THE potential for Scotland to ever again produce a world-class footballer came under discussion with Gordon Strachan this week. Asked if this was possible, the national manager didn’t hesitate before answering emphatically in the affirmative. In this week of truth for his team’s Euro 2016 qualifying prospects, ask any Scotland follower whether their team will ever again appear in a major finals and the response is likely to involve pregnant pauses and uncomfortable shuffling before, at best, hopeful squeaks.
It may well be that these two issues aren’t unrelated. The fact that Iceland and, surely, Northern Ireland, are bound for France next year indicates that it is not obligatory to possess top level international talents to reach tournaments. But, by crikey, having them helps. Imagine Poland, who effectively Scotland must beat at Hampden on Thursday to remain in play-off contention, without Robert Lewandowski, Strachan petitioned. Or Wales minus Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey, he mused. Or even world champions Germany denuded of Thomas Muller.
Scotland are double-cursed when it comes to options, indeed. It is no mere coincidence that most of these pivotal performers are attackers. When Strachan used to have a must-win home games in the Champions League as Celtic manager, he would dare to play two up front. On Thursday he won’t for one simple reason – he feels he doesn’t have the personnel to do so.
If results don’t go Scotland’s way as Group D is completed across the next eight days – and they have to, both in their own encounters with Poland and away to Gibraltar and also in the Republic of Ireland’s ties at home to Germany and in Poland – any progress made in the past 14 months will be reduced to the minor variety. Again, this is inextricably linked to the fact that in Strachan’s ranks match winners are in as short supply as accurate emission info from Volkswagen vehicles.
“We’ve got some good players. World-class? No. They are not in Champions League football. I keep saying that, I look at other squads and they are all in Champions League football. We have a problem.
“Shaun [Maloney] has pulled us out with a couple of good things recently but it’s very hard to keep looking at the one guy and go, ‘OK, you do it again’. It would be nice if other people took that mantle and there are guys capable of producing that.
“If you look at our goals, we have nobody like Bale or Lewandowski, everything has to be worked as a group and within that you have six more chances of it breaking down if it’s a six-pass move. Some guys just pick it up and go, bang, goal. That can be our problem at times. We have to work at everything we’ve got. There has to be a lot of passes or work at a set-play or something like that.
“I don’t think there’s many genius goals we have seen in the last couple of years, not even in my tenure, but elsewhere where somebody gets it, rolls somebody, beats two and whacks it in the back of the net. Maybe James McFadden in France. That was maybe the last time we saw a real genius type goal as an individual or somebody beating two or three people and finishing it off.
“Against the Republic at home, it was a corner kick move that we did. Away to the Republic eight passes, in Germany six good passes. There seems to be a lot like that. We can’t just make a Gareth Bale or people like that who produce something from nowhere.
“We are a team that will give you everything we’ve got but we need a wee bit as well. We either need a wee bit more luck or a wee bit more spark of genius somewhere along the line, so that’s what we are going for. We will have to try and eliminate the luck thing and go for the spark of genius when we get in the box and relax.”
If only it were as simple as having two strikers in an around that box, with someone giving assistance to Steven Fletcher, who has scored in only two of his 24 internationals. Never mind that Strachan was happy to have a forward duo for the majority of the storied Celtic Park victories that propelled his team twice to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
“Yes, but I always had players who could drop back into midfield and support us to make it a 4-5-1,” he said. “I always had someone who could understand that job and do it well and it wouldn’t take anything away from the other part of their game. There are not many players who can do that, play as a striker and get back into midfield yet still get back up there and score goals.
“You need a special type of player or two of them who can do the same then one can drop back. At this moment in time, we don’t have that. Most of ours are out-and-out strikers as such. [Steven] Naismith, inset left, is the one you could say who could do both at the moment. You want the all-round forward who can play any of the front four positions, and he is reasonably comfortable wherever he goes. You wouldn’t say he is one of the best players in the world but he has an understanding of what goes on there.
“Listen, it is up to the other players to develop that but if their club manager doesn’t want to develop that or play in a certain style then I cannot determine how they play for their club side. I can’t change it when they come here.
“For us, Steven Fletcher has been a good target man, a focal point who wins fouls and so on, because we need that in this team. It would be great if we could get the same thing with someone who scores a lot of goals... 30 a season and every two games, but we don’t have that at the moment. We can’t find it. We don’t have one of them who can do all that. There isn’t one with the whole package.”
What this week is likely to expose, sadly, is that Scotland don’t have the whole package, or even most of it. And that their shortcomings cannot be masked even when the man helming the team patently knows the game and is doing a decent job.