Resisting calls from the many and the hype that is building up around him, Ben Doak hasn’t been selected in the full Scotland squad just yet by former Liverpool coach Steve Clarke.
For now, he’s had to settle for a place in the oldest youth international setup – the Under-21’s – despite still being just 17 years old.
He has only made four appearances for the youth side, first being called up in September of last year, becoming the youngest ever goal scorer for the team with a goal inside seven minutes against Northern Ireland.
This international break continued much of what had happened in pre-season. Doak-mania had already been building around Merseyside, after impressing in Germany and the Far-East (including a goal against Leicester), it’s now catching fire in his homeland – albeit in a different role that we’re used to seeing him in.
READ MORE: How Ben Doak could end up being Mohamed Salah’s successor at Liverpool
Scotland U21’s began their 2025 U21 European Championship qualifying campaign on Monday night with probably the trickiest game possible – away to the team that have won the competition the join most, Spain.
Scotland are coached by Scot Gemmill, who has come under pressure for some poor results. For more context here, the U21 setup (and other youth groups, although to a lesser extent) are viewed in a negative light. They don’t appear to give the players playing in those games a platform to springboard themselves up into the senior squad.
Steve Clarke – the manager of the senior setup – has implemented quite a closed off situation, wanting to give the setup more of a “club feel”. It has worked for the former Kilmarnock boss, who was created the best Scottish side in years. What it does do though, is limit chances for those not in the ‘inner circle’, so to speak. Impressing in the U21 team likely won’t get you noticed. You’d have to be doing something extraordinary at club level to make your way in.
It’s very rare you’ll see any hype about a performance for Scotland’s U21’s – especially in defeat – but that’s exactly what the youngest player on the away side did. Gemmill started Doak in a central role, flanked by Dundee’s Lyall Cameron on the left and Josh Mulligan on the right, in a 3-4-3.
Highlights of his performance went viral, with Scotland and Liverpool fan accounts alike jumping on clips of his game, vying for interactions.
READ MORE: Scotland manager praises ‘exceptional’ Ben Doak after debut
Central isn’t a role Doak has played an awful lot. Yet he took to his new surroundings well. Spain pushed up high from the outset, looking to push Scotland further and further back, and camp out in the opposition half, in typical Spanish fashion. What Doak offered, was an outlet. Being central allowed him to be the most advanced player for Scotland.
In possession, it made sense. Doak, despite his small frame, is extremely strong, and his low centre of gravity and use of his body (he’s even displaying signs of the Eden Hazard and John McGinn speciality – being able to use your bottom to shield opponents).
There was one instance where Doak picked up the ball deep inside his own half and was able to break with pace to about halfway into Spain’s half. While he runs out of room and is dispossessed, he’s already been able to relieve some pressure for his side, who were under lots of it. Having Doak as an outlet throughout was key to Scotland being able to get out, and he offered much of the creativity for the side (which we’ll get on to).
The game brought so many examples of Doak progressing the ball through carrying by any means necessary. He – and forgive the cliché – just doesn’t quit.
© Proshots – Ben Doak
Some of his ball carrying is reminiscent of Luis Suárez’s during his time at the club. It doesn’t always look the cleanest, it is less traditionally skilful and more hustle and bustle, yet it leaves you thinking “how on earth did he do that?” all the same. Bounces go his way too regularly for it to be down to pure luck.
Out of possession having Doak central and as the highest positioned, it allowed him to utilise his energy to harass the Spanish defence. While he is still quite unrefined in the way that he presses, his constant energy makes him a problem to those in possession. This is an area of the game that will come with coaching (although more at club level than at international if he remains in the U21 for a sustained period).
He covers a ridiculous amount of ground and is particularly skilled in getting his body in-front of people he shouldn’t really be able to. Although he positioned himself centrally for the most part, he was just as likely to tackle someone on the touchline as he was to win the ball back in the middle third.
While this whole piece has talked about Doak being a right-winger playing through the middle, his ‘highlight’ moment of the game came from the left-hand side. Scotland play a short corner on the left, and the former Celtic youngster stands up two Spanish defenders head on. He knocks the ball past one towards the by-line, leaving the second one with too much ground to make up. He then unleashes a ferocious shot from a narrow angle, which is parried away by the Spanish goalkeeper. It was a solo moment of brilliance, inventive and effective and so close to giving Scotland an unlikely lead.
The most evident area for improvement from the game was his decision making. There was one instance of this that stood out. Doak picks the ball up in the final third, and finds himself in a three on two advantage, with his two wide players flanking either side of him. Spain’s centre-backs hold a narrow position, and those slightly wider areas open. There are two easy passes to either his left or right, which would slip in a teammate for an easier chance on goal. Doak instead chooses to take the low percentage chance and shoots from outside the box, blazing the ball over. Any sort of calm and composure would likely result in a goal, instead a chance is wasted.
Selfishness isn’t necessarily a bad thing in young players, it can display self-confidence, it can help them grow. But in situations like that one, Doak needs to learn that playing the pass and sharing the responsibility is better than doing it on his own.
It was an accomplished performance by the young Scotsman, and it was extremely promising that he was able to slot into an unfamiliar role and perform at a high-level.
Going forward, it opens more opportunities for the youngster to pick up minutes, especially with Europa League allowing these opportunities. I wouldn’t expect Doak to play in central areas often, if at all. He is far too talented out wide to be moved inside, and his height and skillset fits those wide roles more than it does centrally. This will be of particular use for Scotland’s senior side – who I’d picture Doak being in sooner rather than later – as they have a lack of wide attackers.
The future is bright for Scotland, and Liverpool too.