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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Graeme McGarry

What Scotland learned from defeats as Steve Clarke rejects loser tag

THE performance on the ball was at least a little encouraging. The scoreline less so. But it was what Scotland manager Steve Clarke said in the aftermath of his side’s 4-1 defeat to France on Tuesday night that was the most reassuring aspect the evening for the Tartan Army.

“We don’t like losing,” Clarke said.

“I don’t want them to be comfortable losing or happy to lose. We spoke about that after the game. It is important we set our standards higher than that.”

While leeway was widely given for the impressive way that Scotland had come through their qualification group for the European Championships - their fate being sealed by Spain’s win over Norway on Sunday night – and the makeshift nature of the line up against an arguably full-strength French outfit, Clarke wasn’t in the mood for excuses or platitudes.

It was a ruthless attitude not often associated with our national team. But for Clarke, the three defeats in quick succession to top 10 outfits England, Spain and France had shown Scotland the standard to which they have to aspire, and how far from that standard they currently are.

They scored two goals in that run, conceding nine. And while the performance from a full-strength Scotland against Spain should arguably have garnered more than the 2-0 defeat (VAR, and all that), and there were periods of ball retention to be admired against France, there were plentiful harsh lessons for the Scots to take with them on their own journey of self-improvement.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten just how far Scotland have come under Clarke. But the national team head coach knows more than anyone just how much improvement they have yet to find if they are to go somewhere that no Scottish team has ever gone before next summer, and into the knockout stages of a major tournament.

Having seen how his first-choice core of players measured up against the Spanish, Clarke took the opportunity to see if any of his squad men could be a difference-maker against the French, and a few of them showed up well. Though, whether any of them did enough to force their way into the strongest XI is debatable.

In goal, Angus Gunn’s position is inarguable. But at least Clarke now knows that if injury strikes his number one, and Craig Gordon doesn’t come back from his horror injury and hit the heights he is capable of at 41, he has two reliable back-ups in Liam Kelly and Zander Clark who won’t be overawed by playing at the top level.

In defence, Liam Cooper, Scott McKenna and John Souttar have been given opportunities over the past two fixtures, but they too will likely remain as back-up options once Kieran Tierney is fit, with Jack Hendry and Ryan Porteous likely to make up the back three in Germany as it stands.

There is absolutely no question that captain Andy Robertson will return once he too recovers from injury, but Nathan Patterson did his cause absolutely no harm at all with his performances in the last two matches, showing that he is a more than useful asset.

The excellent Aaron Hickey will likely take his place on the right when everyone is fit, but should either he or Robertson not be able to make the qualifiers in November, Patterson is more than capable of making an impact.

In midfield, Billy Gilmour is a well-established member of the squad already, of course, but even he faces a task to get into what looks the nailed-on three to start for Scotland in the Euros next year in the shape of Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay and John McGinn.

He did his chances of breaking into that triumvirate no harm at all with his performance in Lille, demanding the ball and using it well, as well as scoring his first goal in senior football. But it is a tall order to usurp any of the trio that started in Spain, unless McTominay is pushed further up the pitch.

That ‘Ryan Christie’ role is perhaps where Lewis Ferguson will hope to find his way into the side. He was a little quiet in an attacking sense in France, in admittedly difficult circumstances, but there was certainly enough in his performance to back up his growing reputation since making the move to Serie A with Bologna.

The biggest and most discussed issue with this Scotland team, with the greatest of respect to both Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams for their efforts in the dark blue, is that it lacks a real top-quality striker.

Jacob Brown is unlikely to be the answer to that particular problem, but he too showed some promising signs when he came on during the week that he can be a reliable option, and he has probably moved ahead of both Lawrence Shankland and Kevin Nisbet in the pecking order – if not Dykes or Adams – as a result.

The one real regret for the Tartan Army is that on a night of experimentation, they didn’t get the opportunity to see if Ben Doak could offer the ‘X-factor’ for Scotland, with Clarke carefully managing his introduction into the national team set up.

The Liverpool wonderkid was lively as he helped Scotland under-21s to a win over Hungary at Fir Park last week, before sitting out the win over Malta on Tuesday through injury. It is a matter of when, not if, he will be involved in the senior squad, with Scotland fans wondering if it will be in time to perhaps be a wildcard for the national team at the Euros.

Doak is being mentioned as having the potential to impact Scotland in the same way that Gareth Bale did for Wales, or Robert Lewandowski did for Poland, so it is perhaps understandable that Clarke wants to keep the pressure of such comparisons off his shoulders for the time being.

This international window then has shown individual players where they need to be to impact Scotland’s starting XI, and shown the team as a collective where they need to be if they are to give a better account of themselves on the big stage next summer.

Come the November matches against Georgia and Norway, it is likely Clarke will revert to the tried and tested as Scotland look to finish the group with 21 points from a possible 24. As he says, they shouldn’t settle for anything less.

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