STEVE Clarke has been wrestling with a quandary that his predecessors agonised over and to which there is no simple answer for the first time in his 15 month reign as Scotland manager in recent days.

Namely, how does he accommodate both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, arguably the two best players in his squad, in the same starting line-up?

Alex McLeish deployed Tierney on the left hand side of a back three and Robertson as a wing back when he had both players available for selection during his tenure.

Malky Mackay used the Arsenal man as a left-sided centre half and his Liverpool counterpart in his favoured left back berth in the friendly match he took charge of.

Gordon Strachan, meanwhile, switched the former Celtic defender over to right back when he was in situ.

Each option has its merits and each has its drawbacks. There isn’t a perfect solution to the problem. So which way should Clarke go in the Nations League encounter with Israel at Hampden tomorrow and thereafter?


Going from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2 set-up when play resumed after the winter break back in January helped Celtic to pull clear of their city rivals in the Premiership and complete a ninth consecutive Scottish title triumph.

Can making the same sort of tactical change enable Scotland to make a winning start to their Nations League campaign and, much more importantly, negotiate the Euro 2020 play-offs later this year and reach their first major tournament since France ’98?

Doing so would allow Clarke to utilise Robertson’s strengths going forward. Tierney, too, has the mentality, physicality and ability to perform a more defensive role and would doubtless be comfortable with the demands on him.

Against a better standard of opposition – and the national team frequently find themselves up against vastly superior sides – Robertson could easily drop deep and play alongside Tierney in a back five.

But who would play wing back on the other side of the park? The formation requires a high level of athleticism and tireless running from the individuals on the flanks. Are Liam Palmer or Stephen O’Donnell up to it? Overlapping isn’t really their forte.

Going with three at the back can also leave wide open spaces for rivals, especially those who have pacey and skilful wingers, to exploit and leave the centre backs cruelly exposed.

That was certainly the case in the calamitous 2-1 to Israel in Haifa back in 2018 during McLeish’s second spell in charge of his country.


Scotland were beaten 1-0 by the Netherlands in an international friendly at Pittodrie when Tierney played as a left-sided centre back in a four man rearguard in 2017.

However, the then Parkhead player, who was made skipper for the night by Mackay, handled the change of position, against visitors who fielded Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay, assuredly and impressed onlookers greatly.

Brendan Rodgers, under who he was flourishing at the time in Glasgow, certainly approved and predicted his left back could flourish there going forward due to the changing demands of the modern game.

“I thought he was excellent,” said Rodgers. “In international football and European football you don’t need to be 6ft 3in to play centre-half. As long as you have got a couple of guys that are dominant in the air he can step in and play. Can he do it in international football? Yes.”

Playing with Tierney there in a traditional back four would probably cause Clarke and the Tartan Army fewer concerns defensively – going with a three demands that every single player understands and executes their role perfectly to and it can go badly wrong if just one of them fails to do either.

The former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool has, no disrespect to the likes of Liam Cooper, Scott McKenna and Declan Gallagher, a lack of experience and world class performers at centre back.


It was a compliment of sorts when Strachan moved Tierney from left back to right back when Scotland were bidding, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to reach the Russia 2018 finals.

He was following in famous footsteps. The legendary Celtic full-back Danny McGrain had been moved in the opposite direction during the 1970s so that he and Sandy Jardine could both be on the field at the same time.

The Isle of Man-born footballer did well in the six matches he played there and his team, despite failing to reach the Russia 2018 play-offs, enjoyed an impressive winning run as well.

But SFA Performance Director Mackay revealed during his time as caretaker that left back or centre half were his preferred choices. “Kieran Tierney going there is not the answer,” he said. “He doesn’t want to be playing there, trust me.”

The man who became Scotland’s most expensive footballer when he joined Arsenal for £25m last year has endured a difficult time in recent months with injuries.

It is remarkable the 23-year-old only has 12 caps to his name given the high level he has been plying his trade at for the past six seasons.

Perhaps he will be more open to reverting to right back than he was previously. If it means he can resume his international career he is sure to be up for it. But Clarke would have to persuade him. Fielding him there under duress would be inadvisable.


If Clarke omits Robertson or Tierney from his stating XI tomorrow against Israel tomorrow evening it will be just as well there are no Scotland supporters inside Hampden to lynch him.