Following Friday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Costa Rica, Scotland finally gave the Tartan Army something to smile about with Alex McLeish’s first win in his second spell in charge, 1-0 against a physical Hungary side.
But what have we learned across the two fixtures ahead of a trip to the Americas in the summer?
Three at the back is here to stay
Starting with a back three in both games suggests that it’s going to form the base of the team going forward under McLeish, with changes likely to occur further forward as a 3-4-3 was used against Costa Rica and 3-4-1-2 against Hungary. There is not an obvious system which provides a balance and suits every key player.
Lining up with a trio of centre-backs allows Kieran Tierney to play the left of a back three, while pushing Andy Robertson further up the park. The duo are Scotland’s most talented players, with Robertson offering a quality attacking threat as seen against Costa Rica. It does mean that in certain games Scotland could lack width high up the pitch, while Leigh Griffiths is used to playing as a sole striker.
The summer friendlies would be ideal if McLeish were to take a full-strength team, but it allows for further trial and error.
No honeymoon period for McLeish
A combination of McLeish’s recent managerial record, his departure from Scotland the last time around and the SFA’s handling of the appointment left fans angry, underwhelmed and/or incredulous. It meant Scotland fans missed out on the alacrity a new manager brings. Instead, those same feelings that existed towards the end of Strachan’s spell continue to fester, meaning if fans or pundits spot a chance to criticise they will take it. Gleefully.
That was certainly the case after the Costa Rica game. Some pundits were talking about the pressure on McLeish and how Hungary was a must-win. A friendly. Must. Win. Absolutely bonkers. The situation has, however, brought pressure. Without a honeymoon period the national team are expected to show signs of progress. Quickly. Realistically the main judgments should come in the first two competitive fixtures, against Albania and Israel.
McLeish has defensive options
Twelve months ago the question was asked: “Where have all the centre-backs gone?” They were there all along, we just didn’t know it. Over the two games Scott McKenna was, if not the best, certainly the most consistent performer. Physically imposing he showed he was ready for the step up. Jack Hendry continued his meteoric rise with his debut and some excellent interventions against Hungary.
On top of those two there is Liam Lindsay, impressing in the Championship, John Souttar, enjoying his best season at centre-back, plus the experience of Christophe Berra, whose reputation has strengthened since returning to Hearts. There is also Ross McCrorie who offers versatility, capable of stepping in to play at the base of the midfield. And all of Charlie Mulgrew, Russell Martin and Grant Hanley are playing regular football, which has not always been the case.
There will likely only be two positions available in a back three with the expectation Tierney will fill the left-sided centre-back position. Maybe it is time for McLeish to reinvent Catenaccio for Scotland to defend their way to European glory and world domination?
Phillips is an enigma
Scott McKenna was given man of the match for the win over Hungary. It is hard to argue with the award but a case could certainly have been made for Matt Phillips. The West Brom forward has been much-maligned in the Scotland fold. Prior to the Costa Rica fixture he played every minute of the previous five matches, much to the disbelief of many.
Then he offers up a performance like the one on Tuesday night and you understand why managers are keen for him to be part of the squad. He has attributes that few in the forward positions possess, namely pace and power. He held the ball up astutely and offered a constant threat in behind with his movement. The fine finish for the winning goal was just reward for his performance. If not a player for the starting XI, Phillips is definitely a useful squad member.
Scottish Premiership v English Championship
One of the criticisms of Gordon Strachan was his reluctance to use domestic-based players. Fans got to witness what was essentially a Championship side against Costa Rica and were underwhelmed. Tom Cairney appeared disinterested which frustrated many due to the positive write-ups and multi-million-pound speculation which has surrounded the player. It wasn’t until the introduction of Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor that Scotland finally got a bit of drive and incision from the central areas.
John McGinn was added to the Celtic duo, plus James Forrest in a central attacking position. Along with the aforementioned Hendry and McKenna, they all have the mobility and physicality needed at international level. Hungary did their best to put Scotland off their stride with a lot of late challenges. But these players simply shrugged their shoulders and dug in, used to the robust challenges and poor pitches from the Scottish Premiership.
Without jumping to too many conclusions, a combination of the country’s English and Scottish Premiership players is the way forward.
McGregor should become a focal point
Fans and pundits were left screaming into a void towards the end of Gordon Strachan’s reign as he continued to overlook Callum McGregor despite the midfielder continuing to impress for Celtic. Scottish supporters were crying out to see his composure, intelligence and ability in midfield. They finally got a glimpse when he was brought on against Costa Rica and helped Scotland control the game towards the end.
It was obvious he had to start in Budapest and he impressed without dominating. In a game which was bruising for large parts, McGregor offered a panacea. No Scottish player embodies the phrase ‘let the ball do the work’ more than McGregor. He uses his body so well to take the ball on the move, turning a promising situation in to a dangerous one.
The central midfield area is strong but McLeish has to make sure he works the 24-year-old into the team. He offers different qualities to most midfielders as well as a goal threat.
McLeish does not fancy Cummings
With only two out-right strikers in the squad it seemed likely that the on-loan Rangers man would be afforded a reasonable amount of game time. Yet that was not to be the case. With the team chasing the game against Costa Rica, McLeish opted for Matt Phillips to replace Oli McBurnie and then Jamie Murphy was also summoned from the bench despite not being a goal scorer the way Cummings is.
It was roles reversed in the Hungarian capital as McBurnie came on for a tiring Phillips. It is understandable as McBurnie is similar to Phillips in that he provides a more mobile and robust threat, and is more adept at working as a focal point. Cummings was then given a token 90 seconds where he did manage a handful of touches and a handball. Despite the countries lack of strikers he is, at very best, fourth choice.
McGregor will battle Gordon for No 1 spot
At least Cummings saw game time. Both Jon McLaughlin and Jordan Archer were left planted to the bench over the 180 minutes. Allan McGregor carried on his Hull City form, performing well in both games, albeit he was rarely tested.
The goalkeeping situation is a medium-to-long-term issue. McGregor is 36 while Craig Gordon is 35. It is not a situation which should concern McLeish for the upcoming campaign. Both are still excellent options, something which others countries would certainly be envious of.
It is the one area that McLeish may have approached with short-termism in his short spell in charge. An injury or loss of form and he may have to put a goalkeeper untried at international level in.
The win over Hungary meant the international break ended on a high and positives were easier to find. However, the standard of opposition ranged from mediocre to downright muck. Costa Rica will unlikely pull up any trees at the World Cup. As for Hungary, they besmirched the good name of the Magical Magyars.
Fraser did not like Strachan
Prior to the Costa Rica match Ryan Fraser took part in the Scottish FA’s official podcast alongside McGinn. Both players spoke well with the latter proving to be a switched-on, humble and funny individual. As for Fraser, this is a player who clearly wants to get the most out of his talent after having his outlook changed at Bournemouth.
He wasn’t slow to mention his lack of game time under Strachan, while mentioning the improvements - emphasis on the plural - since McLeish replaced his former Aberdeen team-mate.