There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Scotland’s lavish left-back resource was viewed as problematic. The deployment of a system whereby Andy Robertson, the captain, and Kieran Tierney both started matches somewhere, somehow dominated discussion.
Tierney had made plain he was not altogether receptive to the idea of switching to the right side of defence as a means of Scotland accommodating two of their marquee players. Robertson rolled his eyes at persistent questions relating to the relative merits of himself over Tierney, which provided snapshots of an uneasy scene. Don’t mention the left-backs.
Managers are paid to make decisions; there was a train of thought that Steve Clarke – or Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan before him – should pick a designated left-back and get on with it. Injury struggles for Tierney during the early stages of his Arsenal career briefly stalled the narrative. And still, unsatisfactorily, the topic lingered.
Clarke is keen to remind the media in particular that his persistence with a three-man defence in the opening matches of his tenure was met with scorn. Clarke overplays the reaction but there was scepticism over the longevity of Tierney on the left side of a defensive three with Robertson at wing-back. Technically, after all, this means two players removed from their accustomed roles.
Scotland’s impressive draw with the Netherlands in Portugal delivered the latest illustration of Clarke’s profitable methodology. Tierney has proven a revelation in recent Scotland matches as a centre-half who marauds forward with the ball, taking up multiple positions that opponents are puzzled by. There are ball-playing centre-backs who break with comfort but Tierney’s instinct – as an attacking left-back who started his career as a wide midfield player – makes him different. He has become a key part of Scotland’s attacking arsenal (pun intended). Tierney remains wonderfully tenacious when defending; any fears over his lack of height being exposed centrally at international level are, thus far, unfounded.
It seems incongruous that Robertson is flourishing in Scotland colours after a season in which Liverpool’s star waned. Yet it appeared for so long that he felt burdened by the pressure not only of captaining his country but the expectation associated with Premier League and Champions League success. The blunt reality is Robertson has never had teammates of identical talent level to those at Anfield when on national service. Kenny Dalglish and, in recent times, Darren Fletcher used to suffer from public perception that club form was not replicated in dark blue when the reason for that was pretty simple.
Robertson’s burst forward and perfect cross for Kevin Nisbet to put Scotland 2-1 ahead against Frank de Boer’s side was further evidence of new-found freedom. As Scotland have grown into the position where qualification for a major tournament is a reality, Robertson’s comfort level has visibly improved. He forms part of another uplifting storyline. Positionally, his ability to cover for Tierney and vice versa provides Clarke with a level of security that will not be common at Euro 2020.
Six players who missed the encounter with the Netherlands as a precaution because of earlier proximity to John Fleck – who tested positive for Covid-19 – were due to return to training on Thursday. There will inevitably be significant changes to the Scotland team for Sunday’s friendly away to Luxembourg but the competence of Wednesday’s performance means Clarke is again playing with house money. Scott McTominay, Billy Gilmour plus – coronavirus matters notwithstanding – Che Adams and John McGinn should be in line for Sunday starts.
“I’ve got more problems and decisions to make as a head coach,” said Clarke before Scotland left the Algarve. “I want to have difficult decisions and sleepless nights.” The ease with which Clarke has cracked Scotland’s left-back code surely means he can have confidence about other conundrums that come his way.