The tide might be turning for Alex McLeish. The mighty splash his team made with their 4-0 submerging of an abject Albania on Saturday night certainly engendered hope that Israel can be washed away at Hampden tomorrow night to allow the country to reach qualification dry land of the sort that seems to have eluded them for forever.
Yet, in reflecting on the sparkling display that inspires belief that McLeish’s men can top their Nations League group by claiming the three points tomorrow that would send them through to the Euro 2020 play-offs – and potentially within two games of the finals, then – it is impossible not to consider that the ebb and flow of the international game can leave managers almost as King Canutes of football.
Going into the Nations League campaign, it wasn’t McLeish’s intention to field a back four, as he sought the dynamism of a central defensive trio and wing-backs. That precluded fielding two wingers, yet it was these wide men in James Forrest and Ryan Fraser that between them bagged three goals in Skhoder on Saturday night. Moreover, two months ago, fielding Ryan Christie as a No 10 and Callum McGregor as the midfield anchor wouldn’t have been in McLeish’s thinking.
Only a month ago, few were expecting Christie to be featuring in major occasions, far less proving a crucial influence in them as he was at the weekend and in Celtic’s recent European success over Leipzig. Equally, no-one had McGregor pegged as the new Scott Brown until the old Scott Brown succumbed to injury.
Curiously, for all the furore about call-offs, these might ultimately have played into McLeish and Scotland’s favour. John McGinn has played well for his country. But with his injury withdrawal opening up the opportunity for Stuart Armstrong to step in, across the middle of the pitch there was that Celtic connection which undoubtedly helped forge understandings and drive the team forward. With Southampton’s Armstrong linking up with Christie, McGregor and Forrest, the high tempo, the probing, the passing triangles in the final third that Brendan Rodgers seeks from his team, were to be found in Scotland’s approach.
Of course, what also helped McLeish’s men the other night was the desultory nature of their hosts’ display – reflected in the crass indiscipline from captain Mergim Mavraj that led to his 22nd-minute red card for sticking the head on Christie – and an unjustified penalty award. That decision allowed Steven Fletcher, a natural foil for the Rodgersesque Scotland midfield, to score a first international goal in two years.
Israel won’t roll over as did Albania – the only team in Skhoder the other night that played as if they had no great regard for the promptings of their manager; the surely soon-to-be-deposed Christian Panucci.
What provided the real contrast was McLeish, for all the injury issues, was able to select an XI that could step on to the pitch feeling good about themselves courtesy of their club form. Fraser is in the form of his life at Bournemouth, as reflected in the imperious finish he produced early on. Likewise, with Forrest, whose second goal, and Scotland’s fourth really was a thing of beauty and demonstrated that the Celtic winger is in terrific touch.
Giving in-form players the roles that best allow them to translate their club form on to the international stage isn’t a hard and fast recipe for success. Nothing is, but it must be considered not a bad starting point. If injury permits – and given McLeish and Scotland’s recent luck that must be unlikely – the same players that excelled in Shkoder must be allowed to go again at Hampden tomorrow against Israel. A similar outcome just might be forthcoming.