Stuart Bathgate: Scotland must show more in Skopje

THAT victory in Croatia at the start of summer feels a long way away now. In fact, you might describe it as so last season, given we have now all too tangibly entered autumn.

The Scotland squad are put through their paces. Picture: SNS
The Scotland squad are put through their paces. Picture: SNS

And perhaps the mood engendered then has also started to fade. Or at least, any sense of rebirth brought about by that 1-0 win in Zagreb feels at best premature.

Yes, Scotland put in a spirited shift in the 3-2 defeat by England. Yes again, they were far from disgraced in last Friday’s 2-0 loss to Belgium, whose abundance of talent has seen them emerge as genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.

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But spirit in itself is not enough. Wee boys playing a kickabout in the park show spirit. Non-league teams playing cup-ties against top-flight opponents show spirit. And invariably lose.

At international level, whatever the inherent shortcomings of your country’s squad, you want to be able to honestly conclude that they are making progress. You want them to excel themselves individually, no matter if that still means they are outclassed by players such as Marouane Fellaini. And you want them to prove collectively that they are heading in the right direction.

That’s where we are with Scotland right now. When they take on Macedonia, a team who got a draw against Craig Levein’s Scotland at Hampden almost exactly a year ago, we will want to see that something other than the attitude has changed.

Since taking over in January, Gordon Strachan has, without question, lifted the mood around the national team. But while morale has been raised, Scotland’s position in Group A could not get any lower: they had gone bottom by the time play began at Hampden, as a result of the Macedonians’ win over Wales, and, of course, they were still bottom when the match against Belgium ended.

A camp can remain happy for only so long if the league table shows no measurable improvement. The same goes for the support, notwithstanding the fact that a considerable majority of Scotland fans applauded the appointment of Strachan.

From the point of view of national pride, not to mention the seeding pots for future tournaments, we could do with a win this evening. But it’s not the result itself so much as the manner in which it is achieved that’s the most important thing in this game.

After all, if Macedonia are abysmal and Scotland win thanks to an own goal, that will not represent progress other than in the accumulation of points. We need the team to play well, no matter the quality of the opposition. And perhaps we also need the manager to show a little more appreciation of some of his most gifted players.

His remarks about Jordan Rhodes after the Friday-night defeat by Belgium, for example, were not encouraging. The Blackburn striker was left with “a system which doesn’t suit him right now”, according to the manager, who was speaking before Rhodes was ruled out of tonight’s game with a broken hand. The obvious riposte to that would be: well maybe we should change the system to accommodate Rhodes, even just for two or three games to see if it’s worth it.

And the selection of Leigh Griffiths as the sole striker in a 4-5-1 formation was equally discouraging. It’s not the 4-5-1 itself that’s the worry (or the 4-4-1-1 if that’s what you want to call it in acknowledgement that Shaun Maloney was in an advanced central position at times). If you have two wingers who can get down the flanks and attack the full-backs, as Nacer Chadli and Kevin de Bruyne did for Belgium, an ostensible 4-5-1 line-up can be far more attack-minded – not to mention more effective – than an orthodox 4-4-2.

Instead, the concern is that Griffiths, our one current player capable of conjuring a goal out of thin air, was fielded in a position to which he is unsuited. If he plays in a forward two, the Wolves striker has something to work off: knockdowns from a bigger, more conventional partner, or simply the space which another striker can create. If he plays in a 4-4-1-1, Griffiths should be the less advanced 1: again, ghosting into space, with the latitude to move from left to middle, rather than being the static target man.

The fact that Griffiths and Rhodes are playing down the divisions in England should be regarded as irrelevant. Until we have anyone consistently scoring goals in the upper reaches of the Premiership, the promise shown by those two should be pretty persuasive for Strachan when he gets round to selecting his teams. If not tonight, when he seems set on starting with Steven Naismith up front, then soon.

I’ll take all this back, of course, if Naismith scores a couple tonight and Scotland get the win, because the individuals are of secondary importance. Right now, we simply need the team as a whole, no matter the personnel of which they are made up, to show they are on the right track.