John Souttar is on course to make his senior Scotland debut next month as Alex McLeish considers his defensive options ahead of the Hampden double-header against Belgium and Albania.
The Hearts centre-half earned lavish praise at the weekend from his club boss Craig Levein, one of McLeish’s predecessors in charge of the national team, for his display in the 1-0 win over champions Celtic at Tynecastle.
Souttar had been called up by McLeish for the summer friendlies against Peru and Mexico at the end of last season but was among the raft of players who withdrew from that squad. But with Hearts captain Christophe Berra joining Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna on the list of injured Scotland defenders, 21-year-old Souttar is in the frame for the challenge match against World Cup third-place finishers Belgium on 7 September and the Uefa Nations League opener against Albania three days later.
McLeish is wary of taking all club managerial recommendations at face value but admits Souttar’s time at senior international level may have come.
“Every week there is a player who has an excellent game and every manager will claim a player was excellent on that particular day,” said McLeish.
“Obviously I can’t pick everyone. I’d need a squad of about 100 if I went with every gaffer who said how good his player was that weekend.
“But John Souttar is on the radar. He was going to come to South America but the kid phoned me himself and said he’d been suffering with a foot injury and it would be better for him to rest over the summer. We made a lot of concessions in the summer for players who had hard seasons and needed to recuperate. Some players had been overloaded for a couple of years. But now everyone is on the radar and John had a good game at the weekend.”
McLeish will also consider using Kieran Tierney in a more central role next month as he looks to accommodate both the Celtic left-back and his Liverpool compatriot Andrew Robertson in the same starting line-up.
“We have to maximise our best players,” added McLeish. “Dare I say it, England did the same thing with Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier at the World Cup this year. Walker is, to all intents and purposes, a right-back or wing-back. But he took to the centre-back position like a duck to water. So there are ways to get all your best players in the team.”
John McGinn is likely to be another key figure in McLeish’s plans for the Nations League campaign which offers Scotland an added opportunity to secure qualification for the 2020 European Championship finals.
A former Aston Villa manager, McLeish believes McGinn will thrive at the club he joined from Hibs last week, turning down rival interest from Celtic.
“I can see the attraction of playing in England for John and his style of play is likely to be suited to the Championship down there,” said McLeish.
“Maybe he thought there would be too much competition for places at Celtic – you’d need to ask him – but Villa is a big club with great facilities and it’s a division where his swashbuckling approach can flourish.
“Maybe he’s been guaranteed a start at Villa, I don’t know. But going to Villa will empower him and increase his confidence. Of course, that would also have happened if he’d signed for Celtic, because he’s a boy who believes in himself. But with the start he’s made at Villa, where he got rave reviews for his debut against Wigan on Saturday, the likelihood is that he will be playing for them most weeks and that’s important.”
McLeish was at Craven Cottage on Saturday to watch three of his midfield candidates – James McArthur of Crystal Palace and the Fulham duo Tom Cairney and Kevin McDonald – in action and was encouraged by what he saw as he looks to fill the void filled by the international retirement of Celtic captain Scott Brown.
“He’s a good player, James, and he makes it look easy,” added McLeish. “He maybe doesn’t have the same all-action approach as Scott. But James is the same in terms of getting into the right positions, reading the game and keeping the traffic moving. He’s probably one of the most experienced midfielders we have. He played really well at the weekend. Cairney and McDonald didn’t do too badly either.
“We are keeping an eye on everyone down there and it was also good to see Ryan Fraser doing well for Bournemouth.”
Tickets for the Belgium and Albania fixtures go on general sale this Friday and McLeish is urging Scotland supporters to embrace the significance of the new Nations League competition.
“I know the punters might be more captivated by the thought of seeing Belgium,” he said. “But it’s important to realise the most important game is against Albania. If we win our Nations League group, we have a double chance of qualifying for the Euros. So the Albania game is much more important in the grand scheme of things.”