Euro 2020: What can Scotland learn from their major tournament return?

Euro 2020: Andy Robertson pays tribute to the fans after Scotland's Euros exit
Euro 2020 on the BBC
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Well, it was fun while it lasted. After a 23-year major tournament exile, Scotland savoured a heady nine days at Euro 2020.

The ending was painfully familiar as defeat by Croatia at Hampden ensured Steve Clarke's side trudged home early just as the party was getting into full swing.

But the tournament - on the pitch and all around the country - has whetted Scotland's appetite for more.

So, as the disappointment subsides and thoughts turn to qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, what can Scotland learn from their return to the big stage?

Gilmour has to play

Okay, Scotland could not make history by reaching the knockout stage, but they will always have Wembley. The heartbeat and standout of that compelling goalless draw with England was Billy Gilmour, as the Tartan Army were finally given what they wanted - the wee man making his first start.

The stage could hardly have been tougher, nor the expectation higher, but the 20-year-old midfielder delivered... and then some.

The sight of Gilmour - the youngest player on the pitch - constantly demanding the ball, dictating play and snapping into tackles was a glimpse of Scotland's future.

Gilmour probably should have started the opening game against the Czech Republic, a 2-0 defeat that would come back to haunt Scotland.

Having justified his inclusion at Wembley, Gilmour was primed to face Croatia until contracting Covid-19. It was a cruel blow, the only kind of positive result Scotland did not want.

Regardless, when World Cup qualifying resumes in September, Gilmour has to be a first pick. One start was sufficient to prove, if anyone did not already know, this lad is special. Scotland are a better team with Gilmour in it.

Sharper edge needed

Creating chances was not a big problem. Taking them was. Over the three games, Clarke's side had 41 attempts at goal, with 12 on target, and scored just once.

The woodwork was pinged against the Czechs, a goal-line clearance denied the Scots at Wembley, while John McGinn knocked wide from a couple of yards in the last hurrah against Croatia.

When opportunities came, Scotland were too often found wanting. At this level, such moments make the difference.

Scotland at least posed much more of a threat when they deployed two strikers. Clarke rectified his decision to leave striker Che Adams on the bench by throwing him on at half-time against the Czechs and partnering him with Lyndon Dykes for the remaining matches.

Newcomer Adams has accumulated his seven caps in just three months and looks a useful addition. He and Dykes could never be accused of not putting a shift in, but a more clinical edge is needed. Dykes firing straight at Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik from eight yards had Scotland fans tearing their hair out in frustration.

The lack of conviction in these situations was not confined to the strikers either. Andy Robertson, for instance, let a golden chance slip away in the opener. No matter where they come from, Scotland need more goals.

Direct approach fails to pay off

Scotland's two defeats had a common theme - a succession of long balls launched towards the forwards.

The direct tactics against the Czechs and Croatia were markedly different to the possession-based, tight passing game plan that reaped rewards at Wembley.

As Scotland toiled against Croatia, former captain Graeme Souness remarked that Clarke's men looked like "a team from the past" as they frequently went long.

Midfield is the strongest area of this Scotland team and a direct approach bypasses this asset. Gilmour, John McGinn and Callum McGregor are all comfortable in control, making passes and setting the tempo.

Scotland have to play to their strengths to get the best from their collective talents.

Lack of nous exposed

In the end, Scotland were outclassed by Croatia to seal their fate. There could be few complaints as a Luka Modric-inspired side showed the class that took them to the World Cup finals three years prior.

There was savvy to go with the Croats' superiority, though, in a must-win game for both sides. After Scotland hauled themselves level just before the break, Croatia refused to panic. Instead, they re-emerged and dominated.

Despite having five at the back, sloppy defending contributed to Scotland's downfall.

Similar naivety cost Scotland against the Czechs. Patrik Schick's wonder goal from the halfway line would perhaps not have stung as much had goalkeeper David Marshall not been so far off his line.

Pre-tournament, that looked the key game for Scotland. And so it proved.

Those painful mistakes are all part of the learning curve but cannot be repeated as Scotland garner the experience needed to make sure they are not just fleeting visitors to this level.

Patrik Schick's Hampden double condemned Scotland to an opening defeat
Patrik Schick's Hampden double condemned Scotland to an opening defeat

A platform to build from

Reaction to Scotland's exit has, predictably, been mixed - veering from undiminished pride to hysterical calls for Clarke to go.

Not making it out of the group, when two of Scotland's three games were at Hampden and third place was enough to progress, represents a missed opportunity. Clarke's tactics and team selection have also come under the microscope.

As the dust settles, though, positivity should replace deflation. Scotland offered plenty in their first venture to this rarefied stage since 1998. It can be a platform for further progress rather than a high watermark.

Clarke has now been at the helm for two years - 24 games - and his squad is not on its last legs but instead is brimming with potential for improvement.

Gilmour, Nathan Patterson and David Turnbull are the bright young prospects who have broken into the squad and can now force themselves into the team.

Of the 26 players Clarke took to the Euros, only the three goalkeepers and centre-back Declan Gallagher are over the age of 30. There are lessons to be learned, but a lot more to come from this crop.

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