WITH Gordon Strachan’s debut done and dusted and the friendly business dispensed with, the nation’s focus now switches back to the competitive action and the forthcoming World Cup qualifier against Wales at Hampden.
But, in truth, that 22 March fixture was rarely far from the minds of the new Scotland gaffer and his squad while they sussed each other out last week.
“We talked about that and the systems [we will be] coming up against,” said Strachan. “We spent a couple of days thinking about the March games and it was only from Tuesday night that we started talking about Estonia.”
According to the manager, the emphasis is going to have to be on ball retention and players who can buy into that, assume responsibility and concentrate on their own jobs rather than fret about the credentials of opposition players.
The last time Scotland faced Wales, Gareth Bale and a slice of luck were the deciding factors when it came to who took the points. But, while Strachan can hope for greater fortune, he has no foolproof plans for halting the Spurs star.
“Gareth Bale is Gareth Bale. You are talking about one of the top players in the world just now,” said the Scotland boss. “I have been fortunate to watch him quite a bit in the last two years and I just think that sometimes he is unstoppable. I think he is that good. Man United approached it in a different way but sometimes you cannot stop him.”
Which is why Strachan wants to starve the much-vaunted midfielder of as much supply as possible.
The pair both served Southampton for several years but Strachan, who was the club’s manager from October 2001 until February 2004, says their paths did not cross at that time. “I just missed him. I had Theo Walcott. Good kids come through there. Fantastic. There has been a few and they have made a fortune from that academy. I mean a real fortune, if you actually think about the ones who left there – Dexter Blackstock, [Leon] Best, [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain.”
At the top of that graduate list, though, is Bale and while Strachan had no opportunity to work with him at St Mary’s, he has seen enough of the Welshman since to know the danger the 23-year-old poses to his hopes of a win in his first competitive match as the Scotland coach.
“I have never been at a game where he has not done anything. Whether it is a terrific run, a shot, a goal or something special, and I have seen him live 12 or 13 times. He is just a great, great player. But like anybody, you need the ball before you become unstoppable.”
That’s why the priority during last week’s training sessions was passing and possession play and why Strachan will continue to school his squad on the things he believes they need to do rather than concentrate too intently on what chinks exist elsewhere in the Welsh side.
In that regard, the likes of Chris Burke did his international prospects no harm against Estonia. Brought back into the fold by Strachan, he used his 45 minutes of action to impress, proving one of the best at retaining the ball, as well as offering a creative spark.
“Yeah, he kept possession well,” said Strachan. “He was brave. People think bravery is all about running, about banging into people. But it can be about taking the ball in and taking a kick. There were a lot of fouls but you have to be able to take a foul.”
In the build-up to the Estonian game, the gamble had been in gauging just how much training ground time should be dedicated to getting the new gaffer’s message across, and running through routines that would ram that home. “It was a new manager, new ideas, so it’s been enjoyable,” said James Morrison. “He’s very funny and I know the lads enjoyed the week. He just wanted us to get on the ball, pass it, get the ball to the front four. Sometimes we did that and if we keep on working on it, then it will come.”
The biggest disadvantage faced by the national coach is that his time with the players is limited but Strachan said he had been pleased with their response, adding that the training and the match had also served as something of a welcome eye-opener as he plots the way ahead.
“I think you are always pleasantly surprised when you see good players playing. When I saw [James] McArthur and [James] Morrison coming on you think ‘oh he is a good player. He can play the ball and take the ball – he is good.’ But, at that time in the game, it had maybe died down a little bit in the middle of the park, so there was maybe a little more space.”
Having enlisted the help of some of Aberdeen’s young players, Strachan says he placed a lot of emphasis on running through drills with his strikeforce, working on ways to press higher up the park, swiftly closing down the opposition and making sure his players are ready to pounce when they regain territory and possession. But, with time limited, he is already looking forward to the extra time a full international break affords him on the coaching field.
“It will be good but then you have got to say ‘how much can we do in that time?’ It is [even more of] a gamble. It is OK in the friendly where you know you can do a wee bit more in training because you know you can change six.”
Morrison insists the players are determined to dig deep, though, aware that they cannot be fully absolved of blame for recent competitive results, even if he does believe, like his previous and current managers, that Scotland were hard done to the last time they met Wales in this campaign, in Cardiff.
“Obviously it hasn’t gone very well in the group. We were expected to do better but it hasn’t been the case. We’ve got a new challenge – to put that right. I know it wasn’t just [former manager] Craig [Levein]’s fault. We were on the pitch and we’re to blame ourselves. We take the stick for that,” concedes the West Bromwich Albion midfielder. “We know there’s been a lot of damage done but we can always put it right and look forward to the next campaign. Wales is next, it’ll be another tough game. We are still feeling a bit aggrieved about the way the away fixture went. At Hampden, I think we should have enough to beat them.”
Four days after hosting Wales, Scotland will be away to Serbia, with the next scheduled fixture an awkward trip to Croatia in June. The timing is far from ideal, with the Championship season due to end more than a month before that fixture, leaving Strachan mulling over how best to keep so many of his squad ticking over.
“We are still deliberating,” he said, revealing that there are one or two possibilities, including squeezing in a friendly fixture or a foreign training camp. “The Championship guys have got a month’s break before that game comes round, and it is hard because you would like to keep them ticking over and we do have quite a good proportion coming from that league.
“Do we rest? Do we give those players a game? But then maybe the ones who are going to play against Croatia might not even play in that because they might not need a game, because they are the ones who have still been playing games [at Barclays Premier League or Scottish Premier League level]. So then it becomes a match for a number of guys who are maybe not going to play against Croatia. It’s a tough one but we will try to work it out.”