Joshua Barrie assesses the tactical blueprint of Steve Clarke and what to expect in Germany.

By qualifying for Euro 2024 with time to spare Scotland’s campaign to reach Germany did not only reflect a maturity within the national team not witnessed since the previous century but a team who have, and are, developing collectively.  While Steve Clarke’s Scotland may not always be the greatest of entertainers they have what all successful teams across football require - an identity, and a growing one at that.

What are the beliefs and ideas which funnel down to the systems and shapes opted for at Hampden, how has Clarke fashioned a formation to get the maximum out of a somewhat imbalanced squad and what exactly is Scotland’s tactical identity? Let’s find out.

A tactical philosophy is…

Phrases in modern football, philosophies and ideologies, can sometimes distract a conversation away from what tactics actually are at their core; a guiding set of principles that should empower a group of players to perform a set of functions and roles that offer them their best chance of victory. There isn’t a black-and-white in this debate. Every manager arrives at their job on day one with a core set of beliefs that will shape how their team plays. With bravery or fear, caution or optimism. Whether those in charge take an allergic reaction to the phrase or make it the backbone of each press conference, every manager has a tactical philosophy.

Some will relentlessly coach players into their belief system because that, in their thinking, offers the best chance of success. Others will instead focus on the tools at their disposal and deploy a more reactive set-up. Some will lean heavily on man-management and physiological tools, while others will prioritise the shapes and systems necessary to win games of football.

Bill Walsh, who won three Superbowls, calls a philosophy, “A conceptual blueprint for action, a perception of what should be done, when it should be done, what should be done and why it should be done. Your philosophy is the single most navigational point on your leadership compass.”

When Pep Guardiola was asked to summarise his tactical philosophy in a sentence, he said, quickly: “I want to have the ball”. All of the elaborate on and off-ball plans, days spent at the laptop analysing opponents and fresh ideas are guided by this core belief. Owning the ball is the single most navigational point of his compass.

A manager’s overarching belief as to how football should be played then, of course, forms a system of play which feeds into formations, instructions and details. A manager’s tactical philosophy is a by-product of their footballing worldview, formed by teachers, circumstances and experiences.  Thus, it is no surprise that Steve Clarke, an industrious defender, the model professional and a student of Jose Mourinho, has built Scotland’s success on organisation, hard work and maximising talents. These are the same principles that saw him achieve success with Kilmarnock before taking over the national team, where it was then time to embed ideas and form a system on the pitch that fulfilled them.


How does that philosophy feed into a system?

Scotland’s system of play has very much been crafted by adapting to circumstances. Their three-at-the-back line-up comes from pragmatism, looking to fit a system around players rather than the alternative. It took Clarke time to settle upon a set-up that had long been discussed, in order to get the best out of Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney. Regardless of the formation or system opted for on any given matchday, Scotland are a team that first and foremost aim to be solid defensively and threaten in transition, and possession, using attacking patterns customised to their squad’s capabilities.

Scotland’s current system, in theory and practice, does a good job of mitigating weaknesses and maximising strengths of their collective while also catering to the depth available in the squad. This is a cohort of full-backs and midfielders that lacks strikers and wingers and the tactical approach informs that.

There’s also been real flexibility and variation since Clarke assumed the job in 2019. Just consider Scott McTominay’s journey as an example; a makeshift centre-back on the way to Euro 2020 and the nation’s top scorer with seven in the following campaign when only Lukaku, Ronaldo, Mbappe, Kane and Hojland outscored him. Not bad company… Scotland’s system deviates between variations of a 3-4-3, although Clarke has also attempted a back four in recent times perhaps in a bid to boost Scotland’s chances in possession. Wing-backs on each side provide width while an array of narrow midfielders offer the consistent goalscoring threat Clarke’s options up front tend to lack. Both wide centre-backs must be confident in progressing the ball through different means (generally carrying on the left and passing on the right).

