Yes, it was just a friendly – a fact underlined by opposing boss Frank de Boer making two changes on the half-hour mark – but this was a Scotland team thrown together shortly before the game after six players followed John Fleck in missing out due to Covid-19 protocols. Despite those disruptions, Steve Clarke’s men looked every bit the equal of an opponent 28 places ahead of them in the Fifa World Rankings.
Such adaptability bodes well going forward. Clarke would’ve wanted these two friendlies – the second coming Sunday against Luxembourg – to fine tune a couple of things before the opening match against the Czech Republic. Instead, he’s now been given a few more selection dilemmas to ponder.
Let’s begin between the sticks. Craig Gordon started for the second consecutive Scotland match after David Marshall was one of those ruled out. It seemed improbable there would be any question over the first-choice stopper after the latter’s heroics in Serbia, but a couple of iffy moments in the subsequent games, combined with Gordon’s excellent form for Hearts this past season, had many wondering whether Marshall was still as bulletproof as he once appeared.
Fortunately for the Derby County keeper, Gordon’s chance may just have flown by him the instant Memphis Depay’s late free-kick equaliser did likewise. There were a lot of bodies in the way, meaning he saw it very late. It was also hit with real power. But it crossed the line just a couple of yards to Gordon’s left as he stayed on the spot. Was it the positioning of the wall? Was it the Netherlands’ deceptive set-up? Did Declan Gallagher get into his line of vision? Regardless, it’s not the type you typically see a top class goalkeeper conceding and may just be enough for Clarke to continue with the status quo.
Some continuity in defence would have been preferential for Clarke going into Wednesday night’s match. Even in the last round of World Cup qualifiers he was fiddling about with the back three before settling on a unit of Scott McTominay, Grant Hanley and Kieran Tierney for the final 135 minutes. Instead, he was given an alternative to ponder.
Liam Cooper was alert to danger and swept things up well at the heart of the unit, but it was Hendry who really stood out from the defence. He looked much more assured than his previous showings against Austria and Israel, both in terms of his defensive work and moving forward with the ball. If Scotland can get that kind of performance out of the Celtic outcast on a regular basis then Clarke may not need to station McTominay in the back three to give the starting XI a right-sided defender capable of mirroring Tierney’s work on the other side.
Without McTominay, Fleck and John McGinn, added to the long-term absences of Kenny McLean and Ryan Jack, the head coach went with Stuart Armstrong and debutant David Turnbull playing either side of Celtic’s Callum McGregor, who sat in the deeper role.
One thing seems fairly certain: Turnbull won’t start the opening game. The breakout Celtic star from last season didn’t look out of place and has a tremendous future ahead of him but he sometimes tried to force things when the simple pass was the better option and was responsible for failing to track Depay at the first equaliser.
Of the other two, McGregor has the better chance to start, even if his showing was fairly consistent with most of his Scotland performances. When play was in front of him he looked sharp progressing things forward. But he’s not used to playing with his back to goal and was often caught deep in Scotland territory as a result. He doesn’t have the eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head awareness and penchant for simply keeping possession that Jack possesses. Chelsea wonderkid Billy Gilmour, who came on for his debut later in the game, would arguably be a better bet for this role, but it’s hard to imagine him being thrown into the deep end considering his inexperience. A combination of McGregor with McTominay behind him seems more likely.
This would appear harsh on Armstrong, who had the best showing of the central midfield three. The problem for the Southampton star is that his greatest assets are advancing the ball from deep and proving a goal threat, two voids McGinn can easily fill.
There’s also the proposition of James Forrest at right wing-back. Seeing as the winger missed most of the season through injury, and has barely played wing-back in his career, it was assumed Motherwell’s Stephen O’Donnell was a cert for the starting role, with the most likely interloper being Rangers hotshot Nathan Patterson. But the Celtic man did his chances no harm. Always an underrated defensive player, Forrest stayed discipline positionally to help create a back five when Scotland didn’t have the ball, while he naturally provided more going forward than O’Donnell. The chance Lyndon Dykes had at 1-0 pretty much came about due to his enterprise down the wing. This decision will likely rest on how attacking Clarke wants his side to be.
That leaves the two positions in attack and two final questions which came out of Wednesday’s match. Will Ryan Christie keep his place? And is Kevin Nisbet a better option than Lyndon Dykes? The latter has struggled for in a dark blue shirt since the victory in Serbia and there’s now little doubt Nisbet is a better goal threat, it just depends on whether Dykes’ hold-up play will be valuable enough to keep him in the starting XI. For matches where Clarke is chasing a result, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Hibs man preferred over Dykes off the bench.
Either player could easily start alongside Che Adams in a more traditional looking front two, but Christie will probably take up one of these roles. The Celtic attacker has not had a good season by his standards and there were too many occasions against the Dutch where he squandered possession in advanced areas. However, he is undoubtedly the leader of Scotland’s high press, which played a crucial role in the draw, including the opening goal. He also drops back into the midfield area which makes it difficult to opponents to find holes in Scotland’s shape. Considering the strength of the Euro 2020 group, it’s hard to imagine this being sacrificed for another out-and-out striker.