Craig Fowler gives his take as Scotland are embarrassed into the opening match of their European Championships qualifying campaign.
Oliver Burke’s final ball
Let’s start with the positives. Boy, Burke didn’t half have that full-back on toast during the opening exchanges, did he? You could really see the reason for him becoming Scotland’s most expensive ever player, not once but twice, every time he turned on the jets and roared by him. Then he attempted to cross the ball and you could really see the reason he’s on loan in the Scottish Premiership having barely played for second-tier West Brom this season. Even then he’s been coming off the bench in recent weeks. Until he finds a consistent final ball there’s little chance of him living up to his immense potential. Hey, it could still happen. It only James Forrest about seven years to do likewise.
James Forrest’s quiet performance
The saviour of the Nations League, and thereby the man who gave Alex McLeish his stay of execution. Playing in his first game since the hat-trick that defeated Israel at Hampden, Forrest was largely anonymous for the entirety of his 81 minutes on the park. In his defence, he may have been dragged down by his team-mates and a management team that had absolutely no idea how to break down an opponent that’s won four competitive games in a decade, but he deserves his share of the blame nonetheless.
The passivity of the midfield three
There were several question marks about the Scotland team coming into Thursday’s game, but the one area we were supposed to have covered was centre midfield. Stuart Armstrong is a Premier League player with Southampton, Celtic’s Callum McGregor is arguably the best player in Scotland, and John McGinn seems an English top flight ace in waiting after his heroics for Aston Villa in the Championship this season. And yet, they were guff. The worst part of it was how little they threw the Kazakhs off their stride. Every goal started with the midfield not doing enough to close down the player in possession, allowing the ball to be played into the penalty box. They actually took turns each: Armstrong at the first, McGregor at the second and McGinn at the third. In fairness to Armstrong, his part in the opener could have been down to tactics as Scotland were quite deep, while he was the best performer of the three on the day (not saying much).
Oli McBurnie’s prospects
He’s been in great scoring form for Swansea City in the Championship this season, so I’m refusing to believe that McBurnie is as bad as he appears every time he pulls on a Scotland jersey and plays for McLeish’s side. Thursday was another match were he was unable to link up play, hold up the ball or threaten the opposition.
Playing David Bates ahead of John Souttar
The Hamburg centre-back was shaky in the early going, and though he settled down a little (kinda, I guess) it still didn’t justify his selection over the Hearts defender. That’s because Scotland were instructed to try and pass their way through Kazakhstan. If you want to do so, it helps to have a centre-back, like Souttar, who is comfortable with the ball at his feet. The combination of Bates and Scott McKenna were never going to bring that. And for those thinking I’m merely bleating because a Hearts player never got a cap... you’re got to be kidding, right? I’m glad he stayed out of that horrorshow ahead of this summer while about £3 million was knocked off McKenna’s value in the space of 90 minutes.
The absolute state of the back four
Of course, Souttar for Bates wouldn’t have done much to the final score considering how horrendous everything else was. And there was nothing worse than the back four. Whether it was the bizarre attempt to play offside at the first goal, the ball getting played between two defenders for the second, or the third where a simple cross into the penalty box exploited a side already two goals down, it all combined to create a putrid mess of a performance and it should be illegal to ever speak of it again.
I have a degree of sympathy for the Aberdeen captain seeing as he’s played left-back about half a dozen times in the last four years. It’s easy to say he should have performed better at a position he excelled in during his time in Inverness - or just, you know, as a footballer in general - but it’s like this: we often hear about players not being “match sharp”. Basically, that means they’re fit, but as they’ve not played much football they’re not up to speed with everything. That doesn’t just go for the speed of the match, but also the speed of thought; the little intricacies that go with playing every different role on the park. If you’ve barely played a position in so long, are you “match sharp”? We saw the same on the international stage with Callum Paterson last year after Cardiff City had converted him to an attacking midfielder/striker/heading machine, and that was only 18 months from him playing right-back adequately for both Hearts and Scotland. Maybe we shouldn’t be angry at Shinnie. Maybe his national team coaches deserve it instead. (He was bad though, eh?)
The “change” at half-time
The first half was diabolical. Scotland were 2-0 down to Kazakhstan and hadn’t attempted a shot on target. What was McLeish going to do to get the team back in the game? Answer: make a slight alteration where James Forrest and Oliver Burke played as No.10s off Oliver McBurnie. So it went from a 4-3-3 to a... slightly narrower 4-3-3. Oh, and he said something about rugby players.
The second-half substitutes
Sixteen minutes and another goal later and it was finally decided a change was required. So on came Johnny Russell for Oliver McBurnie. A like-for-like change. It was at this point that an entire footballing nation lost the will to live.