Kim Little and Lizzie Arnot are on the road to recovery and while Scotland manager Shelley Kerr will be relieved to see the midfield assets back at their best, she insists that even in their absence, the women’s national set-up is a vibrant force to be reckoned with.
The international manager named 23 players in her squad for the upcoming challenge matches against Norway and Russia and although Arsenal’s former BBC Women’s World Footballer of the Year and the Hibernian 2016 League Cup winner are both still battling back from anterior cruciate ligament injuries, with the intention of pushing for inclusion come April, Kerr is delighted with the calibre of player she does have at her disposal.
“Genuinely this is the best position the women’s national team has been in for a long time in terms of the squad being competitive. Of course it’s a loss to not have a player like Kim, who is known globally as one of the game’s shining stars, and Lizzie is one of our most talented young players. They have been a big loss, but this squad is still in an extremely good place. To have them come back would be even better.
“They’re both progressing really well. Neither of them has played a game yet or had full contact but Lizzie has started a little bit of contact and Kim also. Because it is ACL injuries it’s very difficult to predict when they’ll be back playing but I see Lizzie most mornings in here [Oriam] and she’s working really hard, as is Kim. Things are going according to plan.”
On the back of the nation’s European Championships debut last summer, Scotland have broken into Uefa’s top ten in the rankings for the first time, jumping from 11th to eighth and while that illustrates the continuing improvements being made on the major stage, the focus has already turned to the World Cup qualifiers.
With two of Scotland’s Group 2 games played, victories over Belarus and Albania have given them maximum points. The next competitive game will come on April 5, when they travel to face top seeds Switzerland, before hosting Poland five days later.
The sides are expected to pose a very different threat – different from the teams Kerr’s squad have already defeated and different from each other. But, in taking on Norway and Russia, the Scotland boss hopes to give her players the kind of experience that will bolster their bid to take Scotland to a World Cup finals for the first time since 1998.
“The squad is still a work in progress. Anna [Signeul, Kerr’s predecessor] has done an amazing job in the past 12 years but then comes the transitional period where you want to develop a new style of play. We’ve been renowned for being a tough team to beat but now we want to get to the next level by playing attractive football with more freedom. That has maybe eluded us in the past.
“You can’t go through a campaign using the same 11 players. It’s impossible if you’re trying to be successful. Therefore there’s an element of us wanting to give players an opportunity and, in terms of the style and system we play, with tough opponents like Switzerland and Poland, tactically we have to make sure the players are equipped to cope with that.
“The first thing is performance but when you play at the highest level, you want to win. If we can see the things we are trying to implement on the training pitch in the games then we will be happy but we also want to create a winning habit and maintain momentum. We come in off the back of three wins [they defeated Hungary, in September, in Kerr’s first match at the helm] and we want to continue that.”
A coach with a winning mindset, who despite that is one of countless Scotland stars who have tried and failed to make it to a World Cup as a player, she wants better for the current crop. She will do everything she can to assist but says that will ultimately be down to them,
“I like to hear the players talking about winning at training. At the top end, small margins make a difference and you have to have inner belief. It is about trying to develop leaders. Within society, it is harder to find natural leaders and although we have a captain and vice captain, what I really want is a squad of 23 leaders because, ultimately, they are the ones who can make a difference on the pitch.
“As a coach and manager you can only influence it, you can’t control it. So I want an environment where everything is hugely competitive.”
Gaining a spot in the national set-up is as challenging as it has ever been, with at least two or three players vying for every position. That is the way Kerr likes it and things will become even more competitive when Little and Arnot recover.