampden for a one-leg Playoff Semi Final on 26 March 2020. Should Scotland proceed they will face either Serbia or Norway (with the venue also determined on 22 November).
Ahead we’ll look at Steve Clarke’s selections so far and which players might be pushing for inclusion to secure Scotland’s place at Euro 2020.
In Steve Clarke’s six games so far, they have played a variation of a 4-3-3 hence that is the formation we will propose.
David Marshall seems to be the undisputed Scotland Number One. Jon McLaughlin played the last game at home to San Marino although he didn’t get much opportunity to show what he could do from a shot stopping perspective. Expect Marshall to start the Playoffs in goal.
At left back, Scotland’s Captain Andy Robertson will start in the Playoffs. He has started five of Steve Clarke’s six matches, only missing the trip to Brussels with an injury, Greg Taylor impressing in his stead. He has since joined Celtic and has seen his playing time limited.
At right back, the picture could be less clear. Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell started Clarke’s first four matches where the standard of opposition really tested him going forwards and backwards. He turned the ball into his own net in the home game against Russia. Clarke selected Sheffield Wednesday’s Liam Palmer for both games in the last international week, away to Russia and at home to San Marino.
Since then, a potential wildcard has emerged with Kieran Tierney’s return to fitness and Premier League debut for Arsenal. Should he play regularly and consistently in England & Europe it would be difficult to argue against his inclusion. He is an incredible talent and has experience of playing right back for Scotland in around a third of his caps.
A position that will be giving Steve Clarke headaches. In six matches he has used five different centre backs in four different combinations. Charlie Mulgrew has been the most consistent selection making five appearances although he can be a lightning rod for criticism.
Elsewhere, Scott McKenna, Liam Cooper, Michael Devlin have two appearances and Stuart Findlay have one.
It’s hard to predict which pairing Steve Clarke will go for. Injury has deprived him of John Souttar who has been injured since the opening day of the Premiership season. There is a good chance he won’t return until early 2020 making his selection hard to campaign for.
While they haven’t played together as a pairing, Scott McKenna and Liam Cooper currently look like Scotland’s highest potential partnership. It will be fascinating to see how Steve Clarke sets out his defence for the final two Euro 2020 qualifiers against Cyprus and Kazakhstan to look for clues towards the Playoff squad.
Another difficult area of the team to predict. Clarke has used six different players in Scotland’s engine room over his six matches. Celtic’s Callum McGregor (5 starts in CM and one out wide), Aston Villa’s John McGinn (4 starts) and Scott McTominay of Manchester United (4 starts) have been the most commonly selected players. Kenny McLean (3 starts), John Fleck (1 start) and Stuart Armstrong (1 start) round out the six.
All three have been showing very impressive form this season, particularly McGinn and McTominay in the English Premier League. McTominay & McGinn have started every EPL game for their clubs, contributing two and three EPL goals respectively. McGinn has hit a rich vein of form for the National side, scoring four goals in his last 4 caps.
Rangers fans have been strongly making the case for Ryan Jack’s selection after impressing in the SPFL Premiership & Europa League. However, he’s been limited to two substitute appearances so far for Scotland. For him to be included in Scotland’s Playoff XI, you would expect he would need to play in one or both of Scotland’s remaining Group I fixtures.
For Scotland’s home semi-final, they will be expected to take the initiative and attack their opponents. In that situation, we’d predict a three of McTominay, McGregor & McGinn. Perhaps in an away Final, a double pivot of McTominay & Jack could be preferred.
Out wide, Clarke’s most common pairing has been Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser and Celtic’s James Forrest. They have played two games as a pair with another appearance each without each other.
James Forrest’s place in the side is surely undisputed. His form this season has been incredible, scoring nine goals and setting up eleven in 21 appearances so far. In the high stakes matches that secured Scotland’s Nations League Playoff Forrest delivered five goals in two games against Albania and Israel.
By reputation, Forrest’s wide partner should be Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser. The former Aberdeen winger gained worldwide recognition with his performances last season. His fourteen EPL assists was topped only by Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. He also helped himself to seven EPL goals. This season however has been a different story. A combination of injury, illness and contract uncertainty have combined to dull Fraser’s start to the season, returning one goal and one assist in nine games.
On form, the ideal replacement for Fraser would be his namesake Ryan Christie. He’s enjoying the season of his life at Celtic, scoring twelve and providing six more in 20 appearances. For Scotland he impressed coming off the bench at home to Russia before starting against Belgium at home. He started the home game against San Marino, impressing with his incessant deliveries from set pieces and providing the balls for John McGinn’s opener and Stuart Findlay’s debut goal.
In the central striking position, Steve Clarke can’t be accused of not trying things. His six games in charge have seen five different players occupy the position. Oliver Burke is the only player to have more than one starts (2) while Eamonn Brophy, Oli McBurnie, Matt Phillips and Lawrence Shankland have one start each.
Currently, the form option would be Lawrence Shankland. The Dundee United hitman has 17 goals so far this season and scored on his debut against San Marino. Question marks remain regarding how he’d cope against stronger opponents than the Sammarinese.
Scotland fans will be very keen to see a return of Leigh Griffiths to the side, probably the most naturally gifted striker Scotland has produced in recent years. However, for a multitude of reasons his appearances this season have been very limited. He’s only played 9% of minutes in the SPFL Premiership. It would be a bold call for Steve Clarke to select Griffiths without match experience. Steve Clarke and the Tartan Army will hope Griffiths sees more action between now and March.
One outside option is Sheffield Wednesday’s Steven Fletcher. He publicly mulled retiring from international football (not for the first time) earlier this season but nothing has been finalised. He returned to the side for Scotland’s crucial final two Nation’s League matches, scoring against Albania and showcasing his experience.
Steven Fletcher has done well for Scotland as a holding striker, excelling at bringing quick, technical attacking midfielders / wingers into the game. Watch in the video below from the game against Israel, it’s his flick on that sends Christie through to set up Forrest for the goal.
Fletcher’s form this season is also good, he has five goals and one assist in 13 Championship appearances. His form is good, his style of play could bring out the best in Forrest, Christie, McGinn etc. and he has experience playing for Scotland in high pressure matches. With that in mind, we’d put Steven Fletcher in Scotland’s Playoff XI.
It will be fascinating to see who Steve Clarke goes for in Scotland’s remaining qualifiers. Good performances in those games will have a huge impact on who gets the nod in March’s crucial Playoff games.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below of via Twitter @TheTartanScarf.