Steve Clarke hints he'll stick with back three for Scotland v Israel play-off
Earlier this week, manager Steve Clarke refuted the suggestion that he had tried to ram square pegs into round holes in the most recent matches, against Israel and Czech Republic, although he conceded that he had, perhaps, tried to make oval ones fit.
But, defending his formation and team selections, he maintains the squad had been comfortable with their rejigged positions and tweaked tactics. With the most important game of his managerial tenure looming, Clarke has not ruled out shaping up the same way.
On Thursday, Scotland will face up to Israel in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final at Hampden and while he will have to wait to see who makes it through today’s fixtures, north and south of the border, he believes there were enough positives in the way his side played last time out and enough players capable of executing his plan to convince him it is worth further examination.
“It wasn’t an experiment, it was a chance to play players in positions they’re comfortable in. It was a chance to have a look at a little bit more of a solid shape defensively and I think in the Israel game that showed. Maybe we didn’t get enough support forward to Lyndon [Dykes] at the right times and that’s something we have to improve on. I’m sure if we decide to go that way again we will improve on it.
“But, it worked OK. The players were comfortable with the system. You don’t have international friendlies to work on things so I felt both of those games were a chance to look at a different system. The players enjoyed it, they were quite comfortable with it, they understood their roles within it. Most were comfortable because they had played in that position before in their careers. Some of them are playing in those positions for their clubs so it wasn’t this dramatic change people seem to have cottoned on to.”
Addressing the conundrum of how to fit both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the line-up, with the former operating in the more attacking left wing-back role and the Arsenal defender assuming a more overtly-defensive position within the central back three, it was the performance of Liam Palmer, operating on the opposite flank from Robertson that garnered most of the positive feedback. It meant there was quality supply coming from the wings, with the Sheffield Wednesday full-back providing the assist for Dykes’ first Scotland goal, against the Czechs, with both possessed of defensive attributes when they tracked back to help plug gaps when out of possession.
Palmer, unfortunately, is now nursing a back problem.
Making significantly different demands of players who are more familiar with operating as part of a back four, the 3-5-1-1 deployment seems to have resonated with Clarke who experienced life getting up and down the flanks and playing in a back three.
“It is a good system – we played it quite a lot at Chelsea when Glenn Hoddle came in. Glenn was a big advocate of three at the back. It worked really well,” added Clarke.
“I played right wing-back which I found a difficult shift. But I played all three [positions] in the centre – right, central and left. And I absolutely loved it. Any one of those three positions was a dream to play.”
While others question whether the Scotland squad is possessed of enough of the right kind of players, especially after Clarke had to move Scott McTominay back from midfield to fulfil the back-three requirements, hence the square or oval peg in a round socket, Clarke’s belief is that he has players in his squad who are at ease there.
“You need people that are comfortable on the ball, you need wing-backs that have good lungs and can get up and down the pitch and I think we have that. If I had to go that way again, I’d have absolutely no issues with it.”
The worry for him will be whether those he has pinpointed for those specific roles report for duty in fine fettle. European football means his Celtic and Rangers contingent have not benefited from the SPFL’s gesture of playing this weekend’s fixture card on Friday night to allow more recovery time, and many of his top-tier performers in England are in action today, too.
“This time it’s an exceptionally large squad because we have 26 to cover the fact we have three games but everyone in the squad has worked with us before so the principles, the ideas, all the little key factors we try to put into the players should be becoming second nature for these players.”
Mulling over his options, Clarke knows that the three-man backline did not prove impenetrable, but he also knows that Scotland have rarely proved capable of delivering clean sheets regardless the shape of the starting line-up, rendering the tweaks he has been attempting worthy of exploration
“It is a frustration and it’s something we speak about quite a lot – getting the little details that enable you to get a clean sheet. In the Israel game we over-crowded a throw-in, which was how we got caught out. The players did it for the right reason, they were trying to suffocate the game on that side of the pitch but they overcrowded and one good little combination on the edge of the box between two of their best players, Dabour and Zahavi, cost us a goal. The same is true of us losing possession twice in the Czech Republic.
“But, if you take the last five games, it’s four wins and a draw. That’s a team that doesn’t like to get beat.”
Battling for consistency in selection, he believes that will lead to ongoing improvements and, hopefully help them realise the dream of qualifying for a major finals for the first time since 1998. “International experience is really important so the more caps these players get, the better. The more familiarity they have when we come together as a squad – I’ve always been quite clear that I want to keep the nucleus of the squad together.
“The shortened preparation time is a negative but it’s a negative we’ve faced before and I’ve a better idea how to deal with that situation and the players will be ready come Thursday night. No excuses.”
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