Republic of Ireland vs Scotland: Steve Clarke’s short & long-term selection headache before Nations League tie
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The Tartan Army are still feeling the sting of missing out on this year’s FIFA World Cup finals, following their play-off defeat to Ukraine, but a 2-0 win over Armenia at Hampden Park has gone a long way to lifting the spirits of the loyal fanbase.
More promising than the result was the way that several players stepped up in key positions to try and nail down a starting spot after previously being overlooked.
Steve Clarke has some key decisions to make not only in the short term over the next few games but also in the long term, with one eye looking ahead to Euro 2024 qualifying which starts in March.
Here is how Scotland are shaping up in each area of the park and the decisions Steve Clarke has to make both for the coming matches and the nation’s future plans.;
Craig Gordon has been in the form of his life for club and country but at 39, he has several more years behind him than are in front of him.
As the current number one, he has the position locked down and the drive fueled by being robbed of a large chunk of his career through injury may very well be motivating him to keep going as long as he feels he can.
Clarke will be hoping that the Hearts stopper is fit, healthy and keeps up his current form throughout the remaining Nations League games and into Euro 2024 qualifying.
However, in the back of his mind he must know that a suitable replacement will need to be identified and that feels like a massive problem.
David Marshall was an able deputy and a safe pair of gloves but the 37- year old recently called time on his international career, leaving the Scots severely lacking in quality behind Gordon.
The former Sunderland stopper has 68 caps to his name while the two players behind him, Zander Clark and Liam Kelly, have a combined total of precisely zero.
Both had solid enough seasons for St Johnstone and Motherwell respectively but are massively lagging behind Gordon in both experience and quality.
To add extra concern, there doesn’t appear to be very many viable contenders beyond the current three with Jon McLaughlin seemingly the next in line - he’s currently 34 and second choice at Rangers.
For now, Scotland have a top quality number one and the only real option is to kick the can as far down road as possible in the hope that more options emerge.
First of all and to get the obvious out of the way, Andy Robertson will be Scotland’s first choice left-back for the foreseeable future.
The skipper is pretty much the best player on the park every time the Scots run out and has his position locked down.
Going into the Ireland game, the Liverpool star could probably use a rest and it would almost certainly be Aaron Hickey who comes in to replace him.
The 19-year old put in an adequate display against Ukraine at right back but the left side is his more familiar position and the Tartan Army are keen to see how he gets on given the nod to start on that side.
Right-back is a far more interesting proposition and Celtic’s Anthony Ralston did a lot to stake a claim to that berth with his Man of the Match display against Armenia.
Nathan Patterson was seemingly established as first choice but has somehow struggled for domestic game time even more since leaving Rangers for Everton in January.
He may still be young at 20 and did suffer a few injuries, but what does it say if he couldn’t force his way more into what is probably the worst Everton side of the past two decades?
There’s also the immensely talented Calvin Ramsay in the Under-21 set up who looks to soon be completing a move from Aberdeen to Liverpool - the 18-year old could well fancy his chances of a call up sooner rather than later.
As for centre back, Wednesday night’s win over Armenia felt somewhat like a changing of the guard.
Experienced Premier League defenders Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper were amongst the most disappointing performers in the 3-1 loss to Ukraine and, although it might be harsh to single out individuals in what was an all round dismal team display, the Leeds United skipper in particular looked out of his depth at international level.
Step in Nottingham Forest’s Scott McKenna who would have been just as deserving a candidate for Man of the Match as Ralston, while John Souttar and Jack Hendry also put in excellent defensive displays.
All three aren’t exactly new to the national set up and have a combined 45 caps between them but are often overlooked in favour of the players who have been turning out in the English top flight.
When Kieran Tierney returns he will be back in on the left side of the back three but that still leaves two more spots to fill.
Easily the area of the park most stacked with quality for Steve Clarke to choose from.
John McGinn is the favourite of the Tartan Army and has been the nation’s top goalscorer under the former Kilmarnock boss.
His attacking output makes him an asset in the pocket behind the centre forward position where he is most often deployed but his ability to sit deeper when needed is also useful.
Should he be forced to miss a game for any reason then there are three high quality replacements in the wings in with Ryan Christie, Stuart Armstrong and David Turnbull all capable of slotting in.
Callum McGregor has also established himself as ‘Mr Consistency’ in the deep lying role bringing composure and leadership to the middle of the park and will be right alongside McGinn and Robertson as one of the first names on the team sheet.
The third midfield slot is the one which is currently up for grabs and the two stand out candidates are Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour and Manchester United’s Scott McTominay.
Gilmour, hailed as the future of the national side, is the more technically gifted player but McTominay can provide a brute force in the middle of the park that can actually be more effective in certain scenarios, as was demonstrated in the second half of the Ukraine defeat.
Having similar players in a position that a manager can transition between is always welcome but so is having two entirely different types of player both operating at the highest level.
Not only that but the aforementioned Armstrong is also capable of playing in a deeper role and has often been favoured to do so by the coaches when the situation arises.
All this quality means the likes of Lewis Ferguson and Allan Campbell will continue to keep the bench warm over the next year or so but if they can keep standards up and impress the coaches they will hopefully get their chance eventually.
It may not seem like it when it comes to his goals to games ratio for Scotland, but Che Adams is an integral part of the way Steve Clarke’s side play.
Although he has only netted four times in 17 caps (with three of those coming against Moldova, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands) his work rate in the team is second to none other than perhaps Andy Robertson.
He holds the ball up well when required and has the pace to cause problems in behind and although that doesn’t often result in the back of the net bursting, it does create attacking situations for his teammates to capitalise on.
Adams is Scotland’s first choice striker but when it comes to two up-front there are decisions to be made.
Lyndon Dykes is another favourite of the fanbase and is one of the most dominant centre forwards on the national stage when it comes to aerial battles, but quality sides, like Ukraine, have shown they are capable of effectively marking him completely out of a game.
Below those two are currently Ross Stewart and Jacob Brown, and Stewart in particular will feel he most deserves a chance to show the Tartan Army what he can do.
The Sunderland striker netted 26 goals for his club this season which is miles ahead of any other forward that Steve Clarke has to pick from.
However, there is no polite way of saying it, but League One is simply far too low a standard for a player hoping to establish himself in any half decent national team to be operating at.
He’ll get his chance in the Championship next season and perhaps in the next few international games and will be able to better demonstrate why he’s the man to lead the line for his country.
As for Brown, he remains something of an enigma to Scotland fans after receiving a call-up seemingly out of the blue last year and featuring very sparingly since.
The Tartan Army are keen to see exactly what the Stoke City man can offer so hopefully he will get a real chance in the next few matches.