Why Ryan Jack should split up Scotland's midfield partnership of Callum McGregor and Billy Gilmour
Even as the player, unbeknownst to all, was then a month into his sidelining with calf issues that would result in failing to start another game for his club until six weeks ago. “He has done well for us and he plays a certain position in midfield that without him we don't really have,” said the national manager, a huge admirer of the now 30-year-old. The present situation will be considered altogether different - just as Clarke has Jack back in his ranks for the forthcoming two friendlies taking place in the stead of the World Cup semi-final play-off rendered impossible following the war waged on opponents Ukraine by a Russian invasion.
Billy Gilmour was but a twinkle in the eye of Clarke when Jack earned his last cap in November 2020. Now, the midfielder, on loan at Norwich City from Chelsea, is the darling of the Tartan Army, an emblematic performer for the country across a near-century best winning run of six games. Operating in tandem with Callum McGregor, who has pushed his game to another level through growing in stature since the role of Celtic captain was conferred on him last summer, their pairing has been one of the foundations on which Clarke has rebuilt the national team’s competitiveness. All of which might suggest Jack is destined to be the odd man out over the three into two selection dilemma as the Scotland manager picks his line-ups for the encounters with Poland, and Wales or Austria over the next fortnight. Two assignments Clarke would be expected to utliise to ensure his team have their groove on again before the delayed semi-final against Ukraine is, it is hoped, staged in June. Yet, that shouldn’t be the case.
Gilmour has certainly been gaining the minutes for the Carrow Road club. That isn’t as encouraging as it might sound, though, with the 20-year-old having a pretty rum time of it. He last contributed to a win for a club now clamped to the bottom of the English top flight in November. Since then he has become a polarising figure for the Norfolk club’s support, with a section exhorting him to, eh, go off back to his parent club in, eh, four-letter fashion over the Christmas period.
Gilmour may be perceived as a more naturally attack-minded central presence than either Jack or McGregor, who have both tended to be deployed as anchors in their clubs’ midfields. Yet, McGregor has rediscovered his scoring form with two goals in the past fortnight, while the Rangers man has become a more adaptable figure since he re-emerged under Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s stewardship. Numerous concerns were expressed as to whether Jack post-injury would prove the same immaculate player he had been in driving the Ibrox men to the title last season. He hasn’t been. The Aberdonian is certainly just as effective and efficient. But with van Bronckhorst not as rigid as Steven Gerrard in terms of shape and defensive responsibilities for his middle three, Jack has been granted licence to be more involved in the final third. So successful has he proved in adding a forward-thinking dimension to his game, he is an improved version of the Jack of a year ago…confounding the doom-mongers who predicted inevitable diminishment.
McGregor and Jack then, both immense for their clubs this past month, once more should be the midfield axis around which Clarke configures his 3-4-1-2. To forward such a case may appear harsh on Gilmour, but the evidence for the call should not be overlooked. It can be forgotten that the pairing of the club rivals proved central to Scotland ending their 23-year wait for an appearance at a major finals. The Nations League play-off penalty shoot-out success in Serbia in November 2020 owed no little to the foothold McGregor and Jack provided for their nation across 120 pulsating minutes. The duo, with oodles of European experience, are operating at their optimum. Clarke won’t be oblivious to all these factors, even if Gilmour’s national service has been faultless. It is no slight on the youngster if older, more experienced heads are prioritised for the coming, exacting challenges. Gilmour’s time will come again.
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