Scotland got their Uefa Nations League campaign off to a positive start with a 2-0 win over Albania. Joel Sked reviews the Hampden Park victory.
The fast start
Alex McLeish called it a “whirlwind”. Scotland were fast out the blocks, chasing, harrying and hunting down opponents without the ball and moving it quickly when they did. It was the kind high-intensity, up-an-at-em start which gets the crowd behind rather than on the team.
One moment in particular summed up the approach. Steven Naismith was fouled out by the right wing. Before he had even got to his feet, Stephen O’Donnell was haring past him down the right wing looking for a quick free-kick which duly arrived.
The pace and frenetic style made the first half an engaging and entertaining watch even if it did see the ball miss its intended target from time to time.
The only thing missing for Scotland was that bit of composure in the final third which would have brought about a deserved goal.
McLeish was vindicated
One thing which seems to unite Scottish football fans is an opinion on the Scotland starting XI. Therefore McLeish’s starting line-up prompted a number of raised eyebrows and plenty of reaction on social media with one current lower league Scottish footballer and prominent ‘interviewer’ making an inappropriate comment which was duly deleted alluding to McLeish’s state of mind when choosing the team.
However, McLeish was the one grinning at the end, content in the knowledge that he had got his team selection correct.
Allan McGregor brought his fine form for Rangers onto the international scene with some timely saves. O’Donnell impressed on the right, while Johnny Russell and Steven Naismith dovetailed really well in the absence of Leigh Griffiths who started among the substitutes.
The three at the back system is here to stay and the more McLeish is able to play a strong core within it the better for Scotland’s progression.
Right-back issue solved
Much has been made about the abundance of left-backs at McLeish’s disposal. It is completely understandable that he wants to find a way of playing Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson - Scotland’s most talented individuals - in the same team.
Both players had their moments over the two games. Tierney was being dragged out of position too easily against Belgium, while Robertson was often having to backtrack to collect a pass against Albania because he was making his runs too early from a higher position.
Yet, on the opposite side, Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell put in an exemplary performance as a right wing-back against Albania.
The player did himself no harm on the tour of Central and South America where he was one of the positives and was at his lung-busting best on Monday night.
His performance did not come as a surprise to Killie fans who have watched the player perform so well, bombing up and down the wing with incredible stamina for the past year. He was a one-man wrecking force at times, popping up in attack, then in defence, winning the ball back on the left, playing passes in the centre then popping up on the right again.
It was a highly confident, competent and solid performance and one which should keep him in stead for the games in October.
• READ MORE: Scotland 2-0 Albania: How the Scotland players rated
Scott Brown’s retirement has posed a big issue. Who fills the role at the base of the midfield?
Fulham’s Kevin McDonald started in the position against Albania but lasted only 45 minutes after a largely anaemic performance and was replaced by Stuart Armstrong.
McDonald has started three of Fulham’s first four Premier League games where he performs a key role at the base of the Cottagers’ midfield. They are one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in the division. Despite his influence in the past few seasons at Fulham he has only played twice for Scotland.
In the role against Albania he offered very little other than a number of under hit passes. He appeared out of keeping with the rest of the team.
However, with Armstrong’s introduction, Scotland had three central midfielders who are forward-thinking, positive and direct. Against better opposition this lack of balance will hurt Scotland and could see the defence overworked.
The curious case of John McGinn
There was a feeling of deja vu in the first half on Monday night. John McGinn had given the ball away unnecessarily in the midfield and immediately his hands went to his head as if he had just let go of his trolley at Tesco and it was hurtling towards an old age pensioner unaware that she was about to be floored.
It was his unfortunate mistake which presented Belgium with his first goal. It was slightly different against Albania in that he passed the ball rather than have it taken off him, it happened a lot higher and they didn’t score. But it was one of a few instances where the Aston Villa star was loose in possession.
It was as if a switch flicked every time he crossed the half way line. In Albania’s half he epitomised everything good about Scotland. He bullied the opposition, winning the ball back constantly, driving forward, committing players. It was McGinn at his best. Then he would enter his own half and become Albania’s best player and assist king.
Still, after any mistake he would still be at the heart of the action. Wanting the ball and winning the ball. It was as if he was too rushed with the ball in his own half, he just needed to take a second to pause and take in the surroundings a bit more. His attitude, however, can not be questioned.
Despite the erratic nature of his passing he will be a key player for years to come.
Level of opposition
There should be a small caveat. Were Albania that good? They looked a level below mediocre at best at a sodden Hampden Park, creating only a couple of openings.
In terms of physique and fitness it looked like boys against men at times as Scotland breezed past them or stopped any counter-attacks quickly and efficiently. The Albanians appeared ponderous and a couple of others words that beging with ‘P’.
That being said, this was a team which had qualified for Euro 2016 with a number of the players still in the squad. A team who had performed well away from home, defeating the likes of Portugal, Serbia, Turkey and Armenia in recent years.
Scotland can take great credit in making such a team look so sterile. Now the question is, can Scotland replicate such a performance and attitude away from home?