MAYBE Gordon Strachan missed his vocation in life. Attempting to divine clues over his team selection can feel a lot like cracking a crossword puzzle.
You can think the Scotland manager is hinting one individual will be deployed centrally, so letting you think you can chalk one down, only for him to remind you that in there, he could utilise a different two across.
Yet, perhaps, there is a more straightforward reason why turning over all the permutations for next Saturday’s Republic of Ireland assignment could leave your cranium feeling like a washing machine drum on spin cycle. Rarely in recent years have Scotland faced a fixture on which so much could revolve.
If Strachan leads his side to a victory in the Dublin Euro 2016 qualifier, it could be a giant leap towards ending the near two-decade long exile from a major finals.
A victory, with three genuinely competitive games remaining (which the trip to Gibraltar isn’t), would open up a five-point gap over Martin O’Neill’s men, forcing them out of contention for next summer’s French finals. No matter what noises to the contrary might be made.
The magnitude of the encounter in the Aviva Stadium next weekend gives rise to a belief that Strachan’s gnomic utterances about who will feature in his starting line-up are not so much game playing as an indication that he is still pondering so much.
“What we probably pick this morning might be different as managers and coaches as to when you pick the team next Friday,” he admitted yesterday, as he reflected on the posers provided by Friday’s 1-0 friendly win over Qatar. A game in which, significantly it would seem, Charlie Mulgrew came through his first 90 minutes in more than six months. He did so as a central defender, a domain of the Scotland set-up shorn of regular Grant Hanley through injury.
Surely, it has been posited, Strachan could not consider Mulgrew for selection when the Celtic man has so recently returned from a long-term injury? The Scotland coach hardly lacks for options when it comes to filling one of the two midfield berths in which Mulgrew has excelled in the 4-2-3-1 system that has become the orthodoxy. James McArthur is straining at the leash to be involved after an outstanding season with Crystal Palace, while James Morrison and Darren Fletcher are also possibles. If not fully fit, some would argue that Mulgrew – whose height and dead-ball abilities supplement his value – might still be able to put in a shift at the back, where only Gordon Greer and Christophe Berra appear natural partners for Russell Martin.
Yet if Mulgrew is played in defence, you remove him from the role that allowed him to produce his finest Scotland performance when the Republic were defeated in Glasgow in November. You can take your pick of Strachan utterances when attempting to unravel his thinking on this front… or rather middle and back.
“And he can play at left back as well. He has that adrenaline thing you get sometimes for four or five games when you’ve been out for four or five games,” he said when asked where he sees the adaptable Mulgrew. “I was open minded to certain positions [before Qatar].
“Remember, though, that I picked a couple of players here two years ago because of their performances at training. It’s always open to the players right up until I pick the team.”
When it was put to him if Mulgrew came into that bracket, Strachan responded: “It’s not like Charlie wasn’t in the mix-up – he always was, even from his training. In midfield [in the games against Ireland and Germany] he was probably the best man on the pitch – and he’s had some good performances from us.”
While such as David Marshall, Alan Hutton, Scott Brown, Ikechi Anya, Steven Naismith, Steven Fletcher and Martin would appear bankers, in forward areas there are all sorts of different combinations. If Mulgrew played in the middle and Strachan’s three behind Fletcher were Shaun Maloney, Naismith and Anya, then Morrison and McArthur would miss out once more, despite there being a case for suggesting that they are our most bang-in-form players.
“I feel sorry for James McArthur – playing against Liverpool in Steven Gerrard’s farewell game he was as good as anybody on the pitch,” said Strachan. “So I have got options and there are going to be one or two disappointed, that’s for sure.
“People say that it’s disappointing if Brown misses out, or Morrison, but [even] for the goalies [Marshall and Craig Gordon] it’s the same thing. Good players are going to be disappointed.”
The Republic were certainly disappointing at Celtic Park. They were decidedly rudimentary and the much more British of the two teams, scrapping out a British-style contest in the east end of Glasgow that night. The concern for Scotland is that they have to produce far better in front of their home crowd, in what even O’Neill has said is a must-win fixture.
“There was a variation in play in Glasgow,” Strachan added. “You play to your assets. Last night we couldn’t cross the ball too much because we had small players, so you try to work your way into the box or put balls in behind them. Ireland have good players who are in there when they cross the ball and if you have good crossers of the ball you do that. That’s what management is all about. You can’t all play like Barcelona. Everybody has strengths. They’ve got some terrific footballers in their side, so there’s a variation of play there.
“And every game they play is high tempo. I’ve watched the Poland game [from Dublin in March, when they equalised at the close] time and again and people say they changed dramatically after half time – they changed the system a bit but not their tempo.
“They’re a bit like us, the crowd can keep you going, determine how the game is played.
“[They have scored late goals against Germany and Poland] but I wouldn’t say to anyone ‘watch out for the last five minutes’. That takes care of itself.
“You have to get through the first 85, then if things are going well it shouldn’t make any difference.
“I think it’ll be really close again. In the rankings they’re 60 in the world and we’re 28 but everyone knows that’s not right.”
Strachan knows he has to get his team selection right. He just might not yet know what that right team is.