Joel Sked gives his take on Scotland’s much maligned friendlies with Peru and Mexico which ended in 2-0 and 1-0 defeats respectively.
It wasn’t pointless
It is understandable that there were some, well many, who saw the national team’s sojourn to Peru and Mexico as nothing more than a futile exercise where the team would simply act as a punching bag for nations actually going to the World Cup.
Even some players thought just that with a raft of call-offs prior to the trip, while a couple of players were excused to fly home early due to prior commitments. Back home, fans had to forego sleep if they wanted to watch what was bordering on Scotland’s third team in action.
However, it gave Alex McLeish further time to assess a range of players and the depth, or lack of, in the squad. It gave those same players, nine of which are 23 or under, valuable experience. Nine players also got their first caps for the country, even if for some it will likely be their last.
It is a trip which will live with most of the players for the rest of their lives. You only have to listen them speak about their experiences and witness them, via social media, lap up every moment of being involved.
For the Tartan Army, it took them to new places. Not many travelled, but those that did will certainly have welcomed the adventure.
Perhaps not the most crucial aspect of the national team to figure out but it is safe to say that Jordan Archer did himself a lot of harm with his performance against Peru.
His nervy run and attempt at clearing a ball was comical in the build-up to the penalty which gave the Peruvians the lead. It was followed by a weak effort of keeping Jefferson Farfan’s shot out after half-time, all but ending the game as a contest.
Bizarrely, he was afforded a full 90 minutes while Scott Bain and John McLaughlin had to share a half each against Mexico. Both acquitted themselves well as the Mexicans peppered the Scotland goal with 32 shots.
They proved that they are more than good enough to provide competent back-up to Craig Gordon and Allan McGregor. McLaughlin will feel he could even challenge for the No.1 position.
The right… back
With every footballer born in Scotland since the mid-90s seeming to be a left-back, it has left a limited choice on the right-hand side.
In the Ladbrokes Premiership there has been a trio of competent Scots who have performed well for their clubs this past season: Richard Tait at Motherwell, Ross County’s Jason Naismith and Stephen O’Donnell at Kilmarnock.
The latter was one of only two players, the other Scott McKenna, to play every minute of the two fixtures. Amusingly, he wasn’t even in the original squad.
His energy levels were incredible. Deep into the second half in the altitude-sapping Mexico City, O’Donnell was still thundering up and down the wing. He has the physicality to cope at international level and is a diligent, dependable defender.
He won’t pull up too many trees but has put a good case across to be considered strongly going forward.
It appears that Alex McLeish will be looking to Charlie Mulgrew to lead the Scottish defence. He was the oldest and by far the most experienced player in the squad in terms of caps, 23 more than any other player coming into the friendlies.
There is, however, every chance he could be usurped. Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna continued his quiet, understated development with two solid performances, while Jack Hendry showed up relatively well against Mexico, even if he requires more work.
Heart of Midlothian’s John Souttar was called upon before he required surgery as he too progresses into a more robust centre-back. And if Christophe Berra continues his form into next season he will be hard to ignore.
There is more than enough defending talent now that both Russell Martin and Grant Hanley can be resigned to the bottom of the pecking order much to the delight of most Scottish fans.
Callum Paterson played 82 minutes across the two games, managing to appear in four roles, none of which was the right-back position where he made his name at Hearts. He was stationed on the right of midfield, in the centre, as a No.10 and as a striker.
He was started in the No.10 position against Mexico before dropping slightly deeper. It was the position he had success in for Cardiff City as they were promoted to the Premier League. He thrived in a specific Neil Wanrock game plan. For Scotland it should be an experiment which is consigned to the dustbin.
Where does that leave him?
Physically, he is a monster. Technically, he is lacking to play as a No.10. Defensively, Warnock has question marks. Tactically, he needs work.
Yet, he needs to be included somewhere, whether it is in the starting XI or as an impact sub. He brings a valuable quality: chaos.
In the opening game against Peru, Scotland frustrated their hosts. Much was made of the Scots’ approach in the Peruvian press, as they made La Blanquirroja work hard for the win.
The defensive and midfield lines stayed compact and narrow, Peru offering little threat down the flanks. It was an organised, structured, albeit uninspiring set-up.
They limited Peru to a lot of shots from distance.
Mexico too took many shots from outside the box as Scotland worked feverishly to thwart the Mexican wave of attacks.
It was a much more trying 90 minutes in the Azteca Stadium where Scotland hung in despite being on the verge of being engorged by the home side. It was only until a switch to a back three and the long-range passing of experienced Mexican skipper Rafa Marquez that they constantly got in behind the Scottish defence.
However, it was clear in the Mexico game that Scotland missed a natural defensive midfielder who would sit, intercept and break-up attacks.
At the Toulon Tournament in France, Allan Campbell has excelled for Scotland’s 21s. He has that intrinsic quality of being everywhere all the time, snapping into challenges, winning the ball back then using it well.
In the first-half against Mexico, the home side’s movement really tested Scotland’s structure. Kenny McLean and Dylan McGeouch looked liked untrained firefighters turning up to the wrong fire and crashing the truck.
A longing for a Scott Brown figure at the base of the midfield will follow Scotland around for a while, or until Campbell makes the move to the next level.
With the likes of McLean, McGeouch and Manchester United’s Scott McTominay in the midfield, the thought was Scotland would be able to keep the ball. That wasn’t the case.
A common criticism of Scotland is the inability to keep possession. There are a number of technically proficient players now playing for the country, but on the world or European stage they appear to get spooked with the ball.
McGeouch, especially, was a shadow of the player who excelled for Hibs this season.
It is not simply the touch, technique and passing but movement off the ball as well. Mexico, specifically Miguel Layun, gave a demonstration of the danger that is caused by drifting between lines and into space. A simple task which Scotland make look so difficult.
Leigh Griffiths. Full stop. Period. Nothing else. Effectively, that is all Scotland have in the striking department.
There has, however, been green shoots. Oli McBurnie, Johnny Russell and Lewis Morgan all showed up well.
McBurnie has the qualities to lead the line on his own. He is stronger than his build suggests, he poses a threat in the air and works his rolled-down socks off, plus he plays with an edge. Like all forwards he would look much better with more support.
Russell brings variety to the attack, playing from the right or as a support striker, while Morgan should have been afforded more time against Mexico after showing up really well against Peru off the bench.
The former St Mirren attacker gave a glimpse of his potential, as he looks to make his mark at Celtic, taking the ball in tight areas, showing confidence, positivity and authority.
It was in sharp contrast to Matt Phillips who huffed and puffed his way through the Peru encounter. The West Brom attacker was fielded as a central striker and was thoroughly dominated by Alberto Rodríguez.
It was understandable McLeish opted for him to lead the line with his physical attributes, namely power and pace. But what he lacked was the competency to hold the ball up. It left both the player and team frustrated as he failed to relieve pressure.
For a Premier League player it was an appearance that was so limited.
Ryan Christie was another who failed to deliver. While Phillips was noticeable in his disappointment, Christie was simply anonymous, as he continued his Aberdeen form into representing Scotland.