The current state of the Scotland national team is betrayed by the obsession with reconfiguring it.
Plenty consider the final two games of a failed Euro 2020 group campaign – the assignment in Cyprus next and the home encounter with Kazakhstan three days later, significant only in respect of Stevie Clarke’s men earning third place in their section – the opportunity to plug gaps that would address glaring weaknesses.
As it stands, Scotland have a glut of capable, in-form midfielders. Far too many to accommodate in central areas. And, captain and left-back Andy Robertson aside, frankly that is it as far as performers to bank on goes. The dearth of striking options has brought growing calls for Clarke to consider giving Ryan Christie a central attacking role as what is often described as – a dreaded term – a “false nine”.
John McGinn is nailed on for the No.10 position that Christie has excelled in for Celtic, to the extent that he is joint-top scorer for the Scottish champions with 12 goals. The Invernessian played wide right of a three in the 6-0 win over San Marino, but his attacking instincts mean he is naturally more productive in and around the box. And for all that Lawrence Shankland, pictured, continues to plunder the goals for Dundee United – his strike in Friday’s Tayside derby took his tally for the season to 19 – and netted against the Marinese, his Championship status means he simply lacks regular exposure to high level football.
With Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor, Kenny McLean, Ryan Jack, James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong, McGinn and Christie all vying for five positions in the 4-2-3-1 formation in which Clarke has set out his Scotland team, too many good choices are in danger of being left on the bench.
With the perennial concerns over suitable centre-backs, even with Scott McKenna fit again, another possibility floated is to utilise the quick and athletic McTominay at centre-back, as former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho did on a couple of occasions.
Such bold deployment of Christie and McTominay elicits only a bald response from Clarke, though, when tied to one more midfielder filling an unfamiliar role in the form of Jack dropping to right-back. “I’m not really a fan of shoe-horning people into positions,” he said. “I thought Liam Palmer did OK in the two games. I didn’t think he was bad at all, I thought he was decent, even in the Russia game [with the 4-0 loss] I thought he did OK.”
The idea of using Christie as a false nine practically has Clarke snorting. “If I do that, then you’ll hang me up for not playing with a striker. A false nine becomes a no nine…” said the Scotland manager with reference to Craig Levein’s infamous 4-6-0 system in the Czech Republic in 2010.
“I understand what’s being said. Ryan’s a forward player, he’s forward-thinking. [But] Lawrence Shankland did well for me [though]. I thought Lawrence was good, gets the ball in, links up the play, looks like a centre-forward, Steven Naismith can play centre-forward. Oli Burke gives me a different option in terms of stretching the opposition behind as a striker and Oli McBurnie, who, at the moment, is out of the Sheffield United team, which is unfortunate, but Oli’s got his own qualities.
“With Robert Snodgrass retiring, there’s a chance for Ryan to play off the right-hand side coming in. Forrest can play there. Ryan Fraser’s back in the Bournemouth team after a little spell out and playing better. I watched Ryan a couple of weeks ago at Watford and he looks like he’s getting back to where he was last year, which is good.”
Meanwhile, chat about McTominay as a centre-back prompted Clarke to joke about playing a “false five”. “I don’t know [about him playing centre-back], I’ve never seen him there. No, I think he’s a midfield player,” he said. “He’s developing well, playing well and he’s nailed down a spot in the Manchester United team.
“He’s shown when he’s been picked for Scotland that he’ll do well for us. He’s a big, strong athletic boy. Scott’s got a lot of good attributes but I don’t want to heap too much pressure on him. He’s a young boy so you still have to give him time to grown and develop. But he’s doing very well. He’s a good presence around the place and he speaks well. He’s got a really good attitude. Scott can play any sort of midfield role. He’s box to box – you seen that against San Marino.
“He likes to bomb forward, getting into that inside position. But he can also do the defensive job. In the Belgium away game, he and Kenny McLean were a good defensive anchor.
“He can do both, he’s a modern-day midfielder.”
The problem for Clarke is that he has so many of such types. “I get asked ‘would you play more midfielders’ but you get to the situation where do you play seven midfield players? We have a system and a way we’ve been trying to play; sort of 4-2-3-1.
“John McGinn has found a good position in there for us as the more advanced one and I’ve got good options for other positions. Ryan Christie can play in that position. Stuart Armstrong can play in the John McGinn position. There’s good competition for places in there.”
Yes, but the flipside of this imbalance is the competition for places at either end of the pitch is painfully lacking.