GORDON STRACHAN may have left us playing guessing games ahead of Scotland’s Hampden double header against Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. But, regardless of the personnel he chooses to deploy, there is one firmly established certainty when it comes to the national team under his management.
Whether it is world champions Germany or Uefa newcomers Gibraltar, Strachan will not be moved from the 4-2-3-1 system he has introduced to such encouraging effect over the past two years.
There may be a degree of experimentation in tonight’s challenge match against Northern Ireland, with possible international debuts for Aberdeen defender Mark Reynolds and Bournemouth wide man Matt Ritchie. But there is no consideration being given by Strachan to significantly altering his preferred strategy ahead of Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifier against the Group D whipping boys from the British Overseas territory on the southern tip of Spain.
As he bids to guide Scotland to a first major finals appearance since 1998, Strachan is determined to retain the levels of contentment and continuity he has created among his squad during a recent run of just two defeats in their last 11 games.
“We did a bit of work on Monday with the players on what we’ll be doing from Thursday onwards in preparing for Gibraltar so it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” said Strachan.
“But from Tuesday morning, it was all about what we are going to do against Northern Ireland and there won’t be anything different about our system for this one. I don’t think we should be chopping and changing in terms of the system, because it makes it easier for the players when they know what they are doing. You don’t want them wondering about this sort of thing every time they turn up.”
Pressed on whether he may tinker slightly with his formation against Gibraltar, who have conceded 21 goals in their four group games so far, Strachan hinted he will retain a lone striker with three attacking midfielders behind him.
“If you look at most of our goals now, they come from the three behind the main striker,” he added. “They are scoring more goals because the player up front is getting more support and there is more movement all round.
“It’s very hard to call the one man who plays up front a striker. He is a forward or a landing area now, like Diego Costa at Chelsea. But some of them are only scoring 15 goals a season these days.
“The three behind score all sorts of goals and that’s the same at Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and others.
“That’s the way the game is going now. I don’t think there is a 40-goals-a-season man out there, really. The Gary Linekers and the Ian Rushs, they’re not there any more. We don’t really have strike pairings, with the likes of Bryan Robson getting into the box in support of them. The game is changing.”
That is a change with Jordan Rhodes has most notably had to adapt to in order to revive his Scotland career. The prolific Blackburn Rovers striker is back in Strachan’s plans for the first time in 16 months.
“We’ve evolved as well as a team since Jordan last played for us,” said Strachan.
“It could be that the way we play might suit players now that we might not have suited two years ago. The way we play now helps strikers more than the way we played back then.
“What we’ve seen of Jordan recently has been smashing. He was always going to score goals – the question was does he have the intelligence to improve? What I’ve seen from him this morning was good again.
“People talk about him being left out of some of our squads but you have to remember, he is not always a regular for his club. Even this season he has been left out of certain games by Blackburn. So it’s not like I’m the only manager who leaves him out.
“Jordan has been terrific about it. You always try and speak to the lads you leave out the squad. As long as they’ve got a clear idea and you don’t leave them with a grey area, it’s fine.
“Sometimes it can be a problem being honest about players. You don’t want to talk too much about someone who is not really your player. It’s not beneficial for him.
“He’s got to go back to his club and it’s not up to me to say what his weakness is. But that weakness might only be a weakness in my team.
“It’s like Stevie May – at this moment in time he’s not getting a regular game for Sheffield Wednesday. But we play a different style so it’s beneficial for me to have him. So it works both ways.
“I’m not saying the Sheffield Wednesday manager is wrong – it’s just that Stevie is not needed in his system at the moment.”
One quality Strachan does not lack among his squad is genuine enthusiasm for the task in hand. He was left both amazed and gratified by their application and commitment in training yesterday.
“I had four things I wanted to do with them which should ideally be done over a four-day period,” he said.
“But I had to cram them into one day and wasn’t sure we could push the players to do it all. But I kid you not, after I did the four things, the players would happily have gone on for another half hour.
“We couldn’t believe the intensity of the training – it’s amazing because some of them have already played 40 games this season but not one of them was giving an inch on either side
“It was terrific and, if we can take that into the game tomorrow then we’ll be fine,” added Strachan.
“I almost had to calm them down and make a few adjustments just so that we could all get a breather.”