Just one clean sheet in ten games suggests there’s no case for Clarke’s defence
If Steve Clarke hopes to accentuate the positives of the past few days from his perspective, he can point to an early lead at the top of Uefa Nations League Group B2 and the emergence of Lyndon Dykes as a No 9 who looks to have a big future with Scotland.
But while Dykes’ first goal for his country helped Clarke’s side come from behind to defeat a shadow Czech Republic outfit in Olomouc, deficiencies elsewhere are impossible to ignore and raise major doubts about the prospects of success in the Euro 2020 play-offs later this year.
Clarke may have unearthed a new central striker of genuine promise in the shape of Dykes but the other end of the pitch remains a significant area of concern for Scotland.
Having built his successful tenure at Kilmarnock on a bedrock of defensive solidity, Clarke is struggling to replicate that formula at international level.
In his 10 games as Scotland boss, he has overseen just one clean sheet which came against perennial whipping boys San Marino.
The goal scored by Jakub Pesek for the hastily assembled Czech side after just 11 minutes was the 18th conceded by Scotland on Clarke’s watch so far. Given the circumstances of this contest, it was perhaps the most painful one yet.
The decision to persist with a back three after Friday night’s 1-1 draw at home to Israel, with Liam Cooper coming in to replace Kieran Tierney alongside Scott Mckenna and Scott Mctominay, was an indication of Clarke’s belief it is a system which can work well for his squad.
But it’s difficult to see how that can be the case when deploying personnel who are so clearly and uncomfortably out of position, as was the case with Mctominay. The Manchester United midfielder is admirably willing to play wherever he is asked but was caught out badly when the Czechs took the lead.
Slavia Prague forward Stanislav Tecl, one of only two players in the hosts’ starting line-up with previous experience at full international level, deserved credit for the perfectly weighted pass which split the Scots’ defence but Mctominay was flat-footed as Pesek nipped in to beat David Marshall with a composed finish.
Leeds United captain Cooper, winning just his third cap for Scotland at the age of 29, made a couple of timely and decisive tackles as the visitors tried to subdue an eager and lively Czech side.
Accustomed to playing in a back four under master tactician Marcelo Bielsa at his club side, Cooper should be ready to nail down a regular place in the Scotland starting line-up in a season when he will be testing himself against some of the world’s finest attacking talents in the English Premier League on a weekly basis.
Ahead of facing the likes of
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at Anfield on Saturday night when Leeds will make their top flight return, Cooper had more to occupy him than he might have expected against the Czechs.
Even after Dykes had drawn Scotland level with a fine first time finish from Liam Palmer’s low cross, Clarke’s side remained careless in possession and, subsequently, far too exposed at the back.
As they lived dangerously, Jaroslav Zeleny saw a shot blocked by Palmer before Marshall made a fine save to deny Adam Janos.
Scotland ought to have seized full control of the contest after Ryan Christie converted his second penalty in successive matches after Dutch referee Serdar Gozubuyuk deemed Tomas Malinsky as the sinner in a tussle with Andy Robertson.
But the Scots were anything but comfortable with their scarcely merited lead. Marek Havlik scraped the outside of Marshall’s righthand post from a free-kick and, as the ragged defending continued, Pesek forced a superb save from the keeper before Tecl completely fluffed his lines from the rebound with the goal gaping.
Substitute Antonin Rusek hit a post with a late header as the Czechs kept Scotland hemmed in on a fraught evening for Clarke, one which has given him much to ponder.
It’s difficult to see how a back three works when players are so clearly and uncomfortably out of position