The folly of playing left-backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney out of position in a Scotland line-up is obvious to anyone watching the national team. Except that nary a soul remarked upon Robertson being installed at left wing-back and Tierney being on the left of a back three in Scotland’s 2-2 draw with England 16 months ago under the stewardship of Gordon Strachan.
Alex McLeish, then, has hardly sought to reinvent the wheel and replace it with a four-sided one. Some of the reaction to his team configuration for the dreadful 2-1 defeat against Israel in the Nations League on Thursday night might suggest otherwise, though. The same suggestions were not being voiced so vehemently when his 3-5-2 got the job done against Albania a month ago in the Nations League opener that marked his first competitive game in charge.
Yet the revolutions of rage over McLeish’s default formation might spin out of control if he does not win in Albania and at home to Israel next month to see Scotland top their Nations League group. It could leave him rolling out of his present position after only ten games in charge – the same number of matches he presided over as manager in his excellent first spell 12 years ago – and he knows that.
Only victories offer protection from condemnation of his methods, and the 59-year-old is sufficiently versed in the vagaries of his trade to also know that. Privately, he will further be aware that tonight’s friendly at Hampden against a Portugal side ranked seventh in the world is the longest shot for offering him any respite from the rancour being propelled in his direction. “I take criticism on the chin and bounce back. But we know we have to persevere and do it again,” he said of sticking by Robertson and Tierney’s roles through selecting a back three in competitive fixtures. “The only solution to it is the results.”
McLeish can hardly be considered to have been helped in his pursuit of an unlikely win this evening by the withdrawals of Tierney, Charlie Mulgrew and John Souttar, losses that will necessitate all sorts of defensive rejigging. With Robert Snodgrass and Scott McTominay also pulling out, he has called up Aberdeen’s Mikey Devlin and Gary Mackay-Steven, as well as Celtic’s Ryan Christie.
McLeish’s defensive issues did not cause him to bemoan the fact that the 21-year-old Tierney has been allowed to return to his club. He knows the player’s well-being long-term is more important.
“We do have players who played a lot of games already this season,” he said. “We were prepared to make a concession to Celtic in the summer over Kieran. He is a young guy growing up and has played an enormous amount of games.
“I remember back to my Aberdeen days with boys like Neale Cooper and Neil Simpson. They played a lot of games at an extremely young age, and they finished their careers relatively early. We don’t want that to happen to the current crop. That’s why Tierney is away back again.”
Even if Tierney is not part of a back three, some would consider the configuration flawed. It was put to McLeish that the own goal scored by the Celtic player against Israel and the red card that befell Souttar before that could point to the players being destabilised by having to assume unfamiliar roles.
“They might have made those mistakes in a back four too. Where is the evidence to say they wouldn’t?” the Scotland manager said. “They are playing in comfortable positions. It’s central defence and they are comfortable. John Souttar cruised it against Albania. Nobody said that night, ‘he is out of position’. He’s played in back threes with Hearts too. There is a lot of versatility.
“It’s not a new system. It’s been around for donkeys and I played it with Motherwell and Hibs to great success. It came back in fashion after [Antonio] Conte did it with Chelsea and won the league. A lot of teams copied it. Look at the Russian coach [Stanislav Cherchesov]. He suffered before the World Cup then changed to a back three for the Spain game [that took them to the quarter-finals]. Players are adaptable.”
The question is whether their mindset is programmed towards such adaptability. What Robertson had to say yesterday about his wing-back role would not exactly point to that being the case. Scotland’s squad may have to overcome a mental block so much as reconfigure their defensive block.
“It’s a tough one,” the Scotland skipper said when asked about “the back three conundrum”. “Playing left midfield is a completely different position to left back. As a kid I sometimes played there but I find it a lot better with someone in front of me to play off. I like linking up, playing inside and running off. I think that’s where my strength is. But, if the manager chooses to go with three at the back both of us have picked up a position we need to get better at. We need to do it.
“If the manager pulls me and says I’m playing here then you have to take it on and try to better yourself because it won’t be a position I have played at club level. That’s up to the manager. If he decides to change formation so be it, but now he is sticking with the three. All the lads need to get better at that formation.”
The curiosity is that Robertson seems a more inhibited attacking figure when playing further up the pitch as a wing-back, while Tierney naturally has to curb his instincts to go forward when deployed in a back three. The apparent loss of a key aspect of both players’ games in order not to lose either from the side is an unacceptable trade-off for detractors of McLeish’s game plan.
“Of course, KT is used to being a left-back with someone in front of him as well,” said Robertson. “He is also as a centre back and he is not sure when to go. I think a wee bit of uncertainty is coming into both our games but that has to come with games. Yes, there’s training, but we have only had two competitive games at it. We won the game at home and then it wasn’t good on Thursday. We are still learning the formation and it does take time.
“At club level you have the beauty of a pre-season and have three or four weeks to nail down your formation. With Scotland you don’t have that. There has been a lot of chop and changes in the squad since March. You don’t have time to work on it because you need to focus on the opposition you are playing it against. The players know that and the manager has been here before too. We need to all pull together and learn this formation a lot better. If we do, it can work but just now we are a bit in between with everything.”
Hardly reassuring sentiments.