ANY desire for Gordon Strachan to experiment in Poland tonight has been dulled not by the fact the Warsaw hosts are also Euro 2016 rivals, but by what happened the last time the Scotland manager did so.
“I tried to do things a wee bit differently in Norway and that lasted about half an hour,” Strachan said of the fortunate 1-0 win his team registered in November’s Oslo friendly, their last international outing. “The system didn’t allow us to bed in, theirs threw us in the first part of the game. I hadn’t seen a team play with so many players going forward as they did that night. I watched the game again this week and it was the strangest international game I’ve ever seen. They played with two old-fashioned strikers with wide men and full-backs getting in the box. It was so strange. But it was a great lesson for us.”
Setting up lessons for learning with his players in the lead-up to their assignment in Warsaw has been bothersome for Strachan, even when this week is the second-last time he will be able to gather together his men before the start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers in September.
“We have done a lot of work on this over the last year or so but I just feel this particular trip is not really long enough,” said the Scotland manager. “It’s like a wee break, a wee holiday, and there is not enough training time. So when we were working on Monday we had to cram three sessions into one. Where you would want to spend an hour on one thing, you’ve got to do three things in that time. So you’re cramming an hour’s work into 20 minutes and then moving on quickly.”
Whatever unfolds this evening, both Scotland and Poland will look to move on quickly. As with Strachan, Adam Nawalka has decisions to make in key areas of his team. The 57-year-old, who took charge in the last week of October, has recalled Southampton’s former Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc to intensify the competition for this area, where he can also call on Arsenal duo Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny. Strachan, of course, has to decide between his own English Premier League excellers in this department, in Hull’s Allan McGregor and Cardiff’s David Marshall.
At the other end of the pitch, the two managers have also similar matters to ponder. However, in the case of Nawalka, only because Bayern Munich-bound Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski has been ruled out with a knee injury. Poland have forwards with varying, but not standout, claims to the centre-forward role. Strachan’s assistant Mark McGhee admitted last week that no player had “nailed down” this berth in the Scotland side, with Steven Naismith, Steven Fletcher, Leigh Griffiths and Ross McCormack all possibles tonight. Yet, even if he could feature wide-left in Warsaw’s national stadium, the Everton forward Naismith believes whatever the questions over any Scot’s suitability to play through the middle on his own, he can provide answers.
“In the last couple of months I’ve been involved quite a bit and been doing well,” said the 27-year-old, who has scored four times in his last seven appearances for Roberto Martinez’s men. “The manager has played me more central: whether as a main striker, or off a striker. I’ve always said that’s where I am most comfortable and I’ve managed to take the chance.
“Playing up front for Scotland was probably the start of other people noticing that I can do that. These days, especially when teams play one striker, a lot of people will look for size. But I’ve always been confident that I can play in that role. When the manager played me there against Macedonia [in the 2-1 win in September] it showed a lot of people that I can do that job. I played against Croatia [in October], scored and contributed again. That maybe made people more aware that I can play that role well.
“I think I’ve put my case forward. Definitely. But one thing I’ve learned from Roberto Martinez this season is that you need everybody. It’s going to be like that, whether Fletch [Steven Fletcher] is injured or the manager wants to play someone else. It’s not a case of him picking one striker to go with in every game. The games are different and we will play in a different way.
“Ross McCormack has also been doing well at Leeds. He is scoring goals and leading the club as captain. That can only help us as a squad and a country. There is so much competition. Not only up front but in midfield too, with Darren Fletcher coming back. In my international career, this is as hard a squad to get in as there has ever been.”
Naismith considers that the guidance of Martinez has allowed him to learn more across the Spaniard’s eight months at the Everton helm than the attacker did under any previous manager.
A very sizeable ghost of Scotland past has also been aiding Naismith’s development, however, in the shape of one Duncan Ferguson. The infamous Scotland refusnik and former jailbird is now a coach at the Goodison Park club where he achieved exalted status, and has taken Naismith under his wing.
“He’s been about a lot and has been great. Duncan is a massive figure at the club in terms of the fans,” Naismith said. “He brings a lot of passion and I’ve enjoyed the small things he does. We do shooting drills with Duncan. He takes a lot of it and has been good to work with. He was always someone I looked up to. I vaguely remember him at Rangers, but more his Everton career. The fans love him. Everybody talks about ‘Big Dunc this’ and ‘Big Dunc that’. The club’s most recent success came when he was in the team. The Evertonians still remember that.
“He’s actually a really quiet guy and he doesn’t give much away until you sit down with him and have a good talk. We’ve not gone into too much detail about the Scotland stuff. It’s been more general chats about his life. There’s a different side to him.”
As a player, grim circumstances may have prevented Ferguson having the impact for his country his talents should have assured. As a coach to Naismith, he might yet be able to assist the national cause.