ON THE flight to Skopje last Sunday, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan and his backroom staff compiled a list of players who could be relied upon to do a job for the national side.
By the time they were heading in the opposite direction – less than three days later – at least two more names had been added to that roster.
The recent progress Strachan has made can be measured not only in results – the latest of which was their 2-1 win against Macedonia on Tuesday – but in the number of options available to him. Without a transfer market in which to buy players, he has been innovative enough to manufacture them.
Ikechi Anya is the most obvious example. After his brief debut as a substitute against Belgium, the Watford wing-back was given a few pointers as to his job on the left side of midfield, which he promptly heeded in a man-of the-match performance in Skopje.
Charlie Mulgrew is another. By deploying him alongside Scott Brown in front of the defence, Strachan has all but found himself a new player. Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, went so far as to say that it was the Celtic defender’s best position.
Equally inventive was the use of Steven Naismith against Macedonia. The Everton player is more accustomed to a wide berth but, in the absence of many recognised strikers, he was played through the middle and asked to link up the midfielders who are Scotland’s biggest strength.
Strachan is pitifully short of forwards who can lead the line. Jordan Rhodes does not fit into the manager’s preferred system. Kenny Miller has retired, Jamie Mackie is not good enough and Leigh Griffiths plays in League One. Shaun Maloney can do a job up front, but like so many in Scotland’s squad, he prefers to supplement the attack.
When it comes to orthodox centre-forwards, Steven Fletcher is Strachan’s No.1, some would say only one. Asked if he would go to watch the Sunderland player’s recovery from long-term injury before he names his squad for the Croatia match in October, Strachan replied: “Do you really need to look at Steven Fletcher? I think Steven Fletcher is one of these players who, if he’s breathing alright, he’s going to get in the squad.”
Not that anything should be taken for granted. Fletcher returned to club football a fortnight ago – with a goal no less – but was not asked to report for international duty. He will be selected for the Croatia game but Strachan is curiously reluctant to assume that Sunderland will be in love with the idea.
“I can’t see him not being in the squad. If he’s playing for Sunderland in the Premier League, it’s very hard to leave him out. But what you have to do is speak to Sunderland. Have they got a programme for him over the next two months to build him back to his best? Does the game against Croatia fit into how they see him coming back? You never know how a club would like their player to come back. If Steven is fit, then he will be selected, that’s for sure.” Either way, Strachan needs a plan B, if not for now, then for the future.
Naismith would appear to have provided that with his performance in Macedonia. By allowing the team to attack in a different way, one that does not depend on a goalscoring centre forward, he has leapfrogged the men listed as “strikers” in the Scotland squad.
“He made it look easy,” says Strachan. “Sir Alex [Ferguson] always said that the two strikers determine how you play the game. I believe the focal point of your team is now the striker.
“Whoever’s playing up front – and I wouldn’t say he was on his own in our team since we get a Shaun Maloney, or that type, around him – it makes a big difference if the ball doesn’t keep coming back. It’s night and day.
“Steven gave us that. There’s nothing better, as a midfielder, than being able to link up with a striker who knows what you want. Steven was fantastic. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think you get the rest of the performances either.”
Scotland’s success in Macedonia, their second consecutive away win in Group A, came too late to make any difference. If only Strachan had taken over sooner. If only Scotland had won, instead of lost, both their matches against Wales, they would have found themselves within three points of second-placed Croatia, their opponents in the final game.
It begs the question: If this team, playing in this way, were to start the campaign all over again, how would they fare? Would they have any chance of securing the play-off spot?
“It would still be difficult,” says Strachan. “I still think Croatia and Belgium, as the table shows, are way in front. They are two magnificent sides. I think we would collect more points, but it would be very hard to get near those two.”
Far from starting over, Group A is drawing to a conclusion. In November, when its second-placed team are contesting a play-off, Scotland will be playing friendly matches, the first of which will be against the USA at Hampden.
“You have to try to get a friendly that can turn the players, fans, media, coaches on, especially during the season, when it’s hard work,” says Strachan.
“You have to make it attractive to everyone. We’re competitive animals and we like big games. I think they fit the bill.”