Scotland boss Steve Clarke has enjoyed a fairly successful 3 years at the helm of the National Team, being the first manager to guide his side to a major tournament since Craig Brown in 1998, with the team vastly improving under his reign.
[Clarke celebrating against Armenia - Image: Alan Harvey - SNS Group]
Despite the strides that the 'tartan army' have made under Clarke, he is not without his critics and it has not always been perfect. Clarke's seemingly biggest headache has been team selection.
The former Kilmarnock boss has often opted for the tried and tested, rather than form players - valuing team cohesion and consistency above any potential disruptions. This pragmatic, if not a little uninspiring, method of coaching has found results and earned Scotland a place at the 2020 European Championships.
Players like Stephen O'Donnell, Kenny McLean and Oli McBurnie have received more caps than many fans and pundits may have expected, whilst form players such as Ryan Gauld have often been overlooked.
More recently, the issue has been less personnel, but more in shape. Clarke has opted for a
5-2-1-2 formation for most of his time as manager, mainly to accomodate both of the teams oustanding players, Left Backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney. This system has found particular joy, getting plenty of big results and making Scotland a hard team to beat.
The issue arises when Tierney is not in the squad. The Arsenal ace is debatably Scotland's most influential player, making a massive difference in attack and defence, so you would imagine he is the ideal player to build a team around. Unforuntately, he is very prone to injuries, and is likely to miss games here and there.
[Tierney in action against Austria - Image: Craig Williamson - SNS Group]
Without Tierney in the side, the 5 at the back system does not work. Scotland look lethargic, lacklustre and uninspiring. The difference that one player makes to the team is genuinely shocking. With him in the team Scotland have only lost 4 of the 20 games he has played since Clarke took over, whilst they have lost 7 of the 16 that he missed in that time - a massive 44%.
Tierney's replacements tend to be natural Centre Back's, such as Scott McKenna or Liam Cooper, and whilst players have their own qualities, they are not players who progress the ball from defence to attack. You won't see either overlapping Andy Robertson down the left wing, or whipping a cross into the box.
This results in Scotland being unable to create chances down the left handside. Robertson is isolated and struggles without Tierney, the back 3 then struggle to get the ball out of defence, and resort to punting it down the field, often resulting in a turnover of possession. This has lead to Steve Clarke's side looking devoid of creativity, especially in the big games - with the defeats to Ukraine, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland all standing out.
So, what can Scotland do to solve this? Well, that is unfortunately not so easy and there is no definitive answer. Reverting to a back 4, with Wingers to provide some width and creativity, taking advantage of the crossing and heading ability possessed by the team and hopefully creating more chances.
A more fluid system should be in place if Tierney is out, because frankly without him the
5-2-1-2 is disjointed without him. Clarke has a real dilemma on his hands, and it could cost him his job.
[Clarke on the sidelines against Ireland - Image: Tim Clayton - Corbis]
There was sever outrage following the defeats to Ukraine and the Republic of Ireland, with many fans calling for the managers head. Right now, he has enough goodwill in the bank and has done a stellar job, but if the defeats and poor performances keep on coming then he will have to look over his shoulder.
This could be the turning point for Clarke's tenure as Scotland manager, it is his time to adapt or risk facing the sack.