Scotland without Billy Gilmour: Analysing how midfield fared shorn of Chelsea talisman
The match preamble included the unfurling of massive Croatia and Scotland shirts.
That was part of the usual pageantry but when the game kicked off, the biggest shirt Scotland had to worry about filling was that of a player who until recently hadn’t even been part of Steve Clarke’s plans
The star man at Wembley, news that Billy Gilmour had been forced to self-isolate after a Covid test came back positive, had undoubtedly left Scottish fans feeling more negative but, having made it to a major finals for the first time in 23 years without him, the final group game, against Croatia, was an opportunity to demonstrate the strength in depth.
But he had added sparkle to the Scottish line-up and without him, while they tried to shine, the glitter was notable by its absence.
Against Czech Republic the performance had not lived up to pre-tournament hopes, inflaming calls for the Chelsea youngster to be promoted to the starting line-up for the trip to London. There he lived up to the hype against an England side touted by many pundits to walk over their counterparts from north of the border.
He did it by reading the play, getting on the ball, picking out passes and proving he is more than comfortable in the company provided by England. He also did it by closing down space, something Scorland offered Croatia too much of as they played a high-stakes game of risk and reward and failed to find the victory they needed to force their way into the knockout stage of a major tournament for the first time.
Clarke had tried to minimise the dismay prompted by Gilmour’s absence stating, yeah, the 20-year-old would have been asked to reprise his display against England had he been available but that others now had the chance “to come in and make themselves a national hero”.
Easier said than done against a Croatian team that just three years ago were contesting a World Cup final and players like former Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic may have ageing limbs, but they also have the muscle memory to draw on when it comes to getting wins against teams ranked so far below them.
Stuart Armstrong had been the man elevated to the starting line-up in Gilmour’s stead, but the classy Southampton midfielder couldn’t produce the kind of heroics the Ardrossan Roy of the Rovers had mustered days earlier as Scotland were left to ponder what might have been had they given Gilmour a platform to shine in the opening game when others, according to Liam Cooper had been slightly cowed by the magnitude of the return to such a major stage.
The hope is that the wait will not be so long next time.
Armstrong was involved in some of Scotland’s best scoring opportunities, while fellow midfielder Callum McGregor found the goal to cancel out Croatia’s first and spark the Tartan Army back to life.
But, in the midfield, and all over the pitch, there was just a bit too much self-distancing when it mattered and Croatia made the most of it.
We will never know if Gilmour would have made any difference, but we do know he will be key to helping Scotland back to such a stage.