IF THE victory over Republic of Ireland was a way of gauging just how far the Scottish national team has come in recent times, defeat at the hands of England was a timely reminder that the journey is far from complete.
But, if that signalled frustration for the fans, manager Gordon Strachan’s dissatisfaction has more to do with his desire to rectify the issues raised during Tuesday’s education at the hands of the Auld Enemy and the realisation he won’t be able to do that until the new year.
The next opportunity might have been the Euro qualifier against Group D minnows Gibraltar at the end of March but, in the build-up to that fixture, Strachan is considering a friendly – likely to be against Northern Ireland, although there are a few nations vying for the honour – to address some of the problems raised against Roy Hodgson’s team.
“Tuesday was disappointing for everybody but you can look into it and say: ‘OK – what lessons did we learn there?’” said the Scotland boss, stating that it wasn’t necessarily a lesson in football. “It’s hard because you want to talk to the players after the game, but it’s hard for an international manager because, when you look at it again, you think: ‘Oh, I’ve seen this or I’ve seen that’ because there are different angles on television. It’s a pity we didn’t have another 24 hours together.
“As a manager you would say after another 24 hours: ‘OK, we’ve had a look at it, analysed it. This is where we could have done better. That’s what they did…’ But you can’t speak to the players because they’ve disappeared. That’s the problem. You have to wait four months before you can speak to the players. You can’t go around the clubs individually with a video recording and say: ‘Have a look at this.’ That’s the only downside because to analyse a game within ten minutes is not easy.
“We said to the young players to look at the intensity of players like Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, said to look at the likes of them because that’s what they have to strive to be and you don’t get there through sheer talent, it takes work, loads more work. But there were different things said to different groups of players.”
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Although the England defeat was sore, with the manner of the loss and the drop in the level of performance particularly hard for Strachan to swallow, he said he tried to retain a sense of perspective, given the quality of the display against Ireland in the more important game, and send the players off with positivity ringing in their ears in the hope that they will indulge in their own introspection ahead of the next round of qualifiers.
“I can reflect on the whole year and say: ‘Yeah – you can be really pleased with the gang.’ I think we’ve done well – they’ve all done well.
“I thought we had a better understanding of each other, how we play and what we are trying to do. I think England looked at us and thought: ‘They are a good side, they can pass the ball, so let’s get right on top of them.’
“I think that, in itself, was a compliment to our players, but also a good lesson because we will have good, good teams coming to play us at home and what we have got to do now is say: ‘OK, if that happens again, this is what we do’. It was a lesson I didn’t want, but it could be invaluable.”
The decision on who will be the friendly foes is expected this week but, with two vital qualifiers before the end of the season, the Scotland manager wants to reignite the winning form and head into those fixtures with momentum. Gibraltar may have played four and lost four so far in the campaign, but Strachan knows they could be stodgy.
“They’re funny games, these ones. It’s at the back of your mind that you should win it, but there’s always the wee devil on your shoulder telling you: ‘This could be a long night.’ I remember going to San Marino once with a good Scotland side and we never scored until the 63rd minute. We got a penalty and someone luckily scraped it into the back of the net. And, by the way, that’s the biggest pressure I’ve ever had, taking a penalty against a bus driver from San Marino!”
The pressure that accompanies the tag of overwhelming favourites will be different to the difficulties posed when wrapping up the season in Ireland, possibly six weeks after the end of some of the squad’s club campaigns. Strachan is concerned, but has his fingers crossed that as many as possible are involved in the play-offs to minimise that issue, while also considering a plan B and C. “We dealt with it OK at the Croatia game last year. It’s a concern, though, because we do have a lot of players in the Championship when most leagues in the world go on for two or three weeks after that. It gives us something to think about, whether we get an international game to bring the guys who’ve not played for a while up to speed, that’s something we’ll have to consider just now.”
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