Scotland’s display against England brought a sense of achievement despite the scoreline reading 0-0. After claims that Steve Clarke’s side were nothing more than fodder for an English rampage, Scots were entitled to a wry smile.
Some Tartan Army footsoldiers have travelled across Europe and the world without seeing such a composed and confident-looking team in dark blue. And given the reaction to Monday’s opening Euro 2020 defeat against Czech Republic, fans were forgiven for heading to London with some trepidation. Not that it showed when they hit the city’s streets.
To use the familiar Scottish vernacular, England were expecting to leather their neighbours in the second Group D match. Standing on Wembley Way pre-match, cockney accents confidently predicted “phree-nil Eng-er-lund, ‘Arry Kane to score first, one million per cent”. The Scots within earshot simply looked and smirked.
Everyone north of the Border knew Steve Clarke’s side were capable of much more guile, intensity and bravery than what ensued against the Czechs. They didn’t play badly, but nor did they get near full potential. Friday was the night to address the matter and ram English words down English throats.
Clarke’s decisions faultless
Which is exactly what happened with one of the most complete Scottish displays ever seen at a major competition. Now, for those getting carried away it is worth remembering that our national team have yet to score a goal at this tournament, but the improvement between their first two games offers great encouragement.
Tactically, Clarke’s team selection and approach were faultless. He kept faith with David Marshall in the wake of criticism for the second Czech goal at Hampden. He stuck by Stephen O’Donnell, another derided after Monday, he moved Scott McTominay from midfield to defence, he handed 20-year-old Billy Gilmour his first Scotland start, he reinstated Callum McGregor in midfield, and he paired Lyndon Dykes with Che Adams up front.
Every decision was justified. Marshall wasn’t pressed into action too often but looked assured whenever called upon. Ahead of him, a three-man defence of McTominay, Grant Hanley and Kieran Tierney were colossal. Any of the three could have left Wembley as man of the match.
McTominay and Tierney’s confidence in driving out of defence with the ball offered the perfect complement to Hanley’s raw defensive aggression and reading of the game. The Norwich City defender looks a much-improved player after being questioned by fans in recent years.
With distribution from the back, Scotland were able to control midfield areas for large spells. Their approach at times even looked continental. Gilmour moved, pressed, passed and tackled like an experienced veteran. McGregor played like a man desperate to keep his place, while ahead of them John McGinn was his usual tenacious self.
That triumvirate are not exactly celebrated for physical attributes – perhaps with the exception of McGinn’s famous backside – but they steamed into tackles with a controlled aggression that knocked England out of their stride.
And it wasn’t all fight and passion. There was plenty football played by those three, and the others in dark blue. The Tartan Army were loving it.
O’Donnell the new Cafu?
O’Donnell at right wing-back answered his critics perfectly with an imposing night both defensively and in attack. His early cross for Adams might have brought the perfect start but for John Stones’ block, then came that volley which forced an instinctive one-handed parry from the England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
The Motherwell defender offered an extra weapon when needed in forward areas. His strength of character to defy the doubters can only be admired. One text which buzzed on this correspondent’s phone after the game likened him to Cafu, the maverick Brazilian right-back who operated more like a second winger throughout his career.
If that message was slightly tongue-in-cheek, it nonetheless captured O’Donnell’s public transformation in just a few days.
On the opposite flank, captain Andy Robertson was even more adventurous. Statistics show his average position across the 90 minutes against England was higher than Dykes. With Tierney underlapping – and occasionally overlapping – from left centre-back, their understanding brings a synergy which is vital to Clarke’s system.
That system clicked into place on Friday and Gilmour was a large part of the reason. The youngster from Ardrossan earned his first two Scotland caps in pre-tournament friendlies against Netherlands and Luxembourg. This was his first start and he bossed it, walking away with the man-of-the-match award.
England’s midfield contained West Ham United’s Declan Rice, Gilmour’s Chelsea team-mate Mason Mount, plus the Leeds United player Kalvin Phillips. None of them could get near the diminutive Scottish No.23.
Phillips is nicknamed The Yorkshire Pirlo by Leeds fans and one amusing tweet from Montrose FC during Friday’s game summed up Gilmour’s impact against him. Pretending to quote the youngster, it read: “Hullo? Is that the Yorkshire Pirlo? Aye, this is the Ardrossan Ardiles. That’s yer dinner oan the table son.”
There have been plenty other quips since the full-time whistle brought widespread jeering and booing around Wembley from disgruntled English supporters. Joking aside, the Euro 2020 group phase is approaching the nitty-gritty.
Scotland need to bottle what they produced in London and replicate it back in Glasgow. Croatia, their final opponents on Tuesday at Hampden Park, offer a very different kind of football opponent to England. Their technical, possession-based style is something the Scots need to interrupt to gain control.
The aforementioned continental approach evident in periods at Wembley will definitely be needed. No Scottish side should ever lose its passion but it must come with purposeful, intelligent football. The kind which shocked England to the point of jeering their team from the field on Friday.