Graham Ruthven: Questioning Strachan’s reluctance to use two proven scorers

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. Picture: Michael Gillen
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. Picture: Michael Gillen
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MAYBE Scotland simply used up all their dependable goalscorers. Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Ally McCoist, Lawrie Reilly – the grand catalogue of great strikers to have played the game counts many Tartan inclusions, although the volume has been closed for a while now. Along with jute and gigantic, seafaring vessels, the footballing No 9 goes down as something Scotland no longer produces for the world.

It’s an issue Gordon Strachan has surely pondered and rued, given the national team’s struggle for goals over the course of their Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Excluding the free-throw taken against Gibraltar, Scotland have scored just eight goals in as many games – with their attacking deficiencies brutally exposed in the dismal defeat to Georgia, where not even one shot on goal was registered.

For those critical of Strachan – of which numbers are growing – Scotland’s goalscoring problems are all the more exasperating due to the attacking options continually overlooked by the national team boss. No options make a stronger case than Ross McCormack and Jordan Rhodes – who face each other for Fulham and Blackburn respectively today, in what will be framed (at least north of the Border) as a taunting display of what Scotland could have had.

In McCormack and Rhodes, Scotland have two strikers worth a combined £20 million – and yet Strachan can find no space for either in his squad. But is this simply a case of typical English football inflation – the kind that recently saw an unproven French teenager join Manchester United for £36m – or are they really worth the money they have passed between clubs for?

“I watch Jordan Rhodes very regularly,” former Scotland striker Kevin Gallacher says. “This season, his form hasn’t been what it was – but Jordan is a goalscorer.” Indeed, the Blackburn striker is yet to find the net this term, although with only three games played there’s little reason to doubt he will fail to rediscover the kind of form that has seen him hit 146 goals in his last 258 club appearances.

“We once had a goalscorer in the national team called Kris Boyd and they are very similar styles of player,” Gallacher – scorer of nine goals in 53 Scotland games – continues. “The difference between Kris Boyd, Jordan Rhodes and someone like Steven Fletcher is that Steven Fletcher holds the ball up and brings people into play, although Jordan is trying to add that little bit extra to his game.”

While Rhodes has started the season slowly, McCormack has scored three in his first seven games. Eyebrows were raised when Fulham paid £12m to snatch the former Motherwell and Rangers striker from Leeds last summer, but McCormack has so far appeared comfortable bearing the hefty burden of his weighty price tag – netting 18 times in 44 outings for the Craven Cottage club.

All those numbers and figures – no matter how impressive – seemingly mean little to Strachan, a creature of stubbornness and habit, apparently steadfast in his insistence on a 4-2-3-1 formation. In such a system, Strachan believes there to be no natural spot for either McCormack or Rhodes.

Against Georgia, however, Scotland could certainly have used a natural finisher. Even when faced with world champions Germany, Fletcher was presented a handful of half-chances a more merciless frontman would have tucked away. Although he would never admit so, Strachan must have, at some point over the two games, cast at least a tinge of doubt on his own stance.

“There are always roles for goalscorers,” says Gallacher, a prolific goalscorer for the best part of a decade. “In today’s system, whether it’s Steven Fletcher or Steven Naismith, it’s a very tall order to ask them to play as lone striker and score goals as well. Where I think Jordan could be of value is on the bench – where if a game is tight, he could be thrown on. Jordan’s goalscoring record for the last four or five seasons is absolutely phenomenal. Last season he didn’t have the best of seasons but he still got 21 goals. There should always be a space for goalscorers – even if it’s not in the starting line-up.”

Both Fulham and Blackburn have endured difficult starts to the 2015-16 campaign – with Rovers still to claim their first win. Today’s clash will be played amid a context that transcends the Scotland national team’s reckoning – although Strachan may well set aside an afternoon to see what he is missing.

With every major tournament that passes, Craig Brown’s eight-year reign shimmers a little brighter – like some sort of golden era, even if it didn’t feel so at the time. But perhaps Scotland don’t have it so bad after all. Maybe some are too quick to denounce the national team’s attacking variety.

“I think the options we have now are very similar to when I was playing,” Gallacher says. “Apart from Ally McCoist, we never really had a striker who scored goals for the national team on a real regular basis. Scotland have only ever had one of those every decade, and at the moment we’re on a similar sort of par.”

However, with McCormack and Rhodes meeting this weekend, the Scottish No 9 – a rare breed – might be set for a revival.