Written by Ramsay Banks
After Scotland’s 1-1 draw against Austria in their first qualifier for the 2022 World Cup, Scotland midfielder Scott McTominay spoke to the press. He announced that the Tartan Army are constantly told to have “that self-confidence and arrogance in the way that we approach games”. This is the right mentality- Scotland have the best group of players they’ve had in their arsenal for a long time. Despite this though, our results and general playstyle don’t mimic that of a country with qualification expectations, bar the win against the Faroe Islands.
Before I criticise, I think it’s important to note that the atmosphere around the Scotland National Team has always been somewhat negative, what with managerial uncertainty, accusations of bias in team selection, frequent scapegoating and so on. As a Scotland fan I’ve always tried to err on the side of positivity, and I still do, but it’s clear to see that we’re in real danger of wasting this outstanding crop of talent Steve Clarke has at his fingertips. Here are some reasons why.
Overwhelmingly negative football
Now, I’m a huge advocate for defensive football, and I don’t think three at the back formations are inherently negative. It’s the actions of the players within the formation that are concerning.
Out of possession, Scotland have 10 men behind the ball- they don’t put the opposition under any pressure. This allows any team, regardless of talent, to pass the ball around until they find an opening. In games against Austria and Israel, this conceded us goals, both coming from long range shots (one tapped in from Marshall’s parry and one scored directly).
Long shots going in is largely seen as an anomaly but Scotland will face both Croatia and England in the European Championship group stages. Both teams have players who are even more capable from range than Scotland’s World Cup qualifying opponents. I can say with near absolute certainty that if we park the bus at the Euros, without any semblance of pressure on the ball, then we’ll crash out. I appreciate we’re one of the underdogs of our group, but we still have the potential to go through, so I’d like to see us play with more than a shred of belief.
Speaking of belief, our team only seems to have any in their ability to attack when they’re a goal down. The way Scotland spring to life after conceding shows that they have both fight and ability in abundance, but the fact they only shake off the lethargy when this happens is very frustrating to watch. Clarke tends to field very energetic players, so the lack of a press and lack of intent on the ball until we’re chasing the game is bemusing. This needs to change.
Failure to stamp authority
This point links back to the last one slightly, but could unfortunately present a brand new problem. Some may see this as harsh, but I feel that Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay and John McGinn, among others, failed to make their markers work to keep them contained over the international break.
Of course, some of these players had their high points- McGinn scored thrice despite my feelings that his overall play was poor, McTominay at least attempted to take the games by the scruff of the neck unlike others, and Robertson was largely rock solid while putting in a defensive shift.
If we’re to pick up points at the Euros however, these players need to perform at the levels they have in the past- Robertson, despite offering defensive stability when Tierney (brilliantly) bombs forward, is capable of contributing more to the attack, McTominay quite simply needs to stop giving the ball away so cheaply and McGinn needs to be the risk taker, as despite his impressive goalscoring he went missing for large chunks of these past qualifiers.
I can bemoan Clarke’s tactical setup all I want (and I maintain he got it wrong against Austria and Israel), but if key players don’t perform near to their best, Scotland will be nullified no matter the system. Of course, the system could be the very reason these players were below par. This uncertainty is why every single member of the Scotland camp, from the manager to the players, must be conscious of their imperfections and strive to improve.
Where do Scotland stand going into the Euros?
While Scotland got through the massive task of facing Serbia in the playoffs to reach the Euros, they did it the hard way, and their ability to manage big games is largely untested. Every game in the Euros is obviously big- only having three initial matches means the prospect of getting through the group can slip away unnervingly quickly.
Due to their lack of a press, Scotland find themselves on the back foot a lot, and their attackers being behind the ball means that there isn’t a release up the pitch when they win it back. There is an element of error-proneness in the Scotland defence that means soaking up long periods of pressure isn’t sustainable, especially against world class teams. Again, I’m a huge advocate for defensive football, but I think Steve Clarke and his men sometimes need to remember that the opposition can’t score if the ball is in the opposition half.
All these factors have me apprehensive about the upcoming tournament. Of course, I can’t wait- Scotland’s first appearance at a major tournament in 23 years is a huge occasion. It’s the potential for the Tartan Army to go out with a whimper that’s so worrying.
It’s a monumental opportunity, let’s get stuck in with a roar.