After scraping a draw with Lithuania on Saturday, tonight was meant to be an opportunity not just to make amends, but to justify Gordon Strachan’s obstinacy. Not just tactically, sticking steadfastly to the 4-2-3-1 ushered in against Estonia, his first match in charge back in February 2013. But an equal bullheadedness in opting for experience over youth. Tried and tested over ambition. Fear over hope.
While it’s another argument entirely quite how Scotland have ended up with such poor defensive players (save for extraordinary depth at left-back). Grant Hanley was largely responsible for the goal conceded on Saturday, spraying a hospital pass to the touchline and then losing concentration. And he’s been consistently poor. The best thing said about Russell Martin is he isn’t noticeably awful, while Callum Patterson – despite being young and likely to improve – is clearly out of his depth.
Defence – especially central defence – has historically been a Scottish forte, so the SFA must look inwards as to why the country cannot produce another McLeish, Hansen or even Hendry.
The same can be said between the goalposts – there are no obvious heirs to Craig Gordon (33) and David Marshall (31).
In front of the defence sat a wilted Darren Fletcher, commendably battling back from serious illness recently, but surely not anywhere near the same player, evidenced by slack passing and being at fault for Slovakia’s opener.
Still, these individuals have a decent reputation at their clubs, plying their trade at decent levels. The responsibility falls on the manager for failing to galvanise what on paper appears to be a reasonably competent set of players.
Forward lack of ambition
Before the match, Strachan felt Oliver Burke – a glimmer of light against Lithuania with his direct and powerful running – too inexperienced to play away from home. He instead opted for Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass on the wings. Normally dependable players, but hardly direct and dynamic compared to Burke. The two in fact had their worst performances in a Scotland jersey, further emphasising the question of how a player in James Forrest’s form couldn’t start either match.
Most predictable of all in this “experienced” lineup, was the use of a targetman, but instead of Chris Martin the manager selected Steven Fletcher, someone who again featured in Strachan’s first match in charge. Plus ca change!
The decision relegated Leigh Griffiths – Scotland’s in-form striker – to a role Jordan Rhodes has been grudgingly familiar with – that of a last-ditch game-chaser. Strachan has an unshaking commitment to the system over the individual; the idea that the team cannot operate without a big and strong player up top to hold up the ball.
Ronny Deila fell into a similar trap with Celtic, having failed to find a suitable targetman, he eventually admitted defeat and used Griffiths alone up front. The proof was in the eating of the pudding, with Griffiths scoring 41 goals in 50 matches – contradicting the idea that you need to be big to work as a lone striker.
When making such bold and unpopular team selections, you will live or die by results. The prickliness with the media exacerbated this further, and echoed his time at Middlesbrough and Celtic. At Celtic, Strachan had the luxury of results to back up his controversial team selections. Things like playing Gary Caldwell in midfield, persisting with “favourites” like Paul Telfer, or going with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink as a lone striker in Europe. How familiar.
But for Scotland, these unpopular decisions have been underpinned by bad results. In the campaign for Euro 2016, there were undoubted elements of misfortune. But in the dour showings against Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia we’ve been shown a stubbornness that’s continuing to cost dear.
In the last two matches we’ve seen the conservative approach yield early goals conceded (14 and 18 minutes respectively). The system isn’t designed to chase games so early, and the flatness is tangible.
When Strachan took over, he sought to mimic Germany’s style – a sharp, dynamic 4-2-3-1, getting clever players between the lines, inside forwards cutting in and creating chances. But, as time wore on, we’ve leaned heavier and heavier on ageing players and erred towards the conservative.
Prospects like Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Oliver Burke suggests that there might be an exciting, attacking future ahead yet, but a future surely without Strachan. In the face of such poor results and performances, his infamous indignance leaves him in an untenable position.