SUCH was the reaction in some quarters to Kenny Miller’s retirement from international football last month, Gordon Strachan might have briefly wondered if he had just been deprived of the services of a striker akin to Denis Law or Kenny Dalglish.
“Kenny has taken on mythical proportions since he’s left,” smiled Strachan yesterday as he assessed his front-line options for tonight’s match against Belgium and beyond in the absence of the man whose work ethic and willingness to plough a lone furrow was so valued by a succession of Scotland managers.
For all that Miller’s contribution to the cause was admirable, signing off with his memorable goal against England at Wembley last month, no-one would describe him as irreplaceable. But Strachan does believe Miller’s absence may necessitate a change of strategy in the attacking third of the pitch for Scotland. “Kenny was his own type of player,” added Strachan. “The players who have come in are different. I think Kenny, especially away from home, was very important to Scotland, but this is a home game.
“It might be something different, a different sort of game. The Belgian international side is a big, physical side but they can pass and they can create. So what you can’t do is play them at their own game.
“It’s probably right to say there is no-one for the Kenny Miller role, because there’s not many people who can play up front on their own. So you don’t leave them on their own, one way or another. You don’t isolate them, you try to get people around them.
“Does that mean two strikers? Whatever you want to call them. You’ve just got to play the players. You can’t call yourself a striker if you don’t strike.
“The system is not going to change too much. I’m not going to chop and change too much. We’ve not got enough time to keep doing that every time we meet up. You’re just tweaking it slightly and making sure that, if you do play a lone striker, that you don’t want to make him alone.
“There are different ways of doing it. It’s like the Germans. They play with three strikers. They have one up front and one steps in from the side. The Swiss do it a different way. There are different ways of making sure you get somebody around him. It takes a wee while to get it right, but I saw things at training yesterday and I thought ‘that’s not too bad’.
Jordan Rhodes and Leigh Griffiths probably head the list of contenders to lead the line for Scotland tonight. Whoever gets the nod from Strachan, he does not want them to believe it is primarily because of Miller’s departure from the scene.
“I hope they wouldn’t think like that,” he added. “I like to think that they could get in with Kenny still being about. He’s up there with the icons of Scottish strikers now, through his hard work and his willingness to learn and get better.
“We should remember that. Steven Fletcher is probably the best all-round player we’ve got and we’ve had to do without him, so that’s hard.”
Despite his assistant Mark McGhee having lobbied for a late call-up for Fletcher, who made a scoring return from injury for Sunderland as a substitute against Crystal Palace last weekend, Strachan never considered it.
“Not at all,” he said. “They [Sunderland] would need to call us. I think he has only played a half. If he wanted to play or the club wanted him to play, they need to get in touch. It’s not up to us. They probably want to say ‘right, okay, he has played a couple of games’. We want to make sure he is ready for the next one.”
Strachan also has issues to contend with at the other end of the pitch as he attempts to combat a formidable Belgian side ranked amongst the favourites to win the 2014 World Cup.
The Scotland manager’s satisfaction with large parts of last month’s friendly against England was soured by the lapses in focus defensively at set pieces which saw his team fritter away a winning position. He has spent much of his time this week working with his back four.
“You show people one or two things,” he said. “Sometimes when you come together for set plays, there are three ways you can do it. Everybody man for man marking, everybody zonal or some people do a bit of man for man and a bit of zonal. So you actually have three different cultures and you have to work out what is best for everybody.
“I always remember when I was Celtic manager, Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus going away with Scotland and coming back saying, ‘we were man for man, I’m not comfortable with that, I don’t like it’. So you have to find something that everybody is comfortable with.
“It’s not going to be any different at free-kicks, it will be zonal as everybody does, or most clubs do. You can’t give too much away, I can’t give Belgium too much. But we know what we are going to do, that’s for sure.
“Against England, I felt sorry for the players who put so much into it in terms of preparation, the way they went about training and actually playing the game, only for the concentration side to let them down.
“The way we played otherwise was good. That’s the expectation now, that we have to do more and especially at home. It’s actually about doing more without leaving big gaps at the back, because this Belgian team will exploit you.”
Scotland 2 Belgium 2 (Friendly, January 1946)
Belgium were seconds from becoming the first foreign team to win on British soil when Jimmy Delaney levelled with a penalty awarded by Scots referee Joe Jackson.
Scotland 2 Belgium 0 (Friendly, April 1948)
Scotland avenged defeat in Belgium the previous year thanks to goals from Hibernian’s Bobby Combe and East Fife’s Davie Duncan.
Scotland 1 Belgium 0 (European Championship qualifier, February 1971)
The match had been moved to Pittodrie in a bid to intimidate a tough Belgian side who had triumphed 3-0 in the first group meeting, and 36,500 watched Derby forward John O’Hare’s early header hand Tommy Docherty victory in his second game as manager.
Scotland 1 Belgium 3 (European Championship qualifier, December 1979)
Belgium put three first-half goals past Alan Rough on their way to runners-up spot in the 1980 European Championship. Nottingham Forest winger John Robertson hit a consolation for Jock Stein’s men.
Scotland 1 Belgium 1 (European Championship qualifier, October 1983)
Charlie Nicholas earned Scotland a draw with a second-half equaliser after a one-two with Kenny Dalglish.
Scotland 2 Belgium 0 (European Championship qualifier, April 1987)
Scotland avenged a 4-1 defeat in Brussels thanks to Ally McCoist’s volley and a Paul McStay strike.
Scotland 2 Belgium 2 (World Cup qualifier, March 2001)
A painful memory for Scotland fans. After Billy Dodds scored twice, a Marc Wilmots strike brought the visitors back into the game. Then, in the last minute, Daniel van Buyten’s header gave ten-man Belgium the equaliser, which swung the balance of qualification in the visitors’ favour before they and Croatia qualified for Japan and South Korea.