For Scotland to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year a lot needs to happen, first of all is defeating England. Joel Sked looks at four match-ups that will decide the match.
Kieran Tierney v Raheem Sterling
Two of the most talented youngsters in Britain are set to face each other for the second time within a year, except both will likely be in different positions to their first meeting. Back in September the duo were in Champions League action at Celtic Park in what turned out to be one of the games of the season, anywhere in the world, as Celtic and Manchester City shared six goals.
That evening Tierney was in his familiar left-back position while Sterling was playing from the right. In direct confrontation Tierney more than held is own with Sterling’s success coming away from the flank. The Celtic full-back would charge forward with Sterling reluctant to follow him. When he did, Sterling diverted Tierney’s cross into his own net.
The dynamic will be completely different at Hampden park. It would be a major surprise if Tierney doesn’t start at right-back, while the only debate which surrounds Sterling is which side he starts on. If Sterling were to start on the left it will prompt an interesting battle, technically, tactically and physically.
Over the season Tierney has improved his physique, broad shoulders and tree trunks for legs, he will not be fazed with the physical side. Sterling may look slight but he too is powerful and well-conditioned.
Playing on the right, it is not so natural for Tierney to bomb forward even if he does have the confidence and ability to do so. Instead, with Harry Kane in such fine form, Strachan will likely ask him to play a more reserved role and offer the defence greater protection with Andrew Robertson given more freedom.
If Sterling were to play on the left his preferred move would be to drift infield, which will suit Tierney as the winger would be moving on to the full-back’s stronger foot. Don’t be surprised to see Tierney carry out a man-marking job in the way some full-backs have done on his Celtic team-mate Scott Sinclair.
Whoever is charged with playing on the right of midfield, whether it be James Forrest, Ikechi Anya or Ryan Fraser, will then be required to be vigilant in tracking the forward runs of Ryan Bertrand.
Russell Martin & Charlie Mulgrew v Harry Kane
In the last few years England have had a number of striking options. For a variety of reasons - loss of form, injuries, age - players have fallen out of favour. Except for Harry Kane that is. For the last three seasons he has reached the 20-goal mark in the Premier League: 21, 25, 29 - only Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry have achieved such a feat. He comes into the game having netted seven in his last two games, once of which he didn’t complete.
But - yes, there’s a but - he is still to replicate his club form with England. Seventeen caps have brought five goals. Yet, he is most remembered for his dreadful corners and free-kicks at the European Championships last year. For Scotland’s and the centre-backs’ sake the hope is that Kane will turn up at Hampden.
Still, Martin and Mulgrew can’t rely on a Kane off day. They have to bring their A-game, individually and collectively. This is a striker who can do it all. Ball into feet, turn, goal. Ball into the channel, run, goal. Loose ball, goal. Cross, goal. Head, goal. There’s nothing Kane enjoys more than getting possession around the edge of the box before firing low and hard into the bottom corner. One of the centre-backs needs to get tight to Kane and remain tight to Kane, making sure he doesn’t turn, keeping him facing his own goal.
Perhaps the most important defensive aspect will be communication. Kane is happy to move deep to link play. Martin and Mulgrew will need to be in constant communication, which one follows, which one supports. Similarly with the holding midfielders. The defence cannot afford to switch off.
Scott Brown v Dele Alli
In the build-up, English football legend Paul Scholes questioned whether Scott Brown would have had a similar influence with a big club in England as he has had with Celtic. In fact, he ruled it out altogether. Scott Brown is the type of character who will have enjoyed reading that, giving him a bit more fire in the belly for the Hampden clash. Add the fiery Dele Alli into the mix and you have a midfield powder keg
*rubs hands together*
Alli is an incredibly talented midfield operator who can do a bit of everything, including putting in a reckless challenge and providing a bit of much-needed needle. If Peter Houston had it his way Alli would be lining up alongside Brown at Celtic. Since moving from MK Dons he has developed into one of the best young attacking midfielders in Europe with help from Mauricio Pochettino.
The Celtic captain is going to have to tweak his club game for the England match. He will not be on the ball as much and the game will be played around and behind him, rather than in front of him. Alli can often look like a second striker in the Spurs team and will look to transfer the relationship he has with Kane on to the international stage.
As previously mentioned, the centre-backs are going to have their hands full with Kane, meaning Brown will have to be wary of Alli. The 21-year-old likes coming towards the ball early before ignoring it completely, spinning and running beyond the forward. He wants to be ahead of play.
Preventing this threat Scotland can either defend deep with two compact lines of four, pushing Alli towards the half-way line to get the ball, or Brown becomes a de facto third centre back, tracking Alli and dropping into defence.
Stuart Armstrong v Eric Dier
Other than the distinctly average Jake Livermore, England only have one midfielder of note in the squad who could be classed as either a holding player or deep-lying playmaker. The transition into midfield is the area where Scotland could get most joy. Shutting off the supply line to Eric Dier could lead to Gareth Southgate’s men becoming disjointed, forcing them to go aerial in search of Kane, the one thing which would work in Scotland’s favour when defending against the Spurs hitman.
Dier would then drop deeper, and deeper, to try and control the rhythm of the match. Fortunately for Scotland, Strachan has the perfect player and athlete to lead the press against Dier, stopping him from gaining easy possession and making simple passes. Stuart Armstrong has the stamina and tactical intelligence to act like an overly-protective bodyguard, ‘toilet paper, Eric?’
It is perhaps the one match-up which, in terms of quality, is level. When Armstrong gets the ball he has the capability of providing a genuine threat, rampaging through the centre.
If Scotland can be alert from the off, brave in their midfield pressing it should allow them to get a foot hold early on and get the Hampden crowd behind them.