Where Scotland are under Steve Clarke - understandable criticism, no drastic action, to-do list

Currently in Edinburgh is the Van Gogh Alive exhibition, an immersive experience paying homage to the life of the famous Dutch artist.

Sitting, taking in his most important pieces art as Van Gogh's somewhat tortured life is documented, one of his quotes stood out to a an eye and brain which relates most things back to football.

"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”.

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Success for a football team, no matter at what level, is often brought about because of a combination of small things rather than solely one or two big moments. That is certainly the case with Scotland over the past three years. From Steve Clarke's appointment to the implementation of the back three, Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams choosing to play for the national team to the emergence of Billy Gilmour in midfield and Kieran Tierney as a potentially world-class defender.

Those series of things created a team and environment which engaged the nation’s football fans like never before across the last decade or two.

Yet, as the last two weeks have demonstrated, that musing by Van Gogh can be flipped. Bad things occur when a series of small things break apart.

Soul searching

From being on top of the world in November having defeated Denmark with the best team performance under Clarke to reach the World Cup play-offs, Scotland are now not going to Qatar and have been walloped 3-0 by a distinctly mediocre Republic of Ireland side.

Ukraine humbled Scotland at Hampden Park in the World Cup play-off. (Photo by Ewan Bootman / SNS Group)

Tactical issues, injuries to key men, others out of form, the Ukraine play-off being played in June rather than in March. It all amounted to what has been a hugely underwhelming two weeks as a Scotland fan and provoked plenty of soul searching, from Stornoway to Selkirk, Dunbar to Dumbarton.

The elephant in the room should be addressed. Steve Clarke won’t be sacked. Nor, in this writer’s opinion, should he. However, that is not to say questions shouldn't be posed over the direction of the team and discussions had about how the team reaches the next level. The notion that because Scotland reached Euro 2020, Clarke should be absolved of criticism is absolutely bonkers and a terribly defeatist attitude to have.

After all, for the second summer running, Scotland failed when it mattered.

Twelve months ago the country was presented with a brilliant opportunity to progress from a group at a tournament for the first time ever. And on home soil. An inflexibility and personnel choice contributed to deflating defeats to Czech Republic and Croatia at Hampden Park. Fast forward to just a couple of weeks ago and Scotland were disappointing against Ukraine and disastrous in Dublin.

Scotland boss Steve Clarke oversaw two wins and two defeats from the latest round if international matches. (Photo by Ewan Bootman / SNS Group)
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Expectation instead of hope

In the aftermath of the Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Armenia to conclude a trio of Nations League matches, it was noted that Scotland had won eight of the last ten competitive fixtures and unbeaten in 10 of the last 12 including friendlies. Yet, big defeats lead to introspection. That is only heightened at international level where the margins are that bit finer. Games are fewer and now, with so few friendlies, every single one is important.

And Clarke is a big reason why those questions of his future were raised in the aftermath of the Ireland loss. He has taken Scotland to a point where expectation has begun to overtake hope. Fans look at the team and see players from Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool. Players playing abroad. Others linked with big money moves. Some performing excellently in Scotland.

Within it all he has fostered a spirit which players talk about in glowing terms. They can’t wait to turn up for Scotland. It hasn’t always been that way.

Two wins over Armenia till has Scotland in a good position to win the Nations League group. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The standards have risen and players have spoken of the legacy not being one tournament. The players, like the fans, were distraught after Ukraine. Too many didn't turn up but nor did Clarke. It is easy being Captain Hindsight but Liam Cooper is not a suitable replacement for Kieran Tierney. The Dykes-Adams combination was a risk which backfired. Scotland finished with Grant Hanley up front.

When it came to Ireland, that defeat to Ukraine increased the importance of that game. Once again, within the first five to ten minutes supporters knew something was off. The team looked very leggy. Why weren’t key players removed earlier against Armenia at Hampden Park? Ireland themselves have players who arrived off the back of a long season.

To-do list

There is the argument that as a team, whether it is at club or international, you look to improve from a position of strength rather than wait for things to go long. Just like with milk. You buy a new carton when you still have some left rather than popping a couple of Weetabix in the bowl and then opening the fridge to discover there is no milk at all.

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Yet, we have seen enough to know that Clarke can make the necessary changes, just as he did switching from a back four to a back three, to get the team moving forward. Over the coming months there are a few items on Clarke's to-do list and it's not drastic alterations.

An answer to how Scotland deals with Kieran Tierney being unavailable. And the knock-on effect of building from the back without him. Identifying the wide players who would allow for more tactical flexibility. Adding more variety to the way the team attacks.

Come September and the crucial Nations League double header with Ukraine everyone may be fit again and full of verve. In fact, it would be wise to put money on a very different Scotland showing up. The one which has raised expectations of a first World Cup since France ‘98.

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