Scotland’s preparations for their first international fixtures of the year have been beset by an age-old problem – a lack of striker options.
Gordon Strachan fears his forwards are betraying evidence of rustiness, meaning the Scotland manager is preparing to rely on goalscoring midfielders against Slovenia this weekend.
Of the five strikers picked by Strachan only Jordan Rhodes of Sheffield Wednesday started his club’s most recent match.
“That’s a bit disappointing for them – and for us,” the manager said yesterday.
Rhodes’ team-mate Steven Fletcher, Fulham’s Chris Martin and Steven Naismith of Norwich City tasted some action from the bench while Celtic striker Leigh Giffiths was an unused substitute in his side’s win over Dundee on Sunday.
Strachan yesterday confirmed Stuart Armstrong, who has scored three times in his last four outings for Celtic, won’t be considered for tomorrow’s friendly with Canada at Easter Road.
The decision to rest Armstrong along with most of his Celtic team-mates provides a strong indication that the player will make his Scotland debut in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier with Slovenia.
Strachan stressed he has “no qualms” about handing the in-form Armstrong his first cap from the start in such a crucial fixture. The midfielder scored in Celtic’s 2-1 win over Dundee and Strachan clearly feels Scotland’s striker difficulties could lead to them relying on firepower from midfield.
“When you look at the midfield, jeez, that’s strong that central midfield,” Strachan said as he sought to accentuate the positives. “And in the wide areas too (we are strong) with (Oliver) Burke, (James) Forrest, (Ryan) Fraser, (Robert) Snodgrass, (Matt) Ritchie and we had Matt Phillips there too, so we’re alright in these areas as well.”
West Bromwich Albion winger Phillips has dropped out of the squad due to injury, as has Newcastle United centre-half Grant Hanley. Leeds United defender Liam Cooper has been called up as cover.
Strachan revealed he could veer from his standard practice and name the team 24 hours before tomorrow’s clash with Canada, perhaps in a bid to rouse interest after disappointing ticket sales to date.
Strachan confirmed Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser will be handed “some game time” at Easter Road. Fulham midfielder Tom Cairney is also likely to be handed a senior Scotland debut tomorrow night after impressing this season. As with Armstrong he fits the bill of a goalscoring midfielder having scored nine times in the current campaign.
“Tom has scored a right few goals this year, Matt Ritchie has scored 13, Stuart has scored 12 I think, so there are guys in there with goals,” said the manager.
While Strachan is not considering anything quite as radical as playing without forwards, something predecessor Craig Levein once did with disastrous consequences, the manager suggested that in the modern game “you don’t really need” strikers.
“People always say ‘you need to play two strikers,’” he said. “But if the two strikers have only scored 12 goals between them and I’ve got two midfielders who have scored 25, what are you going to do?
“There’s more to it than shouting that you need two strikers. You don’t really need them. If your midfielders are scoring goals then that helps if you are playing with one main target man that’s not a striker.
“We have to try to see how many goals we can get into the team, and how we get everybody who is feeling good about themselves into the team.
“That’s a must, because sometimes they turn up here and they are really down. It’s very hard to raise your game when you’re down like that.”
Strachan is relieved he decided to arrange a friendly before Sunday’s must-win World Cup qualifier since it offers the chance of valuable playing time for strikers such as Griffiths, who has not started a game for Celtic since December.
“It’s like putting at golf,” said Strachan. “You can get to a certain stage with your game but playing regularly is what makes you able to make that putt. It’s the same with the finishing for strikers. You need that clinical edge.”
Strachan can ill-afford to be too dogmatic about refusing to select players who are not regular starters for their club. Otherwise, he quipped, “I wouldn’t have anybody to start!”
The manager didn’t even sound convinced that Rhodes, who has started all nine of his appearances for Sheffield Wednesday since signing on loan from Middlesbrough, is fully up to speed yet.
“If you look at Jordan, he’s only played the last four or five games,” said Strachan. “He didn’t have (much of) a game before that.
“So, in terms of games, the strikers have played hardly any games, as such.
“What you’ve got to look for then is who looks good, who looks strong, who is the fittest, who will last the longest and who feels good about themselves?
“People can be out of the team and still feel really good about themselves, while others take it personally when they’re not getting picked. You can see that from their body language.
“Some get frustrated. And you don’t want that frustration coming in, because it can spread through the team.”