Alex McLeish was right about one thing. Israel are a lot better than they seemed in Belfast last month when thumped 3-0 by Northern Ireland. It still doesn’t excuse a display that was worrying enough in the first half, with Scotland somehow emerging with a 1-0 lead. John Souttar’s red card contributed to a complete unravelling in the second.
The 2-1 scoreline flattered Scotland. Israel relished some target practice before Albania visit tomorrow evening: 25 shots to the visitors’ total of seven said it all.
McLeish’s second spell in charge is already struggling to shake off the feel of a doomed enterprise. Defeat tomorrow night against Portugal, albeit only a friendly, would count as a sixth loss in eight games. Problems are escalating for the manager before a defining pair of fixtures against Albania and Israel next month.
Some are wondering if skipper Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney are any relation to the fine players of the same name starring for Liverpool and Celtic respectively. Remarkably, since they were considered among his greatest assets, the pair are now becoming one of McLeish’s most pressing problems. McLeish’s current favoured system means both Robertson and Tierney are now playing out of position. According to the former, speaking after the defeat on Thursday, it could take them a while to get used to the arrangement – providing McLeish persists with it.
The manager might have to return to an issue he was confident he had solved. One of the first questions McLeish was asked on returning to the post in February was how he intended to deal with the headache of his two best players occupying the same position.
Gordon Strachan sometimes opted for playing Tierney at right-back but this was not to the Celtic player’s liking. McLeish was adamant. In order to maximise the talent of both they had to play on the left. Many, including some who are now claiming this is a flawed strategy, nodded in agreement. But rather than getting the best out of Robertson and Tierney, this ploy seems only to be making them both unhappy.
“I have persevered with it so far,” McLeish said yesterday. “We’ve had a few hard fixtures in terms of the teams in South America and taking on Belgium. You lose those games and people think, ‘that’s not working’.
“Belgium was a tough one but it was close games with the others. In the Albania game we found a good dynamic.”
It might be at the stage where McLeish has to consider a climbdown. Perhaps play Tierney at left-back and push Robertson into left midfield, where he can drive forward into positions where he often proves so effective for Liverpool. Or, sacrilege as it seems, play Robertson at left-back and leave Tierney out altogether? This could risk annoying another key player.
An issue with Leigh Griffiths, whose return next month is not assured following his late call-off this time around, is set to rumble on. Meanwhile James Forrest, another Celtic player, had to be content with a cameo on Thursday after scoring freely in his previous outing for his club against St Johnstone. He’s another who might be lying in his room at night wondering: ‘what’s the point?’
What else could McLeish do than attempt to defend his selection yesterday? He had wrestled with playing Forrest all week before deciding to remain loyal to the side that defeated Albania. This was strange since he referenced the ruinous defeat in Georgia from his first spell in charge ahead of Thursday’s game. He lamented his decision to stick with the system used to good effect in the win over Ukraine in Scotland’s previous outing a few days earlier.
But then Forrest wasn’t sidelined in Israel because of tactics. Johnny Russell, who joined up late after a tough game for Sporting Kansas City against LA Galaxy on Sunday, was simply preferred over him.
“Forrest could have played,” said McLeish. “I just spoke to James and felt Johnny Russell deserved to go again. It was a tough decision. It’s not going to be like that every time. James came on and was lively, but Johnny Russell was lively as well. It’s hard to separate them.”
The retreat from Israel yesterday proved a painful one for over 1,500 Tartan Army members. They had watched Scotland concede goals in this ancient land for the first time after successive 1-0 victories in the 1980s. The contrast in emotions to the locals was stark. Israelis were hailing the miracle of Haifa. “Revolution of Joy” was the headline in Israel Today.
As the jeers of a large section of travelling fans rained down on Thursday it felt incumbent to try to place the defeat in context. Clearly the mitigating factor of going down to ten men with half an hour left must be taken into account. But had we just witnessed one of Scotland’s worst-ever results? In terms of rankings, very possibly.
Israel are down at 94 after a catastrophic run of form – just three home wins in the last four years: over Andorra, Liechtenstein and now Scotland.
Some of the questions posed to skipper Bibras Natcho from local journalists on the eve of the match were shot through with downright hostility. Israel had fallen out of love with their football team and Scotland were expected to canter to victory against a background of empty seats.
Of course, this is often when teams are at their most dangerous, as Scotland found to their cost. There’s a reckoning due next month. The consequences are potentially dire for Big Eck.