Dutch draw gives Clarke food for thought as he ponders best XI

A 2-2 draw with Netherlands saw some players further their credentials for a finals place.

Dutch draw gives Clarke food for thought as he ponders best XI SNS Group

It was Steve Clarke’s fellow Ayrshireman Robert Burns who wrote about best-laid schemes often going awry, but the Scotland boss showed on Wednesday in Faro that the derailing of one plan doesn’t always bring grief and pain.

For Clarke, the 2-2 draw against Netherlands delivered a vital confidence boost for his squad ahead of upcoming tests but also assurance that a resilient, creative and dangerous team can be found even after plans A, B, C and more have been abandoned because of circumstances beyond his control.

The head coach and his national team began the final countdown to Euro 2020 with the first of two friendlies designed to ensure that Scotland kick off against Czech Republic at Hampden on June 14 in the best possible shape.

Netherlands were selected as the first opponent because Clarke wanted a real challenge to test his team, but also because he saw similarities between the way the Dutch played and the style of Group D opponents England and Croatia.

While international friendlies have long been the place for experimentation, Clarke’s desire to build momentum, and nail down a starting line-up for the games that really count, might have meant a first-choice team against Frank de Boer’s side, with the chance to impress handed to others against Luxembourg on Sunday.

Instead, John Fleck’s positive Covid test prompted the coaching staff to show an abundance of caution and sideline six more players for the midweek game, narrowing Clarke’s choices but opening up opportunities for others to force their way into the plans for the competitive action.

The first of the changes put the spotlight on one of the manager’s most pressing questions. David Marshall’s heroics in goal in Belgrade sealed Scotland’s place in the finals but the truth is that his place has never been cast in stone and a difficult end to the club season hasn’t helped his cause.

Craig Gordon’s previous record had always made him a serious contender to end up as number one and there was a feeling that he was just waiting for his chance.

Scotland's Lyndon Dykes, Craig Gordon and Andrew Robertson during a friendly match between Scotland and Netherlands at Estadio Algarve. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)SNS Group

The Hearts keeper returned to the team knowing that a clean sheet against the Dutch would be a big ask. There was little Gordon could have done about either of Depay’s smartly executed goals but a deflected shot from Patrick van Aanholt in the second half gave the goalkeeper a chance to remind everyone of his abilities.

Few would grumble if Gordon got the nod against the Czechs but the position is still up in that air with only ten days to go. Marshall may be back to face Luxembourg or Jon McLaughlin may get gametime to show that his impressive displays whenever given the chance at Rangers make him a worthy contender as well.

It was in front of the keeper that Clarke may have found clearer answers in Wednesday’s friendly.

The former Kilmarnock boss has already ended any debate about whether Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney could be shoehorned into the same team, introducing a system that lets both bring their A game to international level.

The Liverpool star was up and down the left flank against Netherlands and delivered a sumptuous cross for the second goal, while Tierney drove the team forward from his position on the left of the three-man defence.

To Tierney’s right, questions may have been answered. Liam Cooper is likely in a straight fight with Grant Hanley to start at the finals and did himself no harm with a solid display that included a crucial intervention to clean up after an uncharacteristic Tierney error in the second half.

Jack Hendry’s performance may have earned him a place in the team when everything gets serious. The young Celtic defender has progressed rapidly on loan at Oostende as well as in his previous international appearances and caught the eye again.

Though far from flawless, Hendry was competitive at the back and made his mark at the other end of the pitch with a well-struck goal as Scotland’s high press delivered.

The second half saw minutes given to Declan Gallagher, Scott McKenna and Greg Taylor and although none of the three made notable mistakes, the starting players weren’t shown up by their introduction.

Midfield, on paper, was the part of Clarke’s side most ripe for change with Kenny McLean and Ryan Jack missing the Euros through injury. John McGinn was among the players left back at base, while Scott McTominay and Billy Gilmour weren’t considered for a start having joined the squad late after European club finals.

David Turnbull earned his first Scotland cap. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The starting trio against the Dutch had a Celtic flavour with Turnbull making his first start alongside Callum McGregor and former Parkhead star Stuart Armstrong.

Turnbull was all action, contributing to Scotland’s front-foot start but also adapting to more defensive duties than he is used to at club level. The debutant acquitted himself well, though he failed to track Depay for the first Netherlands goal.

McGregor sat deep and did his best to help protect the defence but didn’t have one of his most influential games. The 27-year-old looks like he’s had too many 60-plus game seasons without proper rest.

Armstrong has seen his chances restricted in recent internationals and didn’t let himself down but probably failed to make the most of an opportunity to impress. Gilmour came off the bench to make his debut and showed why his place in the squad isn’t just a development move. McTominay and McGinn won’t have feared the loss of their starting spots.

Ahead of the midfield trio, Ryan Christie showed willingness to commit to pressing but failed to show the creative attacking spark and genuine goal threat that brought him into the Scotland reckoning in the first place.

With Che Adams available as part of a front two, and Ryan Fraser fully fit if a supporting role is the preference, he may find his inclusion in the starting line-up hard to justify.

Kevin Nisbet boosted his chances with a well-taken goal. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Lyndon Dykes continued in the same vein as his previous Scotland caps. Physical and hard-working, ready to bring others into the play as a focal point for an attack, the adopted Australian impressed again.

The QPR forward could have done better with a chance at goal though and if he’s in direct competition with Kevin Nisbet, the Hibs striker’s finish from Andy Robertson’s cross for Scotland’s second might have nudged the newcomer ahead in the reckoning.

Each position will be pored over by Clarke and his staff as they look to find the right combination for Group D.

The manager’s strength is in building a collective and the re-thought team that faced Netherlands looked every bit a unit, sticking largely to the shape that’s been bedded in over the year. The component parts are far from being determined and having come through a tough test with a creditable result, some have enhanced their chances at just the right time.

On Sunday, the starting line-up against Luxembourg will bring change again, along with a different challenge. Clarke’s plans for that test may be well advanced but performances, and fate, could see further change in the last match before the competitive action begins.