Alex McLeish goes retro to borrow from Craig Brown playbook

The swish Scotland change strip that was given its first airing in Budapest last night has been described as retro. In keeping, then, with another aspect of the national team as configured by Alex McLeish.

Scotland's Oliver McBurnie, Scott McKenna, Matt Phillips and Charlie Mulgrew applaud the fans after winning 1-0 against Hungary. Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Scotland's Oliver McBurnie, Scott McKenna, Matt Phillips and Charlie Mulgrew applaud the fans after winning 1-0 against Hungary. Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire

It has been curious to watch Scotland operate once more with a back three, as they have in the new manager’s first two games in charge. The basis for a 3-4-1-2, this formation hasn’t been in vogue since Craig Brown was stewarding Scotland in the 1990s. And, perhaps significantly, he was the last coach capable of guiding them to major finals.

Brown’s motivation for buttressing his defence – the central trio was offered extra protection by wing-backs – was that goal prevention had to be a priority when goalscoring consistently proved arduous.

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The same might be said of the present day. But McLeish’s driver for selecting three centre-backs owes more to the fact that there aren’t two considered stout enough to carry the burden of protecting their goal.

Gordon Strachan’s time in charge of Scotland was scarred by that very weaknesses… and perhaps also his reluctance to deviate from a back four. Not without some justification, it must be said, he use to express bemusement that a solution often floated for Scotland’s lack of two quality centre halves was fielding three of them. McLeish stated that he would address this problem area by attempting to develop new centre-backs options from the off. That meant last night Charlie Mulgrew was flanked by debutant Jack Hendry and, on the other side, Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna who had been blooded at this level only four days earlier.

McKenna was considered one of the few successes of Scotland’s uninspiring home defeat by Costa Rica on Friday. He followed up that sound display with another in Hungary.

Hendry was similarly solid and unfussy in making the step up from his role as a 
Celtic fringe player following his move from Dundee just three months ago.

The very nature of McKenna
and Hendry’s efforts, and that of their team-mates as a whole, had echoes of Brown-era Scotland. There was little in the way of scintillating football but plenty of composed play, especially in the midfield where John McGinn, Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong adopted a commonsense approach.

The parallels with the late 1990s extended even as far as the matchwinner, Matt Phillips. It was unexpected in the first place that the West Bromwich Albion forward would partner James Forrest, and more unexpected that he would carry a threat. He did that from the early stages, though, and a first international goal on his 11th appearance for the country was a deserved reward. When Scotland last qualified for a major finals it was because Kevin Gallacher found scoring form during the France 98 qualifying campaign. The same Gallacher that had taken 16 internationals to nick his first goal.

Scotland did the job required of them in Hungary, as Brown’s team so often did when in a tight spot. There were no points to play for in last night’s friendly for McLeish but the structure of his team’s play pointed to possible encouragement.

The 59-year-old took many risks in changing so much from what he had inherited but he ultimately gained more than he lost with the emergence of McKenna and such as Celtic’s McGregor and Hibernian’s McGinn providing further evidence that they can be integral performers in the international domain.

With injured Celtic pair Kieran Tierney and Leigh Griffiths to be added to the mix, the gloomy prognosis offered up for the country’s footballing fortunes in the wake of the Costa Rica loss can be parked again. Until the next defeat.

All that really matters is what McLeish’s Scotland do when they are back in competitive action again in September. If the national manager can marry the best of the Strachan era – and latterly there were good elements – with the gains he seeks from altering the system, then at least intrigue could be ahead for Scotland.