5 things we learned from Scotland's World Cup qualifying campaign
1. Early team selections were Scotland’s undoing
By the time the last few fixtures rolled around, Gordon Strachan had decided on Charlie Mulgrew and Christophe Berra as his preferred central defensive pairing, and Leigh Griffiths was a must-start in attack.
But at the start of the campaign, Strachan went with Russell Martin and Grant Hanley at the back as Scotland shipped eight goals in four matches. This was despite Hanley struggling to hold down a starting berth for Newcastle United.
After Strachan shuffled his pack for the later games, Scotland kept four clean sheets in six matches. Hanley has since joined Norwich City from Newcastle, teaming up with Martin, but neither of the pair could be considered first picks for the Canaries, with Timm Klose and Christoph Zimmermann the starting central defenders for Daniel Farke’s side.
Strachan’s apparent reluctance to give Griffiths gametime in the first few matches seemed strange because while Griffiths was somewhat overshadowed at Celtic by team-mate Moussa Dembele at the start of the campaign, he had still scored 40 goals in all competitions the previous season.
2. Scotland needs some new blood
In Steven Whittaker and Darren Fletcher (both 33 years old), Craig Gordon (34) and Allan McGregor (35), Scotland have four squad members who are almost certainly coming to the end of their international careers.
Scott Brown, while a bit younger at 32, has already retired once from the international scene to focus on his club football before being tempted back to the fold by Strachan.
By the time the next tournament rolls around - the UEFA Nations League in September next year - Gordon will be closer to 36 than 35, McGregor will be four months off 37 and Whittaker and Fletcher will be 34.
Whether Brown will be involved remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Scotland need some new blood throughout the team. The goalkeeping position is one such area, while central defence is another if Hanley and Martin remain squad players.
Central midfield is another area needing strengthened, but the emergence of Stuart Armstrong, coupled with the recent call-ups for John McGinn and Callum McGregor suggest that Strachan could have one eye on the future regardless of whether he stays on as national team boss.
3. Leigh Griffiths proved he can cut it on the international stage
Griffiths took his international goals tally to four goals in five matches with his first-half strike against Slovenia in Ljubljana, adding to his goals against Malta and England.
His two free-kicks against England brought Scotland close to a memorable victory over the ‘Auld Enemy’.
He is the sort of player who can produce something out of nothing - if he’d had more involvement in the first few matches who knows where Scotland could be?
It’s hard to think of a compelling argument for starting the likes of Chris Martin or Steven Fletcher ahead of Griffiths and while Strachan experimented with playing both Martin and Griffiths against Slovenia, expect to see Griffiths leading the line for the next few years at least, provided he keeps up his goalscoring rate.
4. Scotland don’t learn from past mistakes
Scotland were guilty of shipping an injury time goal against Poland in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, with Robert Lewandowski’s 94th minute effort ending Scotland’s hopes of making it to France, but conceded another late goal against England when Harry Kane lashed the ball home in the 93rd minute.
There was also a horrible familiarity to Roman Bezjak’s second goal for Slovenia on Sunday night. The ball broke to Bezjak in a crowded penalty area after a corner, and the SV Darmstadt forward had all the time in the world to slot the ball past Craig Gordon from just outside the six yard box. In Scotland’s 3-0 defeat to Slovakia, Robert Mak’s second goal came when he was given too much time on the edge of the six yard box, before slotting the ball home. Different defences, same outcome.
5. The future is bright
The likes of Kieran Tierney, Andrew Robertson, Stuart Armstrong, Callum Paterson, John McGinn and Callum McGregor could well be mainstays of the Scotland national side in the coming years, as older players drop out.
In defence, Stephen Kingsley is on the fringes and Oliver Burke showed briefly why RB Leipzig and West Bromwich Albion paid £13 million and £15 million respectively for his services.
A quick glance at the Under-21s shows a handful of players who could be knocking on the door in the next year or two as well.