Scotland’s excellent showing with 4-5-1 formation against Ukraine gives Steve Clarke future tactical headache
A change in formation resulted in a fantastic result at Hampden Park, but will the former Kilmarnock boss stick with it once skipper Andy Robertson returns?
It was a few years ago that Steve Clarke seemingly solved the problem that had plagued predecessors Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan before him - how to fit both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the same starting XI.
Both the Liverpool and Arsenal left-backs are amongst the very best in the world in that position and although they do have some excellent talent, world class players are not in abundance amongst the Scottish ranks.
To his credit, it was actually McLeish who first tested out a back five with Robertson at left wing-back and Tierney at left centre-back but it was Clarke who has been able to get the results out of it... for the most part.
Tierney’s injury problems over the years have seen him miss out on international selection more than once but Clarke has stuck with the formation even without the Arsenal man’s ball playing ability in that position.
Things came to a head in the 3-1 World Cup play-off defeat to Ukraine earlier this year where Scotland’s midfield was completely overrun by the impassioned visitors and the centre-back trio of McTominay, Hanley and Cooper were left exposed.
Fast forward three months and it’s Robertson who misses out through injury and Clarke opts to go with four at the back, with Tierney in his more favoured left-back position, to great success.
This time it was the Ukrainian’s who could not cope with the extra man in the home midfield. The press from the Scots saw them first to almost every loose ball while McTominay, also playing in his more favoured position of central midfield, showed exactly why he has been keeping Casemiro out of the Manchester United team with a number of excellent interceptions and ball winning challenges.
Tierney also had a terrific game while the centre-back pairing of Scott McKenna and Jack Hendry, both on the bench for June’s 3-1 defeat, were dominant throughout the game and dealt with what little threat Ukraine could pose with their hopeful through balls.
To a man, the Scotland players were exemplary and the Tartan Army will be expecting more of the same in the next two Nations League matches against the Republic of Ireland and Ukraine again.
Once those games are out of the way, there will be a serious question for Steve Clarke to look at, whether to revert to the five at the back once Robertson returns or to stick with the formation which worked so well earlier this week.
There’s no way that both Tierney and Robertson can play together if he doesn’t stick with a back four.
Regardless of his phenomenal talent the Arsenal man simply lacks the height and physicality to operate at centre-back without the cover of two larger men alongside him.
There’s also not much of a case for moving one to the opposite side of the pitch, as Gordon Strachan discovered when he tried and failed with Tierney on the right.
The then Celtic star was adequate defensively in the position but his attacking threat was completely neutralised by the move.
It looks for all the world that there are only two choices before Steve Clarke: either stick with the back four and start one or the other, or revert to the back five.
If the 4-5-1 formation provides as much success in the next two games as it did in the 3-0 win over Ukraine then it feels likely that will be the shape that Clarke goes into Euro 2024 qualifying with next year and that will now almost certainly mean benching either his skipper or the impressive Arsenal star.
That’s a problem for future Steve though, right now he and the Tartan Army are only thinking about the next two matches and the potential rewards of topping their Nations League group.