Brave heart or sensible head? - Will Scotland boss Clarke appease clamouring fans ahead of England showdown?

Steve Clarke could be facing a selection headache on Friday evening.

Stephen O'Donnell of Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Stephen O'Donnell of Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

There was a moment in Scotland’s 2-0 defeat to the Czech Republic on Monday afternoon that really typified Stephen O’Donnell’s performance as a whole.

With the ball out wide, a darting winger pulled out a superb flash of ingenuity and trickery to beat two men and make a dash for the box, only to be thwarted by the Motherwell defender who, stepping across the runner, eased him out off the ball and came away with possession, calm as you like. It was almost laughable.

‘So?’, I hear you ask, ‘What’s the issue?’. Well, aforementioned winger was Ryan Christie, and O’Donnell’s bumbling intervention killed a promising Scotland attack stone dead. Cue groans in the stands of Hampden.

If Steve Clarke’s squad was a seesaw, it’d never get anywhere, such is the imbalance of talent it has on one flank.

Whereas the Scotland manager has had to resort to converting Kieran Tierney into a left-sided centre-back to accommodate both him and skipper Andy Robertson in his starting XI, on the right, his options are essentially limited to O’Donnell or Rangers teenager Nathan Patterson – a promising talent, but one who still only has 16 senior appearances to his name for the Scottish champions.

In the aftermath of Monday's loss against the Czechs, however, many supporters were calling for him to be given the nod ahead of O’Donnell going forward, with the 29-year-old’s perceived lack creativity proving to be a particular bone of contention.

O’Donnell made just one successful cross at Hampden Park – a criminally low figure compared to Robertson’s tally of six, and one made all the more disappointing by the considerable aerial threat posed by lone striker Lyndon Dykes.

As a point of comparison, Patterson has averaged 4.2 accurate balls into the box per 90 minutes over the course of his fledgling career.

But amid the clamour for a change in personnel, Clarke looks set to stand steady with his original choice at right-back.

As quoted by the Scotsman, he said: “Analyse the game and tell me what Stephen did wrong?

“How many chances came off that side? Jakub Jankto, one of their most dangerous players, had a quiet game. Their left-back, a really good attacking left-back, Jan Boril, didn’t create a chance in the game.

“So analyse the game before we start killing players just because of who they are and where they play. Analyse his games when he plays for us. Look at his performances objectively. Just look at the games. Stephen’s first job is to be a defender. So analyse the games. That’s all I’ll say on that one.”

On the face of it, you can understand why Clarke would be so eager to keep faith in a defensively resolute full-back – especially one who may have to quell Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, or Phil Foden on Friday evening.

But no matter how impassioned his defence of O’Donnell may be, no matter how often he urges onlookers to “analyse” matches, the boss’ claims don't necessarily stack up.

The Motherwell man only contested two defensive duels against the Czechs, and he only won one of them. Those are hardly the hallmarks of a firefighting masterclass.

Granted, he made five interceptions, but again Patterson’s career average is 4.34 – hardly a million miles away.

None of this is to say that O’Donnell is a bad player by any stretch. You don’t win 19 caps for your nation and represent them at a major international tournament if you haven’t got a bit in the locker.

And while many fans are adamant that Patterson is a Glaswegian Cafu incarnate, it’s important to contextualise his career to date, and to remember that his biggest clash yet came in a Europa League Round of 16 defeat. Undoubtedly, that will be a factor in Clarke’s hesitance to throw him in at the deep end – and they don’t come much deeper than facing England at Wembley.

But you can understand why Scottish supporters, starved of major tournament football for more than two decades, are so frustrated by the prospect of crashing out at the group stage with a whimper.

If they're going to go down, they want to go down swinging – and the conservatism that O’Donnell represents to them is a stinging rebuke to the celebratory cavalier spirit that Euro 2020 has long promised.

Whether starting Patterson against England ahead of him would be the best idea from a footballing point of view remains to be seen, but Clarke would win more than a few admirers if he took the plunge and did just that.