Why Scott McTominay is key to Scotland team selection v Israel without suspended Grant Hanley

The suspension to be served by Grant Hanley for Saturday’s hosting of Israel will rob Scotland of a defender among the national team’s most influential performers over the past six months.

Scotland's Scott McTominay should be deployed in his favoured Man Utd midfield role against Israel (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Scotland's Scott McTominay should be deployed in his favoured Man Utd midfield role against Israel (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Yet, however counter-intuitive it may sound, assessing what their loss means for the latest all-on-the-line World Cup qualifier engenders optimism Steve Clarke really is creating genuine promise with squad options he has developed across his 29-month tenure.

The team rejig that will be triggered by the unavailability of Hanley offers intriguing possibilities rather than presenting intractable problems. Even if the results have been patchy at times, what is undeniable is how transformative the defensively-focused Clarke has proved for the operational effectiveness of the Scotland backline - in various configurations. It seemed inconceivable this point could ever be arrived at during the despairing days of Gordon Strachan’s era, only four years ago. Then, legitimately, he would point out that the clamour for him to switch to a back three as a shoring-up strategy seemed to overlook completely regular hardships in merely selecting two suitable centre-backs for a back four.

Clarke certainly has benefitted from the strides made in the club careers of Jack Hendry, Liam Cooper, Kieran Tierney and Hanley since those days. However, it is his input that has allowed them to be blended into the set-up so that not only do they know exactly what is required of them in the domain, but can handle that. It is a profound turnaround that means the Scotland manager can replace one English Premier League captain - in Norwich City’s Hanley - with another - in Leeds United’s Cooper - should he choose. Which he should. Key in that is Hendry’s burgeoning assurance, gained from his time in Belgium. His growth there now sees him acquitting himself with distinction in the Champions League for Club Brugge. It is form he replicated for his country with an exceptional display as Scotland re-animated World Cup hopes with a 1-0 victory in Austria last month.

John McGinn's goal threat as the highest scorer in the Scotland squad should see Steve Clarke play him in an advanced midfield berth in the abcence of Che Adams, seen here celebrating with the Aston Villa man. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The 26-year-old’s confidence performing the ball-playing centre-back role that comes with a demand to begin moves by stepping out of defence has potential, encouraging, implications for how Clarke sets-up in the middle of the park. It need not necessarily follow, then, that Scott McTominay’s availability following the Manchester United man’s injury absence for last month’s triple header should see him deployed on the right of a three - as he has been for 11 of his past 14 Scotland outings.

This was largely a needs-must solution, in the absence of a Hendry-type for that berth, indeed. It always appeared regrettable for McTominay to be removed from the engine room where he has built up such a head of steam at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Frankly, if his craft and dig are considered of a standard to see him favoured over players with £50m market values for a deep-lying midfield slot there, then surely that is how Scotland should best-harness his talents.

Clarke would argue that in Callum McGregor, Billy Gilmour and John McGinn, he already possesses a trio that can - and have been - permed into a central triangle. But that isn’t the only geometrical shape capable of serving the national team’s ambitions when facing up to a forever-problematic opponent in Israel. A team he hasn’t prevailed against across 90 minutes in four attempts.

A feature of those meetings - two drawn and one lost, with the solitary success coming in the penalty shoot-out that sealed progress from the Nations League play-off semi-final a year ago - was the inability to take a full grip in the centre of the pitch. A diamond, with McTominay at the base behind Gilmour and McGregor and McGinn at its apex, could just be the means to alter the recent complexion of such contests.

Jack Hendry's growing assurance means that Scott McTominay does not require to be out of position in the right of a back three for Scotland against Israel, even with Grant Hanley suspended. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

There are a number of selling points to this tweak; even beyond McTominay filling a role more akin to that with which he is acquainted on a weekly basis. Aston Villa’s McGinn, by some margin, is his country’s most reliable goal source. His 10 goals, claimed across an 18-month spell, give him a total more than double that of anyone else in the squad - Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Christie and Ryan Fraser all having struck four times in Scotland colours. The majority of McGinn’s net-bulging moments for his country have come when he has been in a more advanced position through the middle, when effectively he has been asked to play-off solitary central striker Dykes.

Since Che Adams declared for Scotland in March, there hasn’t been the same need - or indeed opportunity - to play the former Hibs man almost as a false no.9. Instead, the Southampton attacker and his Queens Park Rangers compadre have been given the game-time to grow as a frontline partnership. The goals haven’t exactly flowed from the strikeforce in the past seven months - four their aggregate total in the 11 games across that period - but as well as chipping in, their industry and application upfront has been crucial in setting the tone for Scotland whenever they have succeeded in grafting their way to results. Facets that proved fundamental in overcoming Austria.

Clarke then has a decision to make. He could continue with the Dykes-Adams axis. The upshot of doing that, though, is one of McGregor, Gilmour or Hendry missing out. All three have powerful cases for inclusion. And with the adaptability of McGinn, the value in accommodating his four best midfielders, and not at the expense of Hendry, gives the Scotland manager plenty to think about. It is his sound management that provides him with alternatives even when deprived of a key player. The trick now is to make best use of them.

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Kevin Nisbet's struggles on his first Scotland start, against Moldova last month, suggest it is too early to consider him as a potential partner at the weekend for Lyndon Dykes, with Che Adams serving a ban. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

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