Celtic may be flying high in the Scottish Premiership, but Leigh Griffiths has had to make do with fleeting substitute appearances for both club and country.
While the irrepressible Moussa Dembele keeps him out Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, Scotland is a different matter altogether, with Chris Martin and then Steven Fletcher leading the line for a crestfallen campaign.
The prevailing argument is loud and clear – how can a striker who’s just come off a 40+ goal season, fail to start for his national team? It should be a simple case of banging him in the team shouldn’t it? Unfortunately not.
As much as swapping, say, Fletcher for Griffiths like-for-like sounds obvious on paper, the impact in defence is devastating for an already small team.
In other words – any football team has a minimum “headering” requirement. It cannot be stressed enough quite how important this is in set-piece organisation. For Scotland to swap out #2 in the above list, for a player who’d fit in at 3rd bottom, is unequivocally not an option.
To further put into context this “height crisis”, we can compare to – for example – the most notoriously vertically challenged team in the world, Spain. Scotland’s XI versus Slovakia limbered up at 181cm on average, the same as the Spaniards in the 2014 World Cup final, who incidentally struggled at set-pieces during that game. A straight swap between Fletcher and Griffiths, and Scotland would actually average a few centimetres smaller.
The common regurgitation is that this only reinforces a classic Scottish self-loathing trope, that the little guy – no matter how technically gifted – is always held back in favour of mindless brute-force. Generally speaking this may be the case, but not here.
Once this fact is accepted, we can consider the knock-on reasons that Strachan fails to pick Griffiths.
Important side-note (height =/= good at heading)
Another common straw-man is that height does not equal being strong in the air. This is true. The relatively small (176cm) Fabio Cannavaro was an accomplished header of the ball, while closer to home Erik Sviatchenko (185cm) is extraordinary in the air (going back to Scotland’s problem, even Sviatchenko would only be the 6th tallest person in that Slovakia team).
There are plenty of prolific goal-scoring headers who aren’t particularly tall – Henrik Larsson maybe the finest, who is indeed the same height as Griffiths.
Headed goals however are a different breed – using speed and intelligence to out-wit the defensive line and re-direct a favourable cross.
This is contrary to what happens defending set-pieces. You are fending off a bigger, stronger, stationary target. The reacting defender rarely gets a running start nor is it the kind of cross to tap into a net.
So to summarise, yes, you will find plenty of examples of goal-scoring headers – including Griffiths. But this has little-to-no bearing on a defensive aspect (evidenced by the a complete lack of examples within zonal defences). As a general rule, height is a reliable indicator, and if not position (centre-backs and target-men are bred to head).
This is also why you won’t see anyone less than 6 foot defending the 6-yard line at a corner.
Again, it’s important to iterate that the problem is not the lack of Griffiths’ height per-se, it’s more the lack of strong defensive headers. In other words, if Griffiths were to come in, where would the aforementioned imperative height be found?
Flat-out 4-4-2’s aren’t particularly in favour these days, but some examples exist. France and especially Portugal has successful Euros, with Griezmann/Giroud and Nani/Ronaldo combinations respectively.
While Griezmann and Ronaldo have decent claims to be the best attackers in the world at the moment, it’s obvious why 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 at times) suits.
Iceland are perhaps a better example of a limited 4-4-2 team maximising their capabilities, albeit – and forgive the height obsession – even their 2 strikers; Sigthorsson and Bodvarsson are taller players than anything Scotland’s XI has to offer.
4-4-2 openly cedes possession in favour of directness, which unfortunately goes against everything Strachan had been working towards with his 4-2-3-1. 3 years of grand planning sought to have a solid defensive base with tricky technical guys like Snodgrass, Ritchie and Burke pulling strings in midfield.
In hindsight, of course this never happened. But it would be folly to think a long-term strategy can be torn up due to one result against Slovakia.
Strachan rarely digresses from two very closely related variations of 4-3-3. He has a more attacking, conventional 4-2-3-1 with a jewel in the crown behind a big striker (e.g. Shaun Maloney, or latterly Snodgrass or Burke). And a more conservative 4-1-4-1, usually including Bannan in the midfield 3 to control possession and provide creativity from deep. Charlie Adam may have once suited this role, and despite getting column inches recently is barely 7th choice midfielder.
Premier League regulars Snodgrass and Ritchie are also heavily relied on to add spark and chip in with goals. The two were woeful against Slovakia, and Strachan is unlikely to go with the relatively green Burke, as precocious a talent he is.
Scott Brown should come into the side having been in impreious form for club. He may not be a goal-scorer, and his inclusion will prompt the usual eye-rolling at Strachan calling on another old-faithful, but he should be an improvement on the lacklustre showing in Trnava.
Similarly Charlie Mulgrew’s call-up is barely worth discussion given he’s backup for the backups.