While others are focused on the instability of England, it is the steadfastness of other Group F rivals that has got Gordon Strachan thinking. The Scotland boss would love fresh talent to burst through and produce the kind of performances that command selection, but he says he won’t be chopping and changing for the sake of it.
Naming his squad for the double header against Lithuania and then Slovakia early next month, he said many teams are making the big stage thanks to consistency.
“It seems to be the same players at these teams. If you look at them, it is the same guys who have been there for five, six, seven years. It is not chopping and changing. Slovakia are like that. They seem to be the same all the time.”
With a core of 13 to 15 players, he says Scotland’s rivals for a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia are strong right down the middle, while their wide men are able to take on opponents and the central midfielders are hailed as “excellent”.
Strachan said: “[Marek] Hamsik could be one of the world’s top players. He is terrific off left and right foot and his mate in midfield is good. They chop and change it with him playing No 10 or going back. They change during games. The wide men, [Vladimir] Weiss you know from Rangers, and on the other side, [Robert] Mak, is a good player.”
But, while individually gifted, it is Slovakia’s collective understanding – from years of training and playing together – that adds to the threat, according to Strachan. “Sometimes you might have too many to pick from, you chop and change, you think: ‘Oh, I’ll give him a wee shot’. Sometimes with squads like that, who have not got a great deal, they keep it the same and sometimes it’s better doing that.
“That is what we are trying to do here. Unless somebody is blowing somebody out of the water and going ‘I must get into this squad’ there is no point in having a look at him. You are better off keeping the guys who are here and growing that team spirit and understanding. Slovakia, Lithuania and Slovenia don’t do much coaching because they have all been together and know how they are going to play.”
Strachan’s gatherings are beginning to take on a more settled look. Shaun Maloney, below, and Lee Wallace have returned after being left out of the original squad for the opening group qualifier. It follows a flurry of recent recruitments, with youngsters like Callum Paterson, Kieran Tierney, John McGinn, Barrie McKay and Oliver Burke, all earning full caps.
For some, like Burke, the journey has been expeditious. From relative unknown, the 19-year-old now has three caps and a new life in the Bundesliga, courtesy of a £13m summer transfer and Strachan is using the Leipzig striker, who notched his first goal in German football this week, as the inspiration for others.
“I watched him scoring the goal the other night,” said Strachan. “I just hope he gets enough games – and I’m sure he will. Between 19 and 21 is such an important age for footballers. They can’t waste their time playing nothing football on training grounds or in empty stadiums. They have to get out there and play football in the real world. That’s what I’m hoping for with our young players.
“He has put himself there because he has done well. I saw him at Charlton when nobody knew about him. I went to see Tony Watt and he came on as a sub. You can’t say ‘oh, he should’ve been in 19s, he should’ve been in this’. No, no, no, he is coming with me. If people can do that there is an opportunity for you. If you are going to blow us away we are not going to mess about with 19s and 21s and all the rest of it. Bang, you are in there. So many good players started at an early age.
“But there is no point changing one for the other if there is only one per cent, two per cent difference. You just keep going with the guys who you have been going with.
“If somebody is better than Gordon Greer then get yourself in. In my opinion, there is nobody better than the four centre halves we have got now. I think they are the best for our squad and what we have got at the moment. If somebody wants to do better then get better and play for top clubs.”