While Scotland tends to only play with one striker the structure of their midfield can resemble a double pivot with two advanced supporting players or a midfield three, with an extra midfielder operating closer to the No.9.  Jack Hendry generally assumed the centre spot in that back three throughout qualification, after Grant Hanley started the group stage in the middle. Ryan Porteous has tended to play on the right, where able to utilise his passing ability. John Souttar’s ability to progress through carrying the ball rather than passing it presents a different option. Kieran Tierney, when fit, plays on the left, with Scott McKenna a more defensive option, able to carry the ball or make underlapping runs aggressively through the pitch or interchange with Andy Robertson.

Robertson, and his fellow wing-back Hickey, provide width, occupy the last line when high enough and add pace to a squad and system that lacks wingers or speed in the final line. It’s common to see Hickey operate slightly higher in possession given Scotland’s propensity to build on the left. The Brentford player’s two-footedness is a valuable asset when isolated out wide.

Billy Gilmour’s form with Brighton in the Premier League should see him occupy the deepest role in midfield this summer, with his press resistance, ball retention and energy vital assets for a midfielder in modern football. When a player in the pivot was sacrificed during some qualification games, Callum McGregor always kept his place. The Celtic captain is an ever-present in a variety of midfield roles. With a left-foot offering balance, he can join the left-sided wide triangle or prop up the base of midfield.

Speaking of those who never rotate out of the team, McTominay and John McGinn are the primary goal threats. If the defence is built around Robertson and Tierney, McTominay and McGinn are the focal point at the top of the pitch. While both can operate deeper they’ve gradually moved higher in recent times for club and country. McTominay began his career as a de-facto centre-back and holding midfielder. Under Clarke, he’s become a box-crasher who can operate at different heights in the midfield, thriving especially when play reaches the final third. While McGinn’s game possesses similarities his primary asset is an ability to receive through the press and turn with his back to goal. Like McTominay, he’s a skilled ball striker who times his runs into the box effectively. Combined, the duo scored 10 of Scotland’s 16 goals in qualification.  Lyndon Dykes, Lawrence Shankland and Che Adams only contributed two goals between them sharing the No.9 slot throughout the group stage. All three have qualities and Shankland’s goal return domestically this season is helping stake a genuine claim to start in the summer. Dykes’ game in dark blue centres around stretching and occupying defences, with a respectable nine goals in 35 caps to date. The way in which he takes the attention of opposition defences is one of the reasons, as will be elaborated upon, for the midfield’s goalscoring record. Adams’ game is based around receiving with his back to goal and bringing the midfield into play during games where the national side dominates the ball.

Having looked at the principles Clarke has built a system upon, what are some recognisable trends of Scotland’s tactical philosophy?

Strong foundations off the ball

This is where it all starts. You only need to look at the balance of chances Scotland creates compared to the amount they concede in relation to the rest of Europe to ascertain why, from a statistical point of view, the off-ball structure Clarke implements is so fundamental. While Scotland overperformed in front of goal based on expected goals [xG], their three goals conceded at the point of qualification derived from letting up an average of 0.61xG per/90, the 10th best total of all 53 teams throughout Europe at that point. Before the two dead-rubber fixtures against Georgia and Norway, which ended 2-2 and 3-3 after the latter’s defeat against Spain on October 15th guaranteed Clarke’s men a spot in Germany, only six teams of 53 had conceded fewer goals than Scotland’s three in six qualification matches.  Defensive organisation is a hallmark of Clarke’s teams who are famed for their discipline, shape and solidity. This is not to say that Scotland are just a defensive team, far from it. Rather it is the off-ball structure and foundations which give license to everything else.

The memorable 2-0 home win over Spain in the qualifying campaign demonstrated this well. Scotland only conceded 0.57xG to their opponents on that night and scored from two quick attacks down the left with numbers flooding the box. It shows that even in a tricky group where Scotland will likely not dominate the ball it is not to say they cannot control the shape and structure of games.

Set-piece margins

All of the top teams in world football exploit the margins that set-pieces offer. And increasingly clubs are not only deploying extra training time to work on patterns and routines - many are also employing specialists in the area.

Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen have been the surprise team in Europe this season playing a blend of fast transitional football that also controls the ball, taking aspects of German football’s intensity and Spanish football’s poise in possession to form a potent blend. But even Alonso’s free-scoring side requires a little help from dead-ball situations. After his team scored two late goals from corners to turn a 2-1 defeat away at RB Leipzig into a 3-2 victory in January, centre-back Jonathan Tah explained that up to two hours a week in training can be spent focusing on set-pieces.


In Austin MacPhee Scotland have a specialist in the set-piece domain of their own, as Steve Clarke explained back in 2021: “He is different to me. He is more data-based, he is more analytical. At clubs, he mixed the analytical side of it with coaching. He must have looked at it and decided to specialise a bit with set plays which is how he ended up with the Brentford, Midtjylland connection and did well there. Stats-wise, I do like to mix things up. I think it is an area where if you want to improve two or three points in your group section, set plays can do it. Then maybe those two or three points we improve take us from third place to second place or from second place to first place. So it is something I want to try and now I have got the opportunity to do it."

In an attacking sense, the most obvious recent example of a big winner came during a 3-2 win over Israel in 2021 when McTominay kept World Cup qualification hopes alive by bundling in at the back post following a whipped McGinn delivery and near-post Hendry header.

Scotland scored three set-piece goals in eight Euro 2024 qualifiers - Porteous vs Cyprus, McTominay vs the same opponent and Callum McGregor vs Georgia. Their 0.30 set-piecexG/90 throughout the campaign ranked 14th of 53 teams and 0.38 set-piece goals/90 slightly outperformed expectations. It was at the other end that Clarke’s side really felt the set-play benefit, however. Scotland recorded the third-lowest set-piece xG/90 of all 53 nations, a figure only marginally bettered by Norway and England’s 0.04xG. They didn’t concede a goal from any corner or free-kick.

Come the summer in knock-out tournament football the teams who prioritise set-plays will feel the benefit and under Clarke, Scotland qualify as one of those outfits.

Attacking in transition

Football is far too complex to split teams into those who want to attack by controlling the ball and those who want to attack by playing into space. Some underlying numbers can offer us a better indication of exactly what type of team Scotland are when it comes to their use of possession.  Clarke’s side ranked 34 of 53 teams in qualification for their 47 percent possession of the ball and 35 of 53 for their average 1.88 passes into the box per/90. Scotland’s xG of 1.01 was also fairly mid-ranking, and the metrics show a far greater regard for counterattacking shots, 7th of 53, when compared to high press shots, 48th of 53.

While building possession against larger nations is a development point, something Gilmour’s continued emergence ought to aid further, Clarke’s system is designed to use his unconventional attacking weapons. Often, Scotland are arriving into the final third to attack rather than building possession around the box. As a consequence, they’re less concerned with stopping teams at source, creating space they can subsequently transition into.

Scotland’s main attacking weapons can be outlined as; crosses from the left and runners in behind on the wing or in the half-space; transitions through the pitch using a narrow midfield without wingers or stretching the game and attacking through cutbacks where able to bring McGinn and McTominay into play. All of the goals throughout the group stage fall into one such category.

Think of that late comeback away against Norway and consider the origin of each strike. The first came from breaking a tired press and playing through the midfield with McTominay and McGinn on the half turn, a forward runner in Kenny McLean earning a spell of good fortune in the Norway defence and Dykes benefitting from his selfless running stretching the game to score. The winner saw McTominay, McGinn and McLean run in support of Dykes with the former two combining and the No.9 providing a pass backwards into McLean to score. A narrow midfield structure and the team arriving into the final third were vital to earn each strike.

Without many goals in the first line, Scotland’s attacking structure has been created to score from the second - as best epitomised by McTominay.

The cutback zone and Scott McTominay

That McLean goal, McTominay’s double against Spain, Stuart Armstrong at home vs Norway, John McGinn away in Cyrpus - why are all these goals coming from the edge of the box?


To learn how Scotland have scored goals let’s start with their top scorer McTominay. You know, that bloke who played as a centre-back in the EURO 2020 qualification campaign and ended the 2024 rounds as Scotland’s top goalscorer.

