The manager took a seat at Scotland’s plush golf and spa resort base after a gruelling 48 hours. Scotland kicked off their first European Championships campaign since Gazza’s goal celebrations at Wembley a quarter of a century ago yesterday with a deflating defeat to Czech Republic at Hampden and were robbed of Kieran Tierney’s services due to injury. The Arsenal defender now faces a race against time to be fit for Friday’s Wembley reunion with England.
It’s times like these the SFA must be relieved that Czech Republic booked out Scotland’s training HQ at Oriam even if they did not use it in the end due to Covid-19 reasons. It sent the Scots elsewhere and meant they could retreat to the north-east of England to lick their wounds as the rest of the nation carried on conducting an inquest.
That’s not to say the manager was hiding. It might have been low on the list of things he wanted to do but Clarke fronted up to reporters yesterday when he was not obligated to do so.
It proved a fascinating 11 or so minutes in the company of a man who was clearly not in the mood to say: “I messed up”.
It’s not as if losing to Czech Republic is on same scale as being beaten by Peru or losing to Costa Rica. Scotland will clearly need time to feel their way back into top tournament action and they have not been helped by Tierney’s calf injury.
‘We were hoping to score, they are expecting to score’
When one considers that the main reason Clarke decided to implement a three-at-the-back system was to accommodate both Tierney and skipper Andy Robertson, the question of whether the manager was entertaining any thoughts of switching to a back four, or at least tweaking the formation slightly, seemed a reasonable place to start.
“The system has worked well for us,” he said. “When we beat the Czech Republic last October Andrew Considine was left centre back and it was the same when we beat Slovakia. It is a system that has worked well for us.
“I wouldn’t understand any clamour to change the system. You certainly can’t change the system 48 hours before a game, especially after you have worked on it for so long.”
The answer was straightforward, firm and set the tone for what followed. Scotland remain a work in progress. “We were hoping to score, they are expecting to score,” said Clarke, as the post-mortem continued. “That was probably the difference.”
The Adams question
This assessment also invited the question why the manager hadn’t then played his leading striker from the start. He made great efforts to persuade Che Adams to switch nationality from England so he would be available for the Euros. Adams enjoyed a productive end to his season at Southampton and scored the winner on Scotland’s last outing against Luxembourg. Clarke could have played both Adams and Lyndon Dykes but it seemed straightforward: if it was one or the other, it would be the former. Clarke chose Dykes and watched the striker, who plays a division below Adams at Queens Park Rangers, pass up a particularly good opportunity to score in the second half. Adams replaced Ryan Christie at half-time but Scotland were already chasing the game by then.
“Every decision is big,” said Clarke. “Every decision you make is a big decision. You make decisions with the best intentions and that’s what we did.
“I don’t think Che would have made too much difference in the first half because we didn’t get quality ball into the strikers. When we lost the goal just before half-time I had a fair idea the game would open up. That allowed Che to show his talents.”
O’Donnell and Marshall backing
Clarke was even fiercer in his defence of his decision to play Stephen O’Donnell rather than start with Nathan Patterson, the impressive young Rangers player who might have offered more in an attacking sense.
“Analyse the game and tell me what Stephen did wrong?” he challenged reporters. “How many chances came off that side? Jakub Jankto, one of their most dangerous players, had a quiet game. Their left-back, a really good attacking left-back, Jan Boril, didn’t create a chance in the game.
“Analyse the game before we start killing players just because who they are and where they play.”
Someone many were accusing of having done something wrong to the extent that he is now featuring in internet memes ridiculing how far he roamed from his goal to facilitate Patrik Schick’s wonder strike is goalkeeper David Marshall. Clarke gave no indication he was preparing to make the keeper pay for the error on an afternoon when he pulled off several brilliant stops. “It’s just one of those things that happens,” he said. “He’s got loads of experience, Marsh, he’ll be fine. I’ve got no worries there.”
Caught in the middle
Clarke did identify a problem getting Scott McTominay involved in the game which, he claimed, was a reason why Scotland played the long ball so often. “I think sometimes you have to credit the opposition,” he said. “If you look at the first half, the boy [Tomas] Soucek was never out of John McGinn’s pocket.
“He followed him almost all over the pitch. It was difficult to play through the midfield and get Scott on the ball.
“When you play with three centre backs you need one of your midfield players to come off and get the ball and we couldn’t get Scott on the ball from the back.”
It sounds like a job for Billy Gilmour and Clarke will be aware that Monday’s events have only increased the clamour for the Chelsea midfielder’s inclusion.