Scotland's defence dilemma: Cases for Porteous, Gallagher, Kingsley and formation change examined

There is only one guarantee about the backline Scotland manager Steve Clarke will be forced to field for the Nations League decider against Ukraine: it won’t contain what would be regarded as a first pick in any berth.

Declan Gallagher has never let Scotland down and the current circumstances that have squeezed Steve Clarke's ccentre-back options for the Ukraine Nations League decider could make the time right for the St Mirren man to be handed a 10th cap. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Declan Gallagher has never let Scotland down and the current circumstances that have squeezed Steve Clarke's ccentre-back options for the Ukraine Nations League decider could make the time right for the St Mirren man to be handed a 10th cap. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

The apprehensions stirred by that fact principally revolve around central defence. The injury loss of Scott McKenna coupled with Scott McTominay’s suspension – on the back of fitness concerns counting Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper out – mean Clarke is probably left to decide between Ryan Porteous and late call-ups Declan Gallagher and Stephen Kingsley as he seeks a partner for Jack Hendry. Should he elect to continue with a flat back four, that is. Personnel issues that have stripped him of a host of defensive performers could tempt him to revert to a back three for an encounter it should be remembered Scotland require only to draw in order to win Group B1. Ultimately, it would seem there are four main options. Below, we explore each of these.

Give Ryan Porteous the nod

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Pros: The Hibs magnet for controversy would appear the obvious choice to link up with Jack Hendry for the Ukraine decider. Indeed such a combo would represent Clarke utilising the only two centre-backs named in the original squad for this Nations League triple header left in his party for Poland this week. Clarke patently thought that the 23-year-old Easter Road performer’s credentials for international involvement at this juncture surpassed those of Gallagher and Kingsley only a matter of a fortnight ago. Moreover, with his chutzpah, Porteous would not be fazed by being pitched into such a mammoth occasion for a first cap.

Ryan Porteous, right, has yet to be capped by Scotland but has experience of previous squads.
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Cons: See directly above. The Hibs stalwart has been on the fringes of the Scotland squad for almost three years now. His first call up came back in November 2019, and his current recognition amounts to the fourth occasion Porteous has been in a national squad under Clarke. What does it say, though, that he hasn’t ever made it on to the pitch across the period? It can hardly be a ringing endorsement. This week may hardly be the best time for Clarke to take the plunge with Porteous. Not least because he has often proved an impetuous figure on the bigger stages in Hibs colours. His record on such occasions then is somewhat chequered, to say the least.

A recall for Declan Gallagher

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Pros: If ever Clarke’s alchemy could be encapsulated in the journey of one player, it was Declan Gallagher’s late flowering as an ultra-dependable for Scotland. The now 31-year-old excelled for his country as Clarke turned to him within six months of taking charge three-and-a-bit years ago. It seemed a stretch to believe at the time that the Motherwell journeyman could help Scotland resolve defensive troubles as one of the buttresses in a back three. But he was a revelation, rarely putting a foot wrong across nine appearances – only one of these in a losing team – between February 2019 and June 2021. He was overlooked for Scotland’s Euro 2020 finals campaign but had an integral role in ending the country’s 23-year exile from major finals through proving resolute in the play-off final success in Serbia. Gallagher has earned his chops as a Scotland player and, with the vital experience gained, there would be little to spook him if pitched in against Ukraine. His recall would seem to make sound sense.

Cons: It is 16 months since Gallagher’s last cap. The St Mirren centre-back claimed he is “back in love” with football following his unyielding display that was a key element in the Paisley club ending Celtic’s 38-league game unbeaten run nine days ago, but the disaffection seemed to run deep. His year with Aberdeen was a wasted one, and he isn’t getting any younger. Never blessed with pace, this wasn’t an issue in his previous outings for Scotland because of the back-three set-up. It could become so were he to be berthed alongside Hendry in four.

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Hearts defender Stephen Kingsley was called into the Scotland squad after the latest call-offs.

Throw a curveball and opt for Stephen Kingsley

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Pros: There is little question that the Hearts defender has been one of the Scottish games most accomplished performers in his department across the past year. Many feel his elevation to the international side should not have required the current predicament. Moreover, the 28-year-old is not untried, having been capped in a friendly defeat by France in May 2016.

Cons: As with now, Kingsley was only considered for a Scotland capped six years ago when there was a raft of call-offs. And his appearance for his country then amounted to replacing Robert Snodgrass after 66 minutes with Scotland 3-0 down to France in Metz. He has been playing well as the left-sided defender in a back four, but Craig Halkett’s presence beside him has undoubtedly been a factor in his form.

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Revert to a back three

Scotland do not need to push for a win against the Ukrainians. As a result, they could afford to be more cautious. It might make sense then to consider reverting to a back three. It would leave Hendry less exposed than would be the case with only Gallagher or one newbie in either Porteous or Kingsley beside him. Moreover, with Kieran Tierney and Nathan Patterson already out, it is all change at the back for Scotland in Warsaw. Aaron Hickey and Greg Taylor have been more than able deputies in the right and left back slots, respectively, but there could be no harm shoring up the protection right across the defensive line. That could even bring such as Anthony Ralston into play, either as a right wing-back or on the right of a three-man central defensive trio. As a back three, Ralston, Gallagher and Hendry, for example, would have plenty of major game experience. Meanwhile, Porteous or Kingsley would not be so exposed if deployed in a back three with two of the above trio. It’s a thought …

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