The rush now appears on to throw everything forward to Scotland’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final on 26 March. One of the key questions facing manager Steve Clarke is what to do about Kieran Tierney. Or more specifically, what to do about the Arsenal left-back if he is fit and featuring in the squad alongside captain and first-choice left-back Andy Robertson.
A circle would then require to be squared. It is a conundrum that has never been properly worked out since the Liverpool man and Tierney have been available for Scotland selection at the same time. Which hasn’t been that often in recent years, it must be said. The problems that have ensued on those occasions, though, are perhaps best evidenced by the fact that Tierney has played in four different positions over the course of his 12-cap international career.
Ultimately, although it might not be fashionable to say so, the answer to the poser that has exercised so many minds for so many months as to what to do with Tierney when he and Robertson are in situ for Scotland might actually be not much, aside from starting him on the bench.
A school of thought runs that Arsenal’s £25 million summer signing from Celtic, as one of the country’s most prized talents, must be accommodated at all costs. A way must be found if, next March, he is available to make a first appearance for the nation in 18 months. And the way generally settled upon is for Tierney to be played at right-back.
There are a number of issues with this. It is now more than two years since Tierney made the fifth of five appearances for his country in the unfamiliar right-back role. It came in the 2-2 draw in Slovenia on 8 October 2017 that both ended Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and Gordon Strachan’s four-and-a-half-year tenure as national coach.
It seems to have been forgotten now but one of the takeaways from that failure was that it confirmed an increasingly widely-held view to the effect that it was not fair on Tierney to play him out of position.
So much so that, weeks later, when Malky Mackay sought to point the way to the future for Scotland when placed in caretaker charge for a friendly against Netherlands, he made Tierney captain and deployed him as the left centre-back in a flat back four – the only occasion he has filled this role for the country.
Tierney acquitted himself well enough there. However, when Alex McLeish subsequently took charge – with an early pledge that he would not ask the then Celtic centre-back to sacrifice himself for the right-back role – he sought to solve the dilemma created by the two-into-one left-back puzzler created by the Robertson/Tierney axis, by switching to a back three and playing Tierney on the left of that and Robertson in front of him as a wing-back.
It never really clicked and McLeish was lambasted for playing not one, but two, of Scotland’s leading performers out of position. It came to a head in the dismal showing away to Israel in October 2018 when Scotland were fortunate to escape with a 2-1 defeat, and Tierney was unfortunate to score an own goal that was considered to cap a display that betrayed how out of sorts he was on the left of a back three.
That night was the last time that fitness issues that have dogged him for more than a year allowed Tierney to represent his country. Although Tierney is fit again after a hernia operation that delayed his introduction to the Arsenal senior set-up, which has given way to variable form, Steve Clarke has never had the player at his disposal in his eight months at the Scotland helm.
Yet, the manager’s comment that he wasn’t “a fan of square pegs in round holes” should caution against anyone who expects that Tierney, if available, is a shoo-in to replace Liam Palmer at right-back for the Nations League play-off semi-final. If something doesn’t work, simply wanting it to do so doesn’t alter the outcome.