Steve Clarke says Scotland need more defensive nous in midfield

Steve Clarke says he is heading into tomorrow night’s Euro qualifier against Belgium at Hampden believing his men can get a miracle result that will keep hopes alive of qualifying for next summer’s finals via the group stage.
Scotland manager Steve Clarke. Picture: SNS GroupScotland manager Steve Clarke. Picture: SNS Group
Scotland manager Steve Clarke. Picture: SNS Group

Anything else would be defeatist. But while he will approach the match like any other, he is also realistic enough to know that beating a side currently ranked the best in the world is a huge challenge and he will formulate a more long-range plan aimed at using the remaining five games of the campaign to fine-tune a squad that have the fall-back opportunity of reaching Euro 2020 via the Nations League play-offs.

“We have to give the supporters a sign that we’re going to be a good team in the future,” said Clarke. “You read things and speak to people, and the sense you get is that people become resigned to not qualifying.

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“I think the attitude is ‘typical Scotland’ because we gave people hope on Friday, we started well and then went in front. At that stage people were probably thinking ‘we might do alright here’ and then suddenly the game runs away again and I can imagine people just thinking ‘not again’, so we have to change that and the only way to do it is to get a big win.”

Successfully lifting the nation’s mood will be a by-product of the work he does to pick up players who were devastated by the way they allowed Russia to overhaul them in Glasgow on Friday, and finding the right blend to ensure the personnel on the field is best-placed to prevent similar mishaps in future.

For Clarke, even when the route out of the group becomes arithmetically blocked, the remaining fixtures can still play a major role in taking the team to a major finals for the first time since 1998.

Surprised to hear that a number of his players had spoken of a lack of self-belief and of being scared by the early lead they established thanks to John McGinn’s opener, he knows that his job remit now includes finding ways to build confidence to ensure that when the play-off semi-finals come around next March, his men march into it full of ambition and belief in themselves and the men around them.

To do that he does need to tinker. While there were men missing this time around, guys like Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith could yet make an impact in terms of gallusness and striking options. But there are others within the group who are in fine form and burgeoning with the kind of confidence to make an impact. He also has to find the right pieces for his particular jigsaw.

The midfield has long-since been considered the quality part of the Scotland squad, but finding the right blend remains an issue.

“They are all good footballers but we need to find someone in there with a bit more defensive nous,” said Clarke. “When Kenny [McLean] went on [against Russia], it helped, and suited the midfield quite well and that is something I will have to think about in the future.

“We have to find a formula that gets us the best players on the pitch and the best way of playing.”

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There was criticism of James Forrest’s performance on Friday. A player who was often overlooked by Clarke’s predecessor Alex McLeish despite his club form, he has been brought back into the action by the new Scotland coach but was one of several who failed to deliver his best against the Russians.

“Rather than looking at individuals, I have to look at the whole team performance rather than individuals. It is dangerous in a team game to pick out just one or two that maybe the media or the fans think weren’t at their best. I have to look at the bigger picture and that’s what I will do.”

But, in making some rejigs, it could be that the defensive traits of McLean could be complemented by the attacking prowess of Ryan Christie against Belgium as Clarke looks to the future. The Celtic man had been touted for a start against Russia but a lack of training meant he had to content himself with a spot the bench and an appearance in the second half.

“I am a fan of Ryan Christie and I said that before the game but, after the Old Firm game, he didn’t train until Wednesday so I just thought it was better to try to introduce Ryan into the game and I did think I would be introducing him at a stage when we were going to push to try to win the game but instead we were chasing the game,” explained Clarke. “I was planning on making the change at 1-1 but we then conceded so it was 2-1. But it was good to get Ryan on the pitch.

“I think Ryan’s best position at the moment – and don’t forget this time last year he wasn’t even in the Celtic team, so he’s come along over the last year – his best position for me is still the 10, the third, attacking midfield player if you like out of a midfield three. Rather than putting him under too much pressure by asking him to do a different role, we’ll just try and find a slot in the team where he can do his best at this moment in time.”

Finding the right players for the right slots to do the job that is needed is what it is all about. But first Clarke has to lift the players and then work on pulling off a performance tomorrow night. It may not get them where they need to be in the group but, with the big picture in mind, Clarke knows it would help them build momentum ahead of those Nations League play-offs.