Steve Clarke was understandably keen to talk up the more positive aspects of Scotland’s 3-1 victory over Kazakhstan at Hampden on Tuesday as he tries to create a more upbeat narrative around the prospects reaching the Euro 2020 finals.
But while the Scotland manager is entitled to take encouragement from elements of his team’s performance, most notably from middle to front in a brighter second-half display, the biggest issue in the national team’s quest for progress still lies at the heart of the back four.
It’s fair to say Scotland’s latest central defensive partnership of Scott McKenna and Declan Gallagher received mixed reviews for their overall contributions in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Cyprus in Nicosia and the come-from-behind success against the Kazakhs.
Motherwell’s Gallagher, a late bloomer at international level at the age of 28, can feel relatively content with how he handled his first two caps and should have done enough to retain his place in the squad for the Euro 2020 play-offs in March.
McKenna, now 14 appearances into his Scotland career, continues to divide opinion between those who regard him as the country’s best prospect in its long-standing problem position and others who feel Aberdeen’s apparent £10 million valuation of the 23-year-old is wildly optimistic.
The manner in which Scotland conceded the opening goal to Kazakhstan on Tuesday provided fresh ammunition for McKenna’s critics. His hesitancy and failure to engage Baktiyor Zainutdinov allowed the forward all the time he could wish for before beating Scotland ‘keeper David Marshall with a sumptuous strike.
Clarke was equally concerned with the lack of a challenge from either of his central defenders on Aleksei Schetkin in the build-up to the goal but was gratified by the response of both McKenna and Gallagher to a half-time tutorial he felt improved their play in the second half.
Time will tell if Clarke decides to stick with the pairing for the play-offs where, should Scotland reach the final, they could face high quality strikers such as Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, with 34 goals in 55 appearances for his country, or Norway’s Joshua King who has scored 17 times in winning 46 caps so far.
Scotland’s defensive vulnerability pre-dates Clarke’s tenure by a long way with only four clean sheets in the country’s last 18 games. But the fact the only two Clarke has overseen since taking charge both came against San Marino, the lowest-ranked team in world football, underlines that it remains Scotland’s biggest weakness.
“Scott is a young central defender still finding his way in international football, as is Declan, even though he is older,” reflected Clarke.
“They make little mistakes and it was a little mistake that was heavily punished against Kazakhstan. But that’s what happens at this level, that’s what I explained to them at half-time.
“The good thing for me was they listened to what I said at half-time and, in the second half, they stepped into the game and it allows us to then free the attacking players to go and do what they do best.
“Only time will tell (if Scott becomes the player we hope he can be for Scotland). At this moment in time, he is a good young prospect. Obviously he is picking up games all the time for Aberdeen in the Premiership.
“He has got a lot of clubs who have looked at him, maybe there will be a bit of interest in him again in the next window. But I am not going to talk about or try and sell Derek McInnes’ players. Derek will be on the phone to me straight away!
“The biggest thing for Scott is just to keep developing, keep working even if he makes small mistakes like he did against Kazakhstan. I don’t know if it was Scott or Declan, but they should have stepped up onto Schetkin and not allowed him to turn in the lead up to the goal. But those are little things. If they improve on them, they will both become better players.”
While finding the right defensive balance is still elusive, Clarke has no shortage of options in a midfield where Celtic’s Callum McGregor and Ryan Jack of Rangers combined effectively in the deeper roles and Aston Villa talisman John McGinn flourished in a more advanced position against Cyprus and Kazakhstan.
“International football is a different level and it took John a long time to find out the level,” said Clarke of McGinn, who scored six goals in Scotland’s final three Group I fixtures. “I think the little tweak in John’s position, which came from Aston Villa, who stuck him a little bit higher up the pitch, has made a difference. We have utilised it as well. As well as giving us a threat attacking-wise with John arriving in the box, which he is very good at, it also gives us a good high press at times.
“I thought the balance in midfield in both games with Ryan and Callum was really good. I’m not really surprised with Ryan because I have seen him up close when I was manager of Kilmarnock. I knew the qualities that he had. The European experience that he’s getting with Rangers will also stand him in good stead. Listen, he has done himself a power of good in the two games.”
Enough for Jack to be preferred in one of the holding roles ahead of Scott McTominay should the Manchester United player be available again in March?
“I don’t know because it’s four months away and I don’t know who we’ll have, I don’t know who will be fit,” replied Clarke. “That is probably one to speculate on a little bit when we get to March. That will be a nice choice to have. As a manager, I want as many difficult choices as I can get.”