Why? As Erik ten Hag has learned to secure some vital points for Manchester United this season, McTominay is an expert box-crasher, able to attack the penalty area from deep and become a secondary striking option. If late midfield runs into the box are your thing, McTominay is the man for you.

Goals aren’t really coming from top end of park. Dykes provided a couple of assists and is an effective occupier of defences with, in his defence, nine goals for the country overall. The QPR frontman cannot strike a ball like McTominay or McGinn, however. The former has overperformed his xG dramatically thanks to his quality ball-striking by scoring seven goals from 2.21xG with five coming from 12 yards out or further.  Take both of the 27-year-old’s goals scored against Spain in that memorable 2-0 win as an example of some of the themes we’ve discussed.  The first started with Robertson high on the last line and Tierney driving from deep. After a pass from Ryan Christie broke the defensive structure, Scotland’s captain benefited from Pedro Porro slipping. But notice, when you’re watching these highlights back in preparation for the summer, where the full-back plants his cross. Not across the face of goal, where Dykes could’ve feasibly tapped home from a closer distance, but away from the traffic to what is becoming known as the ‘second cut-back zone’ where an unmarked McTominay could stride onto the ball and finish with his left boot.

Juanma Lillo, Pep Guardiola’s current assistant at Manchester City, when writing for the Athletic during the 2022 World Cup observed: “There are more and more goals from cutbacks, or backwards passes. Why? Because teams try to play as far as they can from their own goal, when they break through the opponent’s defensive line they’re going so quickly that the players in the middle go ahead of the one who has the ball out wide.  “I used to say in Manchester that the last player to arrive to the box is the first one to be able to shoot. I tell that to my strikers all the time: the closer you get to the goal, the further you are from scoring.

“Every team is so concerned about defending and controlling the spaces close to their goal that there are now more threats from further away.”

This quote couldn’t fit Scotland’s recent campaign better in an attacking sense. McTominay, and at points McGinn, has been the first to shoot as the last man into the box.

And given the nature of Scotland’s transitional attacks through the centre or down the left are rarely after occupying space in the final third, opposition defences are more often than not recovering their ground and moving naturally deeper towards goal. This, ultimately, allows McTominay space and time in areas at the edge of the box that would be clogged up during settled spells of possession.  The midfielder’s second goal against Spain was similar but different. The original opportunity was created in transition when Tierney pinched the ball off of Dani Carvajal and made up half the pitch with a powerful carry. Surveying his options in the box this time the left-back opted to flash a ball across the face of goal where Dykes and McGinn were waiting. After a deflection it was again McTominay arriving on the edge of the box who scored with a left-footed finish.

Without a real goalscorer up front, Clarke has built Scotland’s attacks around the late box arrivals of McTominay and McGinn to great effect, with a tailored attacking ploy that ties in their solid defensive structure and quick transitional attacks through the pitch to generate these chances at the edge of the box. Expect that to continue in Germany.

Where are they going?

It’s important to caveat the obvious - life has not always been plain sailing for Steve Clarke at Hampden since 2019. The manner in which Ukraine completely cut through the Scotland midfield in a one-sided World Cup play-off and Ireland comfortably won 3-0 the following summer both carried fierce criticism. They exited the last major championships with little more than a whimper.

The clear tactical development for Scotland to make this summer and going forward is continuing their development to become a side who’re more ambitious when trying to play through the press and hold the ball against the big boys. Simply put - they have the players to achieve this goal.

We can conclude, however, that for the first time in a long time Scotland have a clear tactical identity that has brought them success.

Tactics are inherently cultural, a reflection or not. Brazil exited the 2022 World Cup playing what many regarded as a European positional system that lost the very essence of the nation’s footballing identity, in contrast to South American rivals and eventual winners Argentina.

Do the Scottish people see themselves in this team? Probably. Honest, hard-working and passionate, more skilled than it gives itself credit for and fiercely proud with a strong sense of pragmatism. Perhaps the next step is also a reflection of the national psyche - where can Scotland go with a little more belief in its ability? The task will be to set the tone on the ball and grow their expectations in the same manner as they have done since 2020.