GORDON Strachan’s Scotland, of late, have been stunningly solid, supremely successful, but hardly swashbuckling.
The national manager appears hopeful he has three musketeers who might be able to help change that latter fact as the Euro 2016 qualifiers hove into view. Among the raft of impressive aspects to the midweek 1-0 friendly win in Poland is that Shaun Maloney, James Forrest and Robert Snodgrass, the trio he sees as being capable of adding several dimensions to Scotland’s attack, were injury absentees.
The three players have only formed the forward line behind the front man in Strachan’s 4-2-3-1 system once in his tenure: the 3-2 defeat by England at Wembley in August. The run Scotland have since embarked on, which has allowed them to clock up four wins in a five-game unbeaten run, four straight clean sheets, and three consecutive away wins, has delivered a continuity of outcome in the face of numerous personnel changes in forward areas. One of these, Strachan considers, is potentially game-changing above all others.
“In modern football, it is the three behind the striker that are the most important people in the game,” Strachan ventures. “If you look at Chelsea, their strikers aren’t scoring goals but they are top of the league because of the three behind them. They are the most important people in football now.”
Strachan has numerous options for such a trio – Barry Bannan, Ross McCormack and Ikechi Anya formed that attacking line on Wednesday – but he makes no bones about the importance of Maloney, Snodgrass and Forrest in how he wants to play. Maloney was a transformative player for Strachan long before he took the Scotland job, of course. In the course of the two last-16 Champions League successes he achieved at Celtic, only once did the Glasgow club win a game by more than a goal, and this just happened to be when Maloney inspired them to a 3-0 victory over Benfica in September 2006.
Out since requiring hip surgery just after he had curled in the free-kick to bring Scotland a victory in Macedonia last September, the clever ball player is now back in training. Strachan doesn’t disguise how desperate he is to have him in his squad for the friendly with Nigeria on 28 May that will complete Scotland’s playing preparations ahead of facing Germany on Sunday, 7 September, in a Euro 2016 qualifier opener. “Listen, if he is anywhere near fit…” Strachan said. “He texted me the other day to say he is back in training and is feeling sharp. As soon as he has played a few games he will be back in our squad.”
The delicate nature of Maloney’s body has been a deep source of frustration for the 30-year-old. The player who effectively replaced him at Celtic, Forrest, will understand the frustrations. The forcing forward is proving all-too-susceptible to niggles in this early part of his career. The 22-year-old’s appearance at Wembley is the only cap he has earned under Strachan, who is mighty keen to harness a pace and power he has no substitute for among his other options. Forrest was all set to earn his tenth cap in Warsaw only for his fragile fitness to result in him being withdrawn as a precaution.
“The lad wanted to play but we can’t take any chances, that is for sure,” Strachan said. “We got our heads together with Celtic and the medical staff here. It is a pity because he is desperate to play and he will add something to our attacking options. He has got that passion to beat people in that area just behind the main striker. That is the most important position now.”
In recent months, Snodgrass has become one of Strachan’s most important performers. The Norwich City attacker scored in both the victories over Croatia.
Strachan is pointedly aware of the need for more goals, or the creation of more scoring opportunities. The fact Scotland could only muster four shots on target across their last 180 minutes does not tell the whole story for the national manager but he knows the winning formula of recent games won’t be repeatable when his men meet Germany.
“We already know before we get on the plane that we’re playing one of the best teams in the world,” said Strachan, who will get the chance to assess Joachim Low’s side at the World Cup finals in Brazil this summer courtesy of his analyst work with ITV. “We can’t just sit against them. Scoring a goal would make a huge difference and how do we improve trying to do that is something we will look to do in the next six months. Well, we will improve it by having Forrest, Maloney, Snodgrass – three attacking players – and if anyone else develops over the next six months that would be great again.”
Strachan takes a pragmatic line over the fact that he seems to work magic in being able to construct a number of back fours capable of repelling all opponents’ advances. “[Getting clean sheets is the] easiest thing to do when the game comes to you,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of away games. But I am happy with a lot of aspects of our play and a lot of individual performances. We are working on our retention of the ball, passing through people, get individuals to take people on, overlaps and we’ll work on all that in training. But I have to say, throughout my history of coaching, defending is a lot easier, that’s for sure.”
What was never going to be easy was simply rebuilding the confidence and enthusiasm for international football that had endured one of those all-too-regular periods of grievous waning in the year before his arrival. And, results aside, he has transformed those elements and the number of options he has at his disposal. Again, he seeks no credit for the emergence of players for positions they were never previously seriously considered for.
“I think if you look over the last six months we have added [Gordon] Greer, Kech [Ikechi Anya], Andy Robertson, people like that. David Marshall has really put himself forward now. So there are decisions to make now. It wasn’t so hard [on that front] six months ago. Charlie Mulgrew has come to the fore. He has been terrific. James McArthur has been left out; Craig Bryson has been left out, so that central midfield looks strong again.”
And strength in attack is a promise to come.