It’s been a long, long time since Scotland boasted so many players rooted at top clubs. Of course, Andy Robertson has become the poster boy for football north of the border, with the former Dundee United and Queen’s Park left back arguably now the best in his position in all of Europe. He is a European champion and might just be on his way to becoming a Premier League champion too.
There’s Kieran Tierney who has made a strong start to his Arsenal career after leaving Celtic for £25 million in the summer. It is, however, so typically Scottish that the country has finally managed to produce two potentially world class players and they occupy the same position: left back. Nonetheless, Tierney will only strengthen the Scotland team as he flourishes down south.
On top of these two there’s Scott McTominay, perhaps the only player to have shone through at Manchester United over the first two months of the season, and John McGinn, the Aston Villa midfielder who is taking the Premier League by storm. It seems unlikely, given the standard of his performances, that he will stay at Villa beyond this season. There will be suitors.
Last season, Ryan Fraser caught the eye for Bournemouth, registering more assists than any other Premier League player besides Eden Hazard. Oli McBurnie also scored 22 times for Swansea City in the English Championship, earning himself a £20 million move to top flight Sheffield United where has bedded in well.
At Celtic, James Forrest and Callum McGregor have continued to grow and develop. There’s little doubt that they could cut it in the Premier League, but for the meantime they form the core of the Scottish champions. Even below the senior game, there are talents like Billy Gilmour at Chelsea and Fraser Hornby at Everton (on loan at Kortrijk) coming through.
All this gives Steve Clarke a lot of quality to pick from as Scotland national team manager. However, his squad is distinctly lopsided. This is illustrated by the selections made for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Russia and San Marino. Scotland are stacked in some positions, but have been forced to scrape the barrel in others.
Beyond McBurnie, Clarke is desperately lacking in centre forwards to lead the line, especially with Leigh Griffiths not quite ready to return to the national team fold after his hiatus from the game last season. This has resulted in a call-up for Lawrence Shankland, a Scottish Championship striker. While Shankland’s goal record of 15 goals in 13 games is impressive, should a second tier player ever be in the Scotland squad?
This will be a problem against a Russia team Scotland struggled to break down last month. Clarke’s side are 15/2 to win in Moscow this Thursday, which illustrates just how unfancied they are. With just six points from six games, Scotland are all but out of the running in a group dominated by Belgium. However, Russia are just three points behind in second place and so 10/1 might represent good value for a punt.
Clarke is possibly even shorter of options at centre back than he is up front due to injuries. Scott McKenna and John Souttar are both ruled out, while Liam Cooper was also forced to withdraw late last week. Consequently, Kilmarnock’s Stuart Findlay and Motherwell’s Declan Gallagher have been called up. Both are decent Scottish Premiership performers, but the same question can be asked of them as Shankland – are they really good enough for this level?
At right back, Clarke has become dependent on Stephen O’Donnell. The two worked together at Kilmarnock, but while the 27-year-old is a hard worker he lacks the necessary quality to thrive at international level. With Robertson on one side and O’Donnell on the other, there’s a gross imbalance to Scotland’s full backs.
Gordon Strachan more than once complained about Scotland’s lack of individual difference makers during his time as national team boss. Now, Clarke has a number of these players, but his squad is overweighted in some areas and underweighted in others. This, of course, is often the nature of international football. Clarke must find a way to bridge the gap between the two extremes in his squad.