How Steve Clarke turned Scotland into a team good enough to beat Spain
As Hampden Park rocked – literally – to the Tartan Army’s celebration of Scotland’s second goal in Tuesday’s epochal Euro qualifying victory over Spain, the ranks of commentators, reporters and pundits reached for terms evoking passion, heart and fiery commitment. Yet the bedlam prompted by the Scots’ performance was wrought by imposition of a much less glamorous commodity – efficiency.
Steve Clarke has proved himself to be adept at combining disparate parts to yield a significantly greater return than they seem to offer at first sight, as a glance at Tuesday’s match statistics confirms.
Spain, all of 32 places higher in the Fifa rankings, had 68 per cent possession and 50 attacks to Scotland’s 24. The visitors also completed 585 passes to the hosts’ 149 but the Scots’ yield from their more modest share equalled or exceeded that of the Spanish – nine goal attempts to eight with three on target on each side.
The crucial difference, of course, was that Scotland converted two of theirs to post a first victory over Spain in 39 years and five subsequent meetings since a masterly Kenny Dalglish goal gave his side a 3-1 win in a World Cup qualifier in November 1984. The Scots are now three points clear at the top of Group A, with the bonus that in Tuesday’s other tie, Georgia and Norway drew 1-1 in Tbilisi.
Clarke succeeded Alex McLeish four years ago, when his first match was a Euro qualifier against Cyprus, in which a last-minute Oli Burke goal edged a nervy 2-1 victory at Hampden. The Cypriots were back in Glasgow on Saturday for their Group A opener and a comparison of the two squads revealed no fewer than 20 players who featured in 2019 no longer in contention for the current group.
One link between the ties was that Scotland looked uneasy almost until the final whistle. On Saturday, however, the Cypriot defence was jemmied open by three substitutes – Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Christie and Scott McTominay, who struck at the end of normal time and again in stoppage time.
McTominay had previously found the net only once in 37 appearances, having operated largely in central defence or deep in midfield, before being instructed by Clarke to express his more offensive qualities. Having bagged a double at the weekend, the Manchester United man repeated the feat against Spain, six minutes into each half and in both cases surging from the middle of the park to finish a move erupting from Scotland’s left flank, first converting a cutback from Andrew Robertson and then fastening on to a deflected cross from Kieran Tierney for his second.
Having identified an untapped attacking nature to McTominay’s game, Clarke has now witnessed his midfielder score more goals in his last two games than he has for Manchester United in 2½ years in the Premier League.
The supply to McTominay emanated from another example of productive adjustment by Clarke, who has had to deal with the odd circumstance that his two most accomplished performers play in the same position. The manager’s solution has been to field Tierney on the left of a back three – with Robertson effectively a wing back on the same side of the field – and instructing the pair to overlap or cut infield of each other in support of their attacking colleagues.
The efficacy of this tactic was demonstrated vividly at McTominay’s second goal. Tierney, whose game time at Arsenal has been reduced significantly by the role allotted to Oleksandr Zinchenko, looked as sharp and strong as ever when he helped break up a Spanish attack deep in the Scotland half and set off on a 60-yard sprint down the left, pursued by Dani Carvajal who drew level only to be shrugged off as he attempted to challenge. McTominay, meanwhile, was on a tracking break from the heart of the field which would see him arrive in perfect position to double the Scots’ lead.
At the other end of the pitch, too, Clarke’s pragmatism has been productive. With Craig Gordon absent because of a horrific double leg break, the manager named three uncapped goalkeepers and fielded Angus Gunn, who had played for England Under-21s against Scotland, but who had been identified as an asset worth persuading to change his allegiance.
The upshot is that Gunn’s two inaugural appearances have yielded clean sheets to bolster a squad whose top scorer is a midfielder, John McGinn.
One other relationship has also proved vital – that between the supporters and players. Over the long years of failure to qualify for the finals of major tournaments, the Tartan Army became inured to what they called the ‘Aw Naw!’ moments, when promising positions were undermined by stomach-churning errors.
Both of Scotland’s opening qualifiers have sold out Hampden and the crowd responded with noisy backing when their heroes looked weary or under pressure, a contribution noted and appreciated by the players. Perhaps the best measure of the change affected by Clarke was expressed by the fan who inquired of this correspondent outside Hampden: “When did it get so hard to lay hold of a Scotland ticket?”