The claim by the national manager that the Scottish way is “scared football” will have greater resonance than anything else that happened across last week’s double-header which brought two sobering defeats.
Shaun Maloney would petition that isn’t quite what makes it a boys-against-men scenario when Scotland are ranged against such as Italy and France, whose 1-0 and 3-0 victories respectively over Gordon Strachan’s side did not do justice to their dominance.
For Strachan the phrase was shorthand for players not trusting technique or physical prowess sufficiently to step forward and take men on but instead hastily offloading, with the outcome often over-ambitious passes which surrender possession. Maloney, though, considers the problem is that Scotland are so often forced to play what might be called “drained football” because of what the best teams can do to inferior opposition.
“It’s not being scared, it’s more that when they are in possession you are working so hard to get the ball back,” the 33-year-old said. “You are running lots and lots of distance to try to get close to them and the deeper we get, when we do get possession you generally find we are all in our own half, all pretty close to one another because we’ve been defending. That’s when we struggle to keep possession. There were occasions against France when we got four, five passes together and looked a little bit more comfortable. I don’t think it’s scared, you are all showing for the ball, it is just that we are out of possession for so long when we get possession it is difficult to keep it. It’s a vicious circle.”
It’s a vicious cycle that Scotland appear trapped in after a season where distress over missing Euro 2016 has ended with dismay as to what could lie ahead in the World Cup qualifying campaign that starts away to Malta in September. Scotland then play Lithuania, Slovakia, England and Slovenia in the subsequent seven months. Only England, who Scotland will face at Wembley in November, are on a level with Italy and France but after two decades without an appearance in a major finals all teams can seem major final roadblocks.
Scotland’s end-of-season misadventures have hardly engendered optimism that Scotland can compete with England in five months. Scotland seemed more competitive against world champions Germany in the ill-fated Euro 2016 qualifiers than they looked against Italy and France. Yet that titan of self-reflection Maloney would say that the two defeats in the past week are not evidence that the gap is growing between Scotland and the elite. Depressingly, that is because the Hull City attacker – given the first 45 minutes in Metz on Saturday night – believes they were no less outclassed by Germany than Italy and France.
“I don’t think before last week we thought the gap was narrowing massively,” Maloney said. “The Germany game at Hampden we lost 3-2 [last September] felt pretty similar to the France; it was just that we had set pieces we scored from in that game. I think the challenge, not just for the current Scotland players but every Scottish player, is that when you watch a side like this you have to aspire to bridge that gap any way you can.
“When you play in a match like the one in Metz it reaffirms the things you have to do on a day-to-day basis at your club, the preparation and dedication that is needed to try and get close to a side like this. In the first half you could see they were an excellent side and we struggled to deal with them really. You play against the real elite international teams – and, at this present time, I think they are probably one of the favourites going into the Euros – you see their squad and when you play against them you realise it is a step up in quality. It wasn’t too pleasant to play that first half.”
Yet Maloney believes that ramping up the unpleasantness about all aspects of the national game on the back of what befell Strachan’s side against Italy and France would be too much. “It is two friendlies at the end of the season and you have to take it that way,” he said. “You can take it the negative way too.
“But the other way to take is that pre-season with your club you are going to have to work very, very hard to try to bridge that gap between the elite teams and us any way you can. Because that is what is needed: real hard work. There are things that they can do physically and technically that as a country we must strive for. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”