THE opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany at Dortmund’s 65,000 Westfalenstadion in September might not seem the perfect fit for a 20-year-old attacking full-back with only one Scotland start to his name.
When Gordon Strachan sits down to decide the next, and most important, team selection of his 18-month tenure, it won’t enter his thinking that Andrew Robertson’s suitability could be scuppered by the need for solidity.
The Dundee United defender turned in an impressive display in the 2-2 draw with Nigeria in midweek. He looked firmly at home on the international stage, just as he had when he made his debut as a substitute in the March win away to Poland. Robertson’s industry and link-up play represent tenets of the Strachan strategy that the Scotland manager seems unwilling to sacrifice even for the most difficult assignments.
“We’ve seen it before that people think solid is being six foot two, running fast and looking like a huge presence on the field,” he says. “But because of an inability to pass the ball to your team-mates, you’re a weakness. The biggest thing in international football – in all top football – is ability to control the ball and be brave on the ball. That means the longer you’ve got it, the less chance they’ve got to score.”
Robertson doesn’t fall short when it comes to control, passing and bravery, and demonstrated these capabilities at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night. Indeed, Nigeria’s break down Scotland’s left that led to their added-time equaliser came 13 minutes after the youngster had been replaced by Craig Forsyth. Strachan says there was satisfaction all round at the United player’s efforts.
“I saw a smile on his face, which was good. We enjoyed what we saw. He got a wee bit tired towards the end and he was feeling it in his calves and what we didn’t want to do was have him strain something so that it was a problem for him and his team. It was the same with Kech [Ikechi Anya]. You could see that the guys had had a few weeks off and we didn’t want to send anybody back with an injury, that’s for sure.”
Injuries, in a more general sense, would not appear to hold the same fears for Scotland followers. The evolution of the squad is such that Strachan feels he has a stability wherein there are “30 to 35” players he can feel comfortable about. He now has acceptable-looking cover for most positions.
“I think we’re getting more rounded,” he says. “We’re not as fragmented, with people coming in left, right and centre. I like it now. We have a decent group of lads. You’ve got Robertson, you’ve got Charlie [Mulgrew] who can play at left-back as well. The two right-backs are good, the centre-halves are getting better.
“We always like more competition – that’s fantastic – but we’ve still got the Fletchers [Darren and Steven], [Robert] Snodgrass, Russell Martin; these type of people to come in. So that’s good, but the most important thing is that they want to be part of the group and they want to get better as part of the group.”
One man who must love being a Scotland player more than most is Alan Hutton. In the past, his enthusiasm for playing for his country was questioned because he had a habit of calling off from friendlies. Then, though, he was a £9 million Tottenham Hotspur player. Now, he is an unwanted Aston Villa player, who has required loan deals to see any senior club football in the past two seasons. Even then, he has hardly been over-worked. A six-month stint at Bolton brought nine appearances – so he has played the same number of internationals as club games in the past year. Strachan says he has never known such a scenario.
“I can’t remember playing with any other international team-mate who plays [on average] once a month. [To play regularly for a club] for him, it would be great. I’ve got to say that I’d be scared to think how good he’d be if he was. Maybe a game every month is good for him because he’s been absolutely fantastic.”
The thrill of the new, as well as the old, extended beyond Robertson in London. New cap Chris Martin showed himself to be a different type of forward from the others on Scotland’s roster. The ball sticks when played to the Derby County man, and he could create many possibilities for Strachan’s side.
“The hardest place to keep possession is up front but it’s also the most important,” says the national manager. “If that ball stays there then you’ll see James Morrison and others making runs to support him and getting round about him. Chris is good at bringing the ball into play and, as a midfielder, it helps to know – when you’re making those runs – that the ball is being looked after.
“You have the freedom in your mind to get forward. You think: ‘I’m going to join this guy because he can keep the ball’. With the midfielders we have it’s imperative that we also have strikers who can do that. And remember, we still have Steven Fletcher to come back and we hope he returns to full fitness.”