After his men were booed off the park in his first game back at the helm for Scotland, Alex McLeish accused his young squad of succumbing to “stage fright” and suggested that they were not yet “streetwise” enough.
But he insisted that there were more options to consider as he toys with the idea of switching personnel and formations for Tuesday night’s meeting with Hungary in Budapest.
McLeish had rung the changes ahead of Friday night’s 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica, leaving many of the older guard on the sidelines as he tested the mettle of others. But the introduction of Celtic’s Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor in the 58th minute, and the way they immediately upped the tempo and the performance levels, suggests that others will have to make the most of any remaining opportunities or risk being passed over as the new era unfolds.
“We started too slowly when we left the dressing room, despite the war cry of high tempo and high pressing,” said the man who is back for his second stint as Scotland manager. “They got a bit of stage fright. The second half was good. We should have finished with at least a draw, we had chances.”
The experimental line-up, with five debutants, failed to ignite the passion which had been building in the latter stages of the last campaign under predecessor Gordon Strachan, who had built his side around a nucleus of half a dozen of Celtic’s invincible team of last season which gave the side greater drive, swagger and fluidity.
“I’m looking for other people to impact that and challenge that theory – that the Celtic players have been instrumental in Scotland’s fortunes over the past few months of Gordon’s era,” McLeish said. “The results came thicker and faster with the great form of the Celtic players.
“They play together as well, which shows. That gelling, knowing what each other is doing. That’s a factor in putting a team together.
“You know what you’re going to get from them – it’s up to others to show they can reach that standard. It’s OK saying everyone’s here on merit because of what they’re doing for their clubs but international level is another step up. Can they step up there and not have stage fright? Can they excel? That’ll be the judgment.
“There are some young guys who made their debuts and don’t have all the answers and that is where we are going to have to manage expectation levels as well. There were some good things.”
McLeish had been hoping there was enough strength in depth to be able to leave the treble winners on the sidelines and still be able to find a line-up that would offer hope, but instead had to turn to Armstrong and McGregor.
“They made a good impact, they increased the tempo, got further forward. We were sitting too deep before that and allowed Costa Rica, a well-drilled team who’ve played together for years, to keep the three up and play in between, which made it difficult for us.”
But he hasn’t given up hope of being able to supplement that established core and will give others the opportunity to impress in Tuesday’s friendly in Hungary. “There are a couple of niggles but we’re looking to see what we’ve got from the rest of the squad, some who didn’t start and others who didn’t come on. I want to see as much as I can.”
Expecting to swap a back three for four in defence, he could give Jack Hendry his debut, as he seeks to find a more solid solution at the back.
“It didn’t work as well as I would have liked,” he said of his defence, annoyed with the back three and their failings at the goal. “The goal was three guys marking space and not picking up. You have to engage with the forwards. It was a clever movement, and it was a simple finish for him. But from us it was awful to see centre backs marking space and thinking ‘why are you doing that, surely you have to pick up personnel’. That was a wee lesson going forward for them.”
But while some names are already pencilled in to start, there are quandaries to be resolved before the team is finalised in his own mind.
“We are deciding what to do at the back. We don’t have a lot of right-siders in terms of centre backs and we have a very young rookie in Jack Hendry, who I wanted to see training with the squad and see how he fits in. Otherwise it is about deciding a formation again and changing some personnel. We want to see other players and see what they can bring.
“[Scott] McKenna, for example, had a decent game, good switches of play, he was up tight on people, it was a sound debut.
“I’m sure the centre backs will look at the goal and agree someone should be picking up the one guy who comes in the box and scores. It’s just about being a little more streetwise.”