It might seem a case of smart-alecs-are-us, all hail the Monday morning quarter-backs, meet the Captain Hindsights to dare cite Steve Clarke’s starting XI as the cause of the nation’s calamities that condemned them to a 3-1 play-off semi-final defeat at Hampden last night. These labels are fully entitled to be bandied around at such wisdom after the event. Not least because precious few were expressing the disbelief that all-too-soon took root over how unsuitable certain elements of the personnel and team structure were to meet the challenge posed by an opponent on a mission. An opponent fuelled by an emotion-filled furnace in their quest to bring a flicker of joy to their war-riven land. Yet, none of that alters the fact that Clarke’s selection calls failed to pay off.
The alarming manner with which Ukraine sliced through the middle of Scotland like the proverbial knife through butter from the earliest stages - the silky Oleksandr Zinchenko seemed to have the freedom of Mount Florida - told that Scotland’s shape in the centre of the pitch was leaving them overrun. The skittishness of Aaron Hickey in the right wing-back role where he was handed a first international start, not helped by Scott McTominay’s inability to offer support on the right of the back three, told that this defensive link-up left the home side lacking cohesion in that area. And as much as strikers Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes have dovetailed well as a two in certain previous games, the struggles of the QPR man to make an impact told it wasn’t a night to combine the duo and have John McGinn operating in an ineffectual no-man’s land behind the pair.
Inside 20 minutes it was obvious that, whatever was Clarke’s plan, it had gone entirely awry. Yet, it wasn’t until the break, by which time Ukraine had the 1-0 lead that was the least by then they deserved, to swap Ryan Christie for Dykes.
If he had his time again, the Scotland manager surely would have set out with a team more closely resembling the one that had such joy against the Danes last November. Of course, he had no Kieran Tierney to field on the left of a three-man defence, and that loss was felt hugely against Ukraine. But he did have new Rangers arrival John Souttar at his disposal, a performer who excelled on the right of the backline that evening. He is a natural for that role; McTominay is not.
The bustle of the Manchester United man, who toiled along with just about every other member of the Old Trafford squad in the season just past, would surely have been better deployed to stiffen up Scotland in the middle of the park. McGinn then could have played in support of Adams in a system that would have offered good balance between attack and midfield, providing numbers in those areas when in and out of possession.
Many of us championed Hickey on the back of an excellent season with Bologna that has led to him being linked with Arsenal and West Ham for a whopping £20m fee. It just didn’t happen for the teenager in the play-off, though. He is certainly capable of operating on the right - he was berthed there for Bologna’s 1-1 draw away to Juventus earlier in the season - but there must be a reason why 30 of his 36 club appearances in the past year have come in the left-sided roles. As a result, in retrospect Anthony Ralston might have been a better bet to fill the berth made vacant by the loss of Nathan Patterson to injury. Indeed, if there was one decision Clarke made that brought furrowed brows before a ball was even picked it was that the Celtic full-back didn’t even make it on to the bench following a superb season with the Scottish champions. However, as with all this would have, could have, should have chat, it is all academic now.
Scotland hindsight XI (3-5-1-1): Gordon; Souttar, Hanley, Cooper; Ralston, Gilmour, McTominay, McGregor, Robertson; McGinn; Adams.