Martin Hannan: Variety is spice of Scots squad

CHANGE for change’s sake is something all club managers usually abhor, but when you are in charge of a national side, the nature of the beast is that you have to plan for the changes you will undoubtedly have to make, and friendly games are where you do your planning.

Gordon Strachan: Lucky mascot. Picture: SNS
Gordon Strachan: Lucky mascot. Picture: SNS

That was the thinking behind Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s approach to last night’s international against Norway.

Since his arrival in the job in January, Strachan has put together a relatively settled line-up and a modus operandi that has had the Tartan Army purring, but Strachan had to know that he could make changes, that he could switch tactical systems and, perhaps more importantly, bring new personnel into the various systems.

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Hence last night’s chopping and changing, before and during the match, and if you judge on outcomes, you have to say Strachan was successful.

He changed things around, and Scotland won. Another piece has been inserted in the Scottish jigsaw, not with the best of performances, but with the proof that this current squad can modify and metamorphose.

Before this final fixture of the year for Scotland, we knew that Strachan had revived the team spirit and individual work ethic that is so important to a national side missing players of the very highest quality. He also seems to know his best squad now, but is not afraid to make controversial selections that he feels are necessary, such as making five changes in the starting XI from Friday as well as recalling Kris Boyd after three years out of international football, and then sitting him on a cold Nordic bench for 90 minutes.

So far, so good, on all those fronts. But could the manager change things in the other area where he has greatest influence, namely the onfield tactics?

After last night’s experiments, we know that his side can play 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 – Strachan’s preferred formations throughout his managerial career – and adapt to them swiftly and professionally.

Not that Strachan would put it in those terms. Never one for “systems”, especially the numbers-a-go-go beloved of certain managers, Strachan denied beforehand that his main tactic is to play 4-5-1 with a lone striker.

“We try never to have a lone striker,” he said on Monday. “We try to ensure that there are always other people working round him.”

The manager stated he was going to “try something a wee bit different” and that he wanted to see “that this particular system can be used later on.” So, no lone striker then…

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Well, not exactly, because for the first half-hour at least, that’s exactly how Scotland played in Molde, with Steven Naismith as that “Lone ex-Ranger” up front.

If anything, the 4-5-1 system was more rigid than in recent matches. Naismith was on his own for long periods, mainly because the clear willingness of Ikechi Anya and Robert Snodgrass to plough down the left and right wings to assist the striker was curtailed by Norway’s pressurising tactics and greater possession.

Then came Strachan’s big switch. With Norway succeeding in attacking with two, three and even four up, Scotland went to 4-4-2 with Snodgrass joining Naismith up front. The “new” system began to look good for the Scots. They seemed much more comfortable on the ball and in the minutes before half-time, the Norwegians showed their frustration by dealing out some hefty tackles.

Like Scotland, Norway’s national side is in a state of transition following their failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup Finals in Brazil. They, too, need to get back on track.

So for much of the match, even after the concession of Scott Brown’s goal, Norway showed that they wanted to win badly to gain confidence for future campaigns. How they missed so many chances only the residents of Valhalla know.

Yet as new faces arrived and slotted into the Scottish side, the wisdom of what Strachan was trying to do became obvious – transforming line-ups and systems will have to become second nature to Scotland in the forthcoming European Championship qualifying matches. He had to find out about adaptability, even his own, so to that extent Strachan can say job done.

One thing the manager, players and supporters hope will not change and that is Scotland’s good fortune of late. Norway should have won, or at least drawn, and were unlucky not to do so, though goalkeeper David Marshall must take great credit for his many saves.

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Napoleon Bonaparte was once asked which quality he prized most in a general. He replied “luck”, and maybe, just maybe, Scotland are now managed by a man replete with that prized quality, though he won’t count on it and will keep planning everything he can, including change.