Steve Clarke tells Scotland critics not to get ‘hung up on systems’

Manager irked by the fuss made of his formation ‘tweak’ in the draw with Israel

Scott McTominay was on the right side of a three-man defence in the 1-1 draw with Israel at Hampden on Friday night. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA
Scott McTominay was on the right side of a three-man defence in the 1-1 draw with Israel at Hampden on Friday night. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

They always say the problem with haircuts is that you can’t have two at once. It seems it is a similar story with Scotland formations. Theses could be written – and as good as have been – on the subject of combining left-backs Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney in the national set-up. Even across the 19 months that injury problems for the Arsenal defender prevented this being a live issue. Steve Clarke found a way on Friday night. The problem was that his team did not find a way to develop any rhythm, and could find no means to exhibit any incisiveness in the unsatisfying 1-1 draw against Israel in the Nations League opener at Hampden.

As a result, Clarke departing from his favoured 4-4-1-1 formation to perm his players into a 3-4-2-1 shape is now being presented as a problem. Never mind that, with Tierney in his Arsenal role on the left of a back three and Liverpool’s Robertson deployed as left-wing, the pair combined just as they did when Scotland were supposed to have been valiant in drawing 2-2 with England on that famous afternoon in June 2017.

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Robertson, as with opposite flank wing-back James Forrest, was unable to move Scotland up the pitch from wide areas. However, it was a statis that afflicted all component parts that troubled ahead of the game in the Czech Republic tomorrow – and, more importantly, the return, for next month’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final, of an Israel team that the other night looked solid and sharp. Yet, Clarke seemed narked yesterday that there had been so much caustic blether sparked by – what he considered – was a merely minor reconfiguration of the team set-up.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke takes his team to the Czech Republic this week. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

“Sometimes I think people get a little bit hung up about systems, and whatever,” the Scotland manager said. “What we are trying to do is reinforce the principles that served us well towards the last campaign, last November. A slight tweak in the system doesn’t change the principles, what you want out the game, how you want to try and play. We want to have a good mixture and a good balance in the squad. And if you can play two separate, two different ways, you can have in-game changes, half-time changes and between-match changes to suit personnel. We want to make ourselves more flexible and a little bit better going forward.”

Among the remodelling that seemed awkward was the berthing of midfielder Scott McTominay on the right of a three-man backline. The Manchester United performer did not appear entirely at ease, but that is not how Clarke digested his display.

“I thought he did very well,” he said. “He is a big strong boy, good height. I think he made one mistake when he got caught a little under the ball and that allowed [Moanes] Dabour in at the back post for a header David [Marshall] made a fantastic save from – which was crucial because we then went up the park and took the lead.

“Scott himself was comfortable in that position. I had in mind to play someone else in there at the start of the week and then I watched training. You look at Scott, he played deep into August with Manchester United but had come in to us on the back of a few days’ rest so he hadn’t done much training. So I needed to see him train and make sure he was up to speed. And what he showed me in training pushed me towards playing him. I thought that was quite a good performance.

“I was quite pleased with the whole back three, to be honest, I thought they worked quite well together and more or less kept a dangerous front two quiet. Obviously they [Israel] had the combination that led to the goal and that is something we have to work on and be better at in the future.”

The one showing over which there was general agreement came from debutant Lyndon Dykes. Though the striker had precious little to feed off in his 74 minute run-out, he was dominant in the air and adept with flick-ons and lay-offs. It was a performance of great promise. Clarke, who will mix up his side for tomorrow’s encounter, cautions against expecting the 23-year-old
to be the immediate answer to Scotland’s myriad frontline issues.

“It is important to keep our feet on the ground, be level-headed and not put too much pressure on Lyndon. He’s had a whirlwind couple of weeks,” said Clarke of the forward who recently made a £1.5 million move to Queens Park Rangers from Livingston. “He came into the camp and when you are a new guy coming into the camp, the lads are looking at you straight away. But his touch, his technique, his manner about the place, the way he worked in training, everything was really good and I felt he took that into the game.

“Obviously it was a big step up for him. I just felt when I took him off last night he was starting to tire a little bit and it would be unfair to ask him to finish. I was pleased with him and he can be pleased with his own performance.”

At least someone’s pleased, then.

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