Scotland’s key problem remains unchanged: the lack of an X factor

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<span>Photograph: Andy Buchanan - Pool/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andy Buchanan - Pool/Getty Images

The inquest attached to Scotland failing to exit the group stage at a major tournament is at least novel. For too long, grim analysis surrounded an inability to reach championships in the first place. Steve Clarke’s team bucked the trend before being swiftly reminded of unforgiving environments; including in respect of ferocious criticism. November’s national heroes are June’s dinosaur-led duds.

By the time the kind of petty and parochial rows that often define the Scottish domestic scene return – we are talking a matter of weeks here – Euro 2020 will be long forgotten. That is a shame. Clarke’s side raised the spirits of a country when sealing qualification on a memorable evening in Serbia. Scotland regained an element of self-worth via its football team.

Related: Scotland’s Euro 2020 dreams dashed as Croatia and Modric turn on the style

The value of international football as a means of engaging the population had been re-emphasised. The build-up within Scotland to these finals was endearing and all-consuming. At Wembley, Clarke’s players performed with a maturity and composure that looked far more meaningful than the basic claiming of a point. As Scotland fans swarmed on London, they did so with pride in their jersey.

On the morning after the night before, none of this apparently matters. Group D’s table shows Scotland returned one point and one goal from three fixtures. In a competition where 16 from 24 teams pass Go, Scotland are in the inauspicious third. Cue social media commandos – without a fraction of the highly respected Clarke’s coaching experience – screaming about where it all went so horribly wrong.

The candid answer is on match day one; Scotland, minus the hugely influential Kieran Tierney, missed more chances than is healthy and were picked off by the Czech Republic. Umpteen of Clarke’s better players endured poor afternoons. From there, the Scots were behind the eight ball with tournament specialists England and Croatia
to follow. Wastefulness became a problematic theme; more than 40 shots at goal across three games saw the opposition net bulge just once. Clarke is taking time to digest Scotland and the Euros; it seems inevitable he will land upon small margins but the manager will lose sleep over a lack of ruthlessness.

It should not be the case that Scotland, a once serious football nation, qualify for tournaments and take on the role of giddy sightseers. Thankfully Andy Robertson, Tierney, Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor and John McGinn are not the kind of characters to accept patronising pats on the head. As Croatia comfortably sealed a 3-1 win at Hampden Park, Robertson sat alone and broken on the edge of Scotland’s penalty area, a 64-game season for club and country emphatically curtailed.

Andrew Robertson applauds the crowd after their defeat to Croatia.
Andrew Robertson applauds the crowd after their defeat to Croatia. Photograph: Stu Forster/AFP/Getty Images

The full-back has been consistent with a public belief that Scotland do have considerable international talent, with players needing to display more confidence in showcasing that. Twenty-three years in the international wilderness is bound to have a negative impact on state of mind; cue reticence.

Robertson and Tierney would be key players for most countries at Euro 2020. McTominay, McGregor, McGinn and a few others would make umpteen other squads. Yet Scotland’s key problem remains unchanged; the lack of top class, final third resource. The impact of Gareth Bale, and to a lesser extent Aaron Ramsey, on Wales are obvious comparisons. The Republic of Ireland believed they could be helped out in times of trouble – or in tight games – by Robbie Keane, proven by 68 goals from 146 caps. Kenny Miller’s 18 from 69 Scotland appearances looks increasingly prolific, eight years after he last donned navy blue.

Related: Steve Clarke vows Scotland will make quicker tournament return this time

It is not just the here and now that triggers alarm in this context; there is no particular sign of an emerging Scottish winger, No 10 or striker in the “Wow” category. The insistence – and this does exist – that Clarke should field a Scotland team in the image of 1970s Ajax is totally undermined by matters of personnel. Scotland are a decent side but at international level lack an X factor.

This, of course, renders Billy Gilmour hugely significant for Scotland’s future. The Chelsea youngster not only assimilated to international football so easily when facing England, he has a poise and vision as could materially affect how Scotland play.

The growth of Gilmour, added to the development of Rangers’ Nathan Patterson, gives Scotland hope alongside the fact Clarke is presiding over a group young enough to develop together. “What matters now is that we do all that we can to ensure that this is the start of a wonderful journey rather than the end,” said Robertson.

One of Clarke’s most appealing qualities is his refusal to enter into excuse-based management. He never bemoans what he does not have, instead defending his players at every opportunity. Gordon Strachan, one of Clarke’s predecessors, infamously cited genetics in the immediate aftermath of the botched Euro 2018 qualifying campaign. In the here and now, it would actually be fair to ask why Croatia – with a population smaller than Scotland’s – continually produce technically and physically gifted footballers. Scottish football neglect going back decades plus the country’s dismal wider health record are starting points by way of comparison.

It would be folly to brand Clarke as worthy of no scrutiny whatsoever. Not starting Che Adams against the Czechs remains as baffling a move now as it was then. The shuffling of McTominay between midfield and defence – he is, at base level, a midfielder – did not really work. Was Gilmour protected for too long? Scotland’s squandering of set play after set play does not reflect well on training ground detail. Ryan Fraser and James Forrest, wingers who offer something different in an attacking sense, were barely used.

“We desperately wanted to make even more history but we didn’t quite get there and it hurts,” Robertson added. You can bet it does – these are genuinely decent lads – but the evidence suggests Scotland are following path that will see them appear on stages such as this on a more regular basis. A nation that uses extreme reactions to football performance as a staple has no cause to portray Euro 2020 as even close to disastrous. Look at where they came from.

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