Scotland’s performance in the Euro qualifiers exceeded the expectations of every single fan. The national team is in better shape than I can ever remember it. Steve Clarke has done an exceptional job moulding it to his style and his needs.
Those needs are not the same as Celtic’s, but such has been his success with Scotland that it has naturally inspired questions about what he might have been capable of had we approached him before we did Ange, and given him the backing to succeed.
Let’s be honest; this club would look radically different had Steve Clarke been in charge. The pure entertainment of the Ange years would have been greatly lessened. But would we have been successful? And more importantly, when you look at his results against decent teams with this Scotland squad, would we have done it in Europe?
That, I think, is why this question, this issue, feels current.
Clarke’s teams are organised and disciplined. He’s a football pragmatist, not a romantic and in these last few years we’ve gone down the route of having the romantics in charge. These guys want to play front-foot attacking stuff.
I wouldn’t call Clarke’s teams overly defensive, but they are the sort of sides who can soak up pressure, hit on the break and smash and grab wins.
It’s obvious that this system would change the way we approach games in Europe. Would it necessarily be better? Would we get results? It’s difficult to answer that question because whatever way you dress this team up, we’re still majorly outgunned.
One way to approach it thought is to think about the composition of our team, and this brings you close to an answer. We play with two wide attackers and one attacking midfielder behind the central striker. Scotland doesn’t line up like that at all.
In fact, when Tierney and Robertson are fit, Scotland lines up with a back five and a central midfield three.
Can you imagine Celtic playing like that? For a start, the midfield three presents us with problems because we don’t have enough of them to play the holding role. Scotland, in contrast, usually lines up with McGregor, McTominay and McGinn.
The whole structure of this team would have been upended had Clarke run the show. There is no doubt that he’d have been an effective manager – we’re hard enough to beat right now domestically; he would have made us much, much tougher to get goals against – and that he’d have been a trophy winning boss, but I wonder how many bankable assets we’d have, and I know we’d not nearly have gotten so much pleasure out of the last two seasons.
The football would have been nowhere near as exhilarating.
I very much doubt we’d have tapped the Asian market in any meaningful way, although that too is hard to know because an international manager doesn’t do his team-building in the same way as a club boss, for obvious reasons. But Clarke’s focus on the English leagues is telling.
It’s really easy to watch our Champions League performances and look over our results and wish for a different system, something that makes us a tougher opponent and one that can grind it out. But if you look at the makeup of our squad right now, and if you consider the players we’re all enjoying so much, you can see where the difficult lies.
There would be no Palma, Kyogo, Maeda, Abada or any of the other entertainers. We’d have signed grafters. Aggressive, physical players.
The manager would have constructed a team to suit his system and his system is not the pedal to the metal style of football Celtic fans are used to see it. This has ever been the issue; we can either have this sort of team or we can have one that is more practical and defensive in nature, and even that doesn’t bring any guarantees.
Who is to say what a team with five at the back would have done in Madrid? Or what it might do in Rome? And maybe at some stage we’ll find out, if Rodgers decides he wants to experiment with the tactics a bit.
But we’ll retain our attacking identity either way.
What Clarke has definitely proved, of course, is that he’s a supremely talented manager and a good candidate for any half decent club job which becomes available, and so the SFA are going to have a hell of a time hanging onto the guy.
When you think of the job he could have done at Hibs, Hearts or Aberdeen you can see that they all missed out in a big way, and it’s well past too late for them to change that, because when he does decide to return to club football there will be better offers available to him than those sides are presently able to muster, and that’s a shame.
The question as to whether or not he’s got the stuff to do it at Celtic has been answered, I think, by his international accomplishments; he’s done a fantastic job and would have been successful as the manager of our club, and really, I don’t doubt it.
But I can’t honestly say I regret it as a path not chosen, not when we got Ange and now Brendan Rodgers back in the dugout. Things have worked out pretty well all round, but I understand why for some people it’s something to contemplate.