It has been a while since Scotland have dined at the top table but having studied this summer’s World Cup action, Alex McLeish is hoping he can pick up enough titbits to sate the nation’s hunger for a return to major finals.
From watching even the likes of Brazil get ten men back behind the ball when possession is turned over, to seeing how England found a way to accommodate two quality full-backs.
The latter is pertinent to a dilemma the Scotland boss faces, due to the wealth of left-back talent he has at his disposal.
It would seem wasteful to leave either Andy Robertson or Kieran Tierney out the starting line-up but with the Liverpool man preferred in his natural full-back berth, there is a solution.
“If you look at trends in modern-day football, you’ll see that a lot of coaches like their full-backs to be able to play at centre-back and vice versa. Marcelo Bielsa has always had that philosophy. I’m not saying I’m copying Bielsa, but a lot of these guys are inspirational, Pep Guardiola, for instance,” said McLeish. “Look at what England did at the World Cup, they accommodated two fantastic right-backs from Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in [Kieran] Trippier and Kyle Walker. Walker has gone to a centre-back position in the three and adapted very easily and Tierney, I’m sure, can slot into the left-back position if Andy’s forward. But he can come back in to play the centre-half role, as he did in the friendly game [against Holland] in Aberdeen, and I really believe he’s capable of playing there.
“He’s a good footballer and we want to encourage the back guys to play football as well. We don’t want them taking big risks but we do want these guys to play the ball out if we are able to do it and see players able to receive the ball.”
Having named a tournament-sized squad for the friendly against Belgium on Friday and the Nations League opener against Albania three days later, he wants the players to get into that mindset as he works on a style of play he believes is needed to steer the side towards the Euros and, given the youthfulness of the squad, ultimately on to a World Cup.
Scotland came within touching distance when he was last at the helm and during his tenure recorded notable wins. The most memorable of all was that James McFadden-inspired triumph in Paris. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then but McLeish would love to see a return to the brave willingness of players to get on the ball, work hard to keep possession and win it back, and he wants to see more than simply the main striker weighing in with goals.
“We played a little bit deeper that night [in 2007] to try to shore up the defence a wee bit and we dealt with their midfield very well. Having locked on to the two central midfielders, that allowed us to have bodies there to get on the ball. That’s what I mean about courage. To have someone like Barry Ferguson who can take the ball in any stadium in the world and always make himself available for it.
“We have Celtic guys doing that as well and the English-based guys can take the ball. There is ongoing encouragement for the players to do that, because even in the World Cup, if you look at a lot of the teams, and I have researched it a wee bit, the way they lined up and the way they defended, you would even see ten Brazilians back in their own half and the reason for that is when they got the ball they always had a team-mate to find.”
The lack of goals in his squad is another factor that he says can be addressed if lessons are learned from performances in Russia this summer, pointing to what France achieved in winning the World Cup without an out-and-out striker weighing in with goals.
It places less of the onus on the shoulders of Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths, who is currently the top scorer in squad, with four goals, and demands more of the men around him on an attacking front. But the number of men in the squad who have found the net at this level before can be counted on one hand.
However, with games comes experience, something the squad lacks, as McLeish tries to look to the future and usher in a new era.
“It can be a problem in terms of players lacking a little bit of nous. Whether it is with possession or being in the right place, or reading the game. That all comes with experience and from playing lots of European games, cup finals, playing against top teams and when you play international football.
“But every time you pull on the jersey for those games you are learning and I would like to think that every time players get a cap then they go back home and go over their performances and look at it thinking ‘how can I improve?’ ‘Could I have been in a better position?’ ‘Could I have got in there to get a goal?’ That is the difference between up and coming players and players with the tactical experience and the mental experience as well.”