IT SEEMED to become an article of faith across recent times that Scotland’s resources meant any system that deviated from the solitary striker set-up would leave them too open.
Certainly, Craig Levein sought to present such a contention as a given. Now the distance his successor Gordon Strachan is putting between himself and what went before his arrival, paradoxically, can be measured in the proximity between front players.
Steven Fletcher’s return to lead the line for Scotland in Friday’s scoreless draw against the USA was adjudged to give Strachan the services of a player whose abilities allow him to be effectively an all-in-one-frontline.
His absence for the friendly in Norway on Tuesday, after he was excused because he has only recently returned from serious shoulder injury, won’t alter the Strachan philosophy. That is because, whether it is Fletcher or any attacker, Scotland’s forward line won’t see any player suffer isolation.
Other attackers will be detailed to play off and not behind their more advanced team-mate. That was the case with Robert Snodgrass offering support at Hampden the other night and will be true again when Norway are faced in a friendly in Molde in two days’ time. It is an aspect of Scotland’s play over which Strachan allows himself to become highly animated.
“We would never try and leave a striker on his own. Fletcher wasn’t on his own for the last 25 minutes against the US, he was surrounded by players and shouldn’t really have been,” the national team manager says. “Sometimes you need to give him space to play. You have to have players in positions not to fight with centre halves. Get them looking for you. I think he can play with a striker, without a striker, but we are never, ever going to play a thing called a lone striker. You have never seen that yet. Some people have said we’re playing a 4-4-2. It’s not really. Again, on Tuesday we’ll do something, never leaving the striker on his own. Have you ever tried to play one up front? It’s not easy up there. You can get people close to him, there are ways of doing it. One up front sounds like the only thing you’re doing is defending. We don’t want to be like that. We’ve got to try and get people round him, different people from different angles.”
The eschewing of a defensive-first approach starting with the apex of the team is precisely why, in the past six months, Strachan has been able to guide Scotland to wins over Croatia – twice – Macedonia, and draw creditable performances in encounters with England and the USA. Long-term, Fletcher’s presence should allow Scotland to become more progressive and enterprising because, as Strachan acknowledged of the player’s return to the international scene after six months, “he makes a difference”. “But if we can be sharper with passes into him, we will get better,” the Scotland manager says. “He’s got that ability in the air, he takes the ball like a real good player. When the ball comes to him, he and the ball are one. Some players, it’s hard work for him. But he’s at one with the ball, yeah.”
Even if it was a contest with soporific aspects, Strachan drew some satisfaction from his side’s ability to compete against an American team that certainly did not lack in athleticism. “We could have won against a team that’s won 15 of their last 16 games, which is not bad going. I think if we had a record like that we’d be more than happy. It was physical, that’s for sure. One or two wee things that I thought: we need to do better at that. Not because they don’t want to do it, they just need to be aware of that.
“I think when we get around the edge of the box we need to be a wee bit better looking after the ball. But I thought in the last 25 minutes because we played up against them it was easier for them to defend against us. And we blocked off space to the play. If you’re playing against people that physical and that strong, don’t play against them – let them come and find you. We had a big back four out there, which was handy. But from middle to front we need to be sharp. If you’re playing against someone who is physically stronger, then you can’t take them on at that. You have to do something else.”
Ingenuity and invention then become of paramount importance and, in flashes, Barry Bannan provided that for the home side. “He gives us a composure, a wee bit of vision,” Strachan says. “If you look at Barry he’s hit a couple of passes that no one can see which is good as a midfield player. And if you’re that small, you need to be good. You need to do things that are different, see passes that are different and be brave on the ball. Because if you’re not doing that you might as well have someone who is 6ft 2in and who is ordinary. So he hits a pass now and again where you think: I like that, I didn’t see that coming.”
Strachan also liked what he did see coming: a debut for Gordon Greer a month before his 33rd birthday that he promised to the Brighton captain five weeks ago. “He can be quite pleased with himself. He’s really delighted me, it’s nice to see someone getting their first cap and a clean sheet. He’s really worked hard for that. It’s been a lifetime in football to get that cap and it’s great to see that. It might not be his only one, not at all. We all like the Russell Martin, Grant Hanley pairing, though. Grant, one for one at times, was really strong, he was playing against [Jay] Altidore who is a big boy. He dealt with him well. It’s nice to know when someone is left one for one he can deal with him. I like him. He’s just a boy, remember.”
Strachan revealed he “might change it a wee bit; do something different” on Tuesday night. “I kept two or three who are going to start it. There will be two or three changes. It depends on injuries. These boys don’t want to miss games. They just love playing football.”