It is tempting to see a ‘tartanising’ of the side as underpinning Scotland’s transformation across Alex McLeish’s first two games. Brendan Rodgers believes that temptation should be resisted. For the Celtic manager, the difference in standard between the defeat at home by Costa Rica and the win in Hungary was personnel and not place of residence.
McLeish recast his midfield entirely between these two encounters. The Fulham pair of Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald, and Manchester United’s Scott McTominay were replaced by Celtic duo Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong and Hibernian’s John McGinn. Indeed, whereas there was only one home-based player in the Costa Rican selection, in Hungary six of the ten outfield players played their football in the Scottish top flight.
The step-up in tempo and intensity these changes wrought in the centre of the park could be read as suggesting that for all it is maligned, the manic nature of the Scottish top flight can inject a forcefulness into midfielders that might sometimes not be how they are asked to perform in the English leagues. Not by Rodgers, though.
“It’s nothing to do with north or south, it’s the physicality of the player. It’s the profile of the player,” said the Celtic manager. “If you look through the team, [Scott] McKenna can run, Charlie [Mulgrew] was the organiser centrally. Jack Hendry is super quick, [Ryan] Fraser is quick, [Andrew] Robertson is quick, the three midfield all have good mobility, [Mat] Phillips is quick and James [Forrest] is quick.
“It’s what I’ve been saying since I got up here. The top teams, and in particular at international level, you have a good level of technique and a decent idea of the game tactically. Scotland has players of physicality, so you have quick players with that profile; it’s just whether they play or not.
“What do you want out of the team? You then see the difference from the first game to the second in terms of mobility. International football is about speed, mobility and technique. At least what you had in the second game is players of that ilk.
“Jack Hendry is someone who maybe can get overlooked. He’s 6ft 3in, he’s quick, he can play and defend. He’s not your big traditional centre-half. You know with him he can squeeze the pitch high, he can also drop off. The recovering tackle he made in the Hungary game, not too many Scottish centre-halves can make that tackle. That guy’s in on goal but his pace to cover the ground shows what he can do.
“Speed, power, unpredictability, technique. Absolutely, Scotland has that. I’ve seen enough players who have that since I’ve been up here. The boy McKenna, who couldn’t get a game at Ayr, is quick, got a nice left foot, can defend and gradually with experience he’ll gain composure with the ball.
“You definitely have that if you look at [Kieran] Tierney and Robertson. They are robust. Phillips, Forrest, Griffiths, you’ve got these players. It’s just whether you want to play them. That’s it.
“Tom Cairney is a very good footballer. MacDonald is a really good footballer. Play them, absolutely, but McGinn has mobility. He’s tough and strong and is getting better all the time. You’ve got Callum who is getting better and better, you can see his confidence as a man now. Stuart is getting fitter and has mobility and is working his way back. [Dylan] McGeouch is a baller, he can play football, he can get on it and pass it and be bright.
“If you just match up man-for-man against some of the top teams in the world you’re probably going to lose, but can you find a dynamic way of playing? You certainly have the players for that, it’s just putting all the pieces together.
“I’m sure that’s what Alex was doing over the two games. He probably had to play a certain team in the first game because the second game was on the Tuesday and some of his Championship players were playing on the Friday. It’s a balancing act.”