Craig Fowler gives his take as Scotland fail once again to reach a major international tournament following the qualification campaign-ending draw with Slovenia.
Set-piece defending came back to haunt Scotland
Just like in the defeat to Slovakia in the third match of the campaign, set-pieces ended up being Scotland’s undoing.
They are football’s great leveller and that’s exactly what happened in the second half in Ljubljana. The hosts had a lot of the ball but failed to create anything clear cut to that point. Scotland’s two banks of four were working well to shut off any space in central areas, and Slovenia were left to hit shots either from distance or tough angles. Unfortunately, it was from one such shot that the home side won a corner six minutes after the restart.
When the ball was cleared, Darren Fletcher committed a soft, though admittedly clumsy, foul. From the resulting free-kick, Josip Iličić swung in a tantalising cross that was headed in by Roman Bezjak.
Yet again, Strachan has bemoaned the lack of height in the Scotland camp, and once again it’s irrelevant. Bezjak had to stoop to win his header four yards out, with Craig Gordon frozen to his line.
At the second goal, Christophe Berra - the biggest player in the Scotland team, or most teams for that matter - failed to overpower his Slovenian counterpart, while others indulged in a bit of ball-watching as the attempted header dropped for Bezjak to score again.
Strachan’s first substitution backfired spectacularly
To put it mildly. Ikechi Anya coming on made complete sense when it was first revealed he was warming up. Scotland were set up to hit the hosts on the counter, sitting deep and springing into attack, so bringing on the fastest player in the squad was just what the doctor ordered.
Just when he was about to take to the field, Scotland conceded the equaliser. Regardless, Strachan made the change anyway. This would have been fine if it were a like-for-like substitution, but it wasn’t. Anya was coming on for Chris Martin and Scotland were going to switch to a 4-3-3.
Scotland lost the sticking point in attack: the big striker who worked to free space for the little striker to do his thing, like fire his side in front, which Leigh Griffiths did to great effect in the first half. Instead of soaking pressure and launching attacks of their own, as they had been doing, Scotland’s embattled defence continually saw the ball return to them time after time, as they got deeper and deeper.
It wouldn’t improve until Robert Snodgrass came on with just over ten minutes remaining in normal time, speaking of which...
Strachan was too slow to change things
One of the biggest criticisms of Strachan has been his tendency to stick with players who haven’t been performing. Though it’s slightly overblown - the starting XI at the end of the campaign was quite different from the one which started it - there’s little doubt he can be hesitant in dropping aspects of the team or system that aren’t working.
Ironically, he bucked that trend by withdrawing Martin, but then stood on and watched for a further 27 minutes before trying to fix the massive problem on the pitch in front of him.
Perhaps Martin was feeling his calf, maybe he was tired out having struggled for regular football this season at club level and couldn’t do the running required. But if that was the case, why not bring on Steven Fletcher? Another big striker who can hold up play? In fact, Fletcher might even have been better suited. His biggest strength in Strachan’s Scotland teams of the past has been slipping balls in behind for quicker supporting players to run on to. Why not see if he can do that with Griffiths?
In the end Fletcher came on, but with under 10 minutes remaining and Slovakia looking to protect what they had, it was a very different game.
The big moments will define you
Over the course of the game, taking all his actions as an average, Darren Fletcher played very well. He performed with composure that was lacking from other areas of the team, and he displayed an accurate range of passing. On another night we’d be hailing the return of a veteran player who hasn’t been at his best in a Scotland jersey for some time now.
However, there’s no getting away from the fact that, 1) he gave away the free-kick which led to the first goal, 2) he failed to remain goal-side of his marker from the resulting cross, and 3) he missed a glorious chance to atone for his earlier error.
By the time the next qualification comes around (oh god not again - can we skip one?) he’ll be 34 and in a position where Scotland will still be fairly strong with Stuart Armstrong and (possibly) Scott Brown to come back, along with the burgeoning careers of John McGinn and Callum McGregor. Even though he chalked up a rather fine assist for Snodgrass’ late equaliser, his 80th and maybe final cap for Scotland will be remembered for the wrong reasons. And for a player who’s given it all for his country for 14 years, that’s a real shame.
The objective hasn’t been completed
There’s going to be a lot of discussion over the coming days about whether Gordon Strachan should remain Scotland manager. Without wishing to get into all of that right now, it should still be stated that this campaign, like the one before it, was a failure. Some will try to dress it up as a valiant attempt that just fell short of the finish line. In some ways, that’s what it was. But we can’t just write off the first part of the campaign and the latter part of the previous one as if they didn’t happen. Doing so would be to indulge in recency bias to the point of ignorance.
Scotland were dealt tough hands in each qualifying group, but there remained a realistic means of progressing and it didn’t happen. The loss to Georgia, settling for a point away to Ireland, the draw against Lithuania, the error-strewn performance away to Slovakia, it all added up. Had Scotland failed to equal or better head-to-head results against Poland and Ireland, and then Slovakia and Slovenia, then you could hold your hands up and say we’re not good enough and a little luck is required to get us there. But we know that’s not the case. The evidence is there.