With an eye on Monday’s fixture with Albania, Andy Harrow assesses Scotland’s 4-0 defeat to Belgium on Friday night.
Hampden’s bid is unaffected by the poor attendances
In truth, the title of the article is a bit disingenuous, but ‘four things we learned and one we definitely didn’t’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
There was much criticism on social media of the attendance at Hampden last night, which only barely sneaked over the 20,000 mark. There are plenty of reasons for the disappointing numbers; from the exorbitant ticket costs, to the nature of the fixture, to the fact it was held on a Friday night.
The attendance is unlikely to be much higher on Monday against Albania - and, indeed, there’s a strong possibility that the crowd will be smaller - with the same issues affecting supporters.
While there are areas for the SFA to address going forward - not least the ticket prices - one which the attendance should have no bearing on is whether Hampden remains as the home of Scottish football.
With the decision due to be taken by the SFA, some commentators suggested that last night’s sparse stadium would weigh against Hampden. If it does, it would be incredibly harsh. After all, it’s highly unlikely that the other bidder in this process, Murrayfield, would have attracted any larger a crowd. The same issues that stymied Hampden last night would have affected the Edinburgh stadium just the same.
And, while the likes of Tynecastle or Easter Road might have been a more suitable venue for both games, the option to permanently tour Scotland around club stadiums has already been discounted.
Hampden’s bid should be unaffected, no matter how many stream through the turnstiles on Monday.
McLeish should stick to his principles against Albania
Anyone convinced that Scotland should pass out from the back prior to last night’s match would have been forgiven for changing their minds by full time.
Alex McLeish is determined that his team will build from the base and with ball-playing defenders like Charlie Mulgrew and Kieran Tierney in place, he set out his stall against Belgium. Unfortunately for the Scotland manager - and any one else who agrees with the approach - his side were undone by mistakes which came directly from this ethos.
First, Craig Gordon put John McGinn under pressure on the edge of the box and, with the Aston Villa man failing to sense danger from behind, had his pocket picked, from which Romelu Lukuku ultimately scored. Into the second half, Mulgrew’s lazy pass into midfield was intercepted as Mitchy Batshuayi scored his first and Belgium’s third.
Despite the problems, there were signs it could work. Scotland were smart in possession in the early stages and built confidently through midfield and into Belgian territory. Without much height in the side, possession football allows Scotland an element of control and helps create space for talented players such as McGinn, Armstrong and Snodgrass.
A more direct approach through the channels may ultimately prove more effective - as the later stages of the game suggested - but McLeish deserves to try his plan against weaker opposition before it’s abandoned entirely.
Ryan Fraser showed he’s capable of delivering for Scotland
There were few tangible positives from last night’s match, but Ryan Fraser showed he’s capable of transferring his club form onto the national stage. The former Aberdeen player has been one of Bournemouth’s key men in the early knockings of the Premier League campaign and, at wing-back for Scotland, he was a lively presence for much of the match.
His performance was not unlike the type you’d expect from fellow wide player, James Forrest. He was keen to take on his opposite number, not scared of a shot and appears to have been instilled with the same confidence that’s seen Forrest emerge over the past few seasons. He’ll need to show consistency - and will also need to improve on his defensive work should McLeish stick with three defenders - but there are signs of promise for Scotland.
The Number One jersey is Allan McGregor’s to lose
Prior to Friday’s game, McLeish had been at pains to point out that he’s made no final decision on who will be Scotland’s first choice goalkeeper going forward.
With Gordon preferred for the Belgium clash, McGregor is expected to step-in against Albania. After Friday, and barring a major catastrophe in the Nations League game, it should be a relatively straightforward decision as to who keeps the jersey.
Gordon has always struggled with his distribution and it was not noticeably better against the Belgians as Scotland tried to play from the back. It was, however, his lack of awareness which caused the opening goal and he was lucky not to concede a penalty after careering into Timothy Castagne in the first half.
With McGregor in impressive form for Rangers, both domestically and in Europe, he’s pushed himself to the front of the queue. Although he remains an excellent shot-stopper, Gordon did little on Friday to suggest otherwise.
Scotland missed a leader in the second half
For large parts of the first half against Belgium, Scotland competed relatively well. Even if they rarely threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal, they looked comfortable in possession and kept their shape defensively.
The same could not be said of the second half, as the home side struggled to cope with Belgium’s movement and forward thrust. There was a listlessness about Scotland after the break, seemingly shorn of structure or drive as the game slipped away. They gave their opponents far too much space in dangerous areas, as evidenced at Eden Hazard’s thunderous goal, and seemed unsure of their positioning as they struggled to handle possession.
This team is likely to be the first in a long time without one of Scott Brown or Darren Fletcher to help guide through younger charges. With other experienced campaigners like James Morrison also missing, Scotland lacked a leader in the centre of the pitch to maintain standards. One of the younger players may need to step into the role, sooner rather than later.