Dour And Defensive Steve Clarke Right Manager At The Wrong Time

After back to back 4-0 defeats against Russia and Belgium, the inquests have begun. Is Steve Clarke the right man to take Scotland forward?

There is no denying that what Clarke achieved at Kilmarnock, considering what he inherited and what his resources were, was nothing short of incredible. Clarke also has experience at the highest level in England with stints as a coach with the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool and as a manager for Reading and West Brom. It is completely understandable why the SFA wanted someone that has demonstrated resilience and tactical capability like Clarke has to take over from the disappointing second Alex McLeish era.

Clarke ticks a lot of boxes but there is one box that looks to have been missed in this humble writer’s opinion. 

“Does the manager’s style get the best out of our current player pool?” 

Contrary to recent on pitch evidence this group of players are actually very good. Yes, there are a few positions which require an upgrade but the biggest issue I can see is that Clarke’s defensively stout style is not a match for the way most of our team play for their clubs. Of course, players have to be flexible but we are not catering to the strengths of our current crop.

That seven month stretch when Scotland went seven games undefeated, including getting a result against Slovenia and snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against England, came when Gordon Strachan effectively implemented Celtic DNA into the Scotland squad by using a core of players that could play together and knew each others strengths. 

I am not saying that we need to emulate that exactly but what we do need to do is realize that we have a pool of players that are better attacking the ball than defending the ball so let’s play to their best attributes.

For example, John McGinn’s club side Aston Villa were described by Amir Mir for Total Football Analysis 

“Attacking. Ruthless. Risk-taking. Adventurous. Villa has been all those things under Smith hence the reason why they are finding the back of the net more often than they did under their previous manager. Even when Villa are leading 2-0 away from home against a promotion rival, Smith is not satisfied. And it is that mentality which is giving opposition teams nightmares. And Villa hopes that a top-two finish is still a real possibility.”

Farrell Keeling summarised the playing style Ryan Fraser has thrived in under Eddie Howe at Bournemouth on

When out of possession the Cherries press high up the pitch to retrieve the ball before their opponent can take advantage of their disarrayed shape.

Tactically, Howe’s style may be too adventurous for a mid-table side but given Howe’s ability to improve players individually and distill a sense of togetherness in his squad, comparable to that of Klopp or Guardiola, one cannot help but wonder the heights the Englishman may achieve with a larger budget or a bigger club.

Champions League winner and current Scotland captain Andy Robertson plays his club football in Jurgen Klopp’s well known style which has been described by a member of the Liverpool coaching team in an interview with the Liverpool Echo.

‘Organised chaos’, Pep Lijnders referenced, when asked to describe Liverpool’s development in 2018/19. The Reds had retained the core principles of their volatile, intense, unpredictable football, but had progressed onto a new level by integrating an authoritative dimension to their play, with opposing teams simply struggling to cope with the tempo showcased.

That’s in addition to the core of Celtic players such as Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and James Forrest who have attacking football ingrained in them from dominating domestic matches and even play on the front foot in European ties.

In fact, throughout the Scotland squad there are individuals used to playing attacking football including Ryan Jack of Rangers, Scott McTominay of Manchester United and Stuart Armstrong of Southampton. Even some of our defensive players such as Liam Cooper, managed by Marcelo Bielsa, and Kieran Tierney play for teams that want to play attacking football. These positive player types are evident in Scotland’s under 21 and under 19 setups too with several exciting talents such as Chelsea’s Billy Gilmour and Manchester City’s Lewis Fiorini on the horizon for Scotland to build around in the near future.

Asking Clarke to teach these players to play the ‘Killie’ way in a short period of time seems counterproductive and it may be difficult for the players to pick up the individual assignments for their roles in phases of play or defensive blocks instead of the intensive press that most are accustomed to. This might help explain some of the onfield confusion that we have witnessed under Clarke’s reign so far. Too often the midfield is bypassed by Charlie Mulgrew’s long diagonal pass to the linesman and, on the rare occasion it does connect, there is no support for the attacker in possession as the midfield is too deep in their defensive structure. This was apparent in the home game against Russia when no Scotland player got close to the isolated Oli McBurnie and yet we persisted with this approach and continually gave possession back to the opposition.

We have an exciting, attack minded core of players who would benefit from a manager that wants to play in a way that suits them and right now we are fitting round pegs into square holes and expecting that to just work. 

I will continue to support Steve Clarke but I have long wanted us to take a more radical approach with our national team. This has been yet another disastrous qualification campaign from the outset and much of the blame for that lies with McLeish but not a lot has changed under Steve Clarke at this point. Those at the top of the SFA must take accountability for strategy and execution of that strategy because right now all we seem to be doing is replacing the wheel of a broken ship. 

We have a core of players with attacking strengths but the SFA have matched them with a defensive coach. This decision does not make sense and blind optimism has left supporters hoping it will work out.

Maybe we have to realise that rather than getting the best out of Steve Clarke we have to get the best out of our players.

 Listen to the Pure Fitbaw podcast (on Apple, Spotify and Android) for more on football in Scotland and beyond by fans for fans.




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