Billy Gilmour is Scotland’s best player at retaining possession – why did Steve Clarke drop him?

Billy Gilmour of Scotland (L) in action against Niclas Fuellkrug of Germany

If a football team cannot defend particularly well, then it has to be able to keep the ball. And if it cannot keep the ball, then it has to be able to defend. The problem for Scotland, in their opening-game drubbing by Germany, is that they could do neither.

Steve Clarke’s side conceded five goals to add to the 21 they shipped in their nine previous matches before the European Championship. Crucially, they did not keep the ball either as they ended the match in Munich with just 27 per cent of possession and zero shots on target. “We couldn’t get a foothold,” Clarke admitted.

All of which raised the obvious question in the minds of the tens of thousands of travelling Scots in Germany: why did Billy Gilmour not start the game? The Brighton midfielder is, by some distance, the best player in the Scotland squad at receiving the ball under pressure and finding a team-mate.

In the Premier League last season, only three midfielders who have played 15 matches or more had a better pass completion rate than Gilmour: Manchester City’s Mateo Kovacic and Rodri, and Brighton’s Carlos Baleba.

Only five midfielders played more successful passes, and two of those — Rodri and Arsenal’s Declan Rice — represented far more dominant sides than Brighton.

At his best, Gilmour can relieve the pressure on his team by finding passing angles and showing for the ball in tricky moments. He has demonstrated that he can do it at the highest level, too: at the previous European Championship, Gilmour was the best player on the pitch in Scotland’s impressive draw with England.

That match at Wembley ended up being Gilmour’s only appearance of the tournament. He was an unused substitute against Czech Republic (Scotland lost) and was then ruled out of their third game against Croatia after testing positive for coronavirus. Again, without him, Scotland lost.

This is not to say that Scotland would have avoided defeat against Germany if Gilmour had started. Evidently, the gap between the two teams was enormous. But plenty of Scotland fans believe they would have had a better chance with their best technician in the heart of the pitch, and Clarke has since faced stinging criticism for his decision.

Clamour for recall against Swiss

In Scottish newspaper The Herald, it has been written that Gilmour’s omission “felt wrong” and that the 23-year-old “must” start against Switzerland in Cologne on Wednesday. The Daily Record said the decision to drop Gilmour was “such a bad mistake”. BBC Scotland has this week described Gilmour as the nation’s “hope”, while former Scotland international Gary Caldwell is among those who have said the midfielder must be reinstated.

Clarke will know that something must change, although the concern for Scotland is that their defensive struggles are nothing new. In their run of one victory from their last 10 matches, Scotland have conceded at least four goals to France, Netherlands and Germany, and at least two goals to Georgia, Norway and Finland.

No matter the level of the opponent, it seems, Scotland are defensively vulnerable. Indeed, since September last year, their only clean sheet has come against Gibraltar, who are ranked 203rd in the world – behind Tonga and Liechtenstein.

The good news is that Scotland will not face a team as skilled and powerful as Germany again in these group stages. The bad news is that their next opponents were impressive in the first game, beating Hungary 3-1, and will present many of the same problems as Germany.

Xhaka the threat

Against Germany, Scotland could not handle the passing range and vision of Toni Kroos. In Granit Xhaka, Switzerland possess a similar type of deep-lying midfield controller. Xhaka is not at the same level as Kroos but he comes into this tournament in extraordinary form, having played a crucial role in Bayer Leverkusen’s incredible Bundesliga-winning season.

The former Arsenal midfielder produced a masterclass against Hungary, completing at least 24 more passes than any other player on the pitch. His late-career development has been remarkable and he is now working on becoming a coach. He has said that the process of studying for his coaching badges has helped him to “look at the game differently and be a step ahead of my opponents”.

Scotland’s midfielders, by contrast, spent Friday night a step behind their counterparts. If not two or three steps behind. If that cannot change on Wednesday, then they will have little chance of keeping alive their dream of qualifying from the group. Gilmour is not the solution to all of their problems, but the hope is that he might at least help to address some of them.