As a former England captain and ex-Scotland assistant manager, Terry Butcher is in a unique position to appreciate the Uefa Nations League progress of both halves of international football’s oldest divide this week.
Butcher, pictured, was every bit as gratified by his old friend Alex McLeish’s success in winning Group C1 and securing a Euro 2020 play-off spot for Scotland as he was by his home nation’s Group A4 triumph under Gareth Southgate, which earned them a place in next June’s inaugural Nations League Finals.
The auld enemies may currently operate at very different levels of the game but Butcher was intrigued to observe that the achievements of McLeish and Southgate both came as a consequence of a radical change in tactical strategy.
The 3-5-2 formation which saw Southgate feted when England reached the World Cup semi-finals earlier this year was initially adopted by McLeish during his second spell as Scotland boss. But both men turned their Nations League campaigns around by switching to a 4-3-3 set-up.
While circumstances and player withdrawals contributed to McLeish’s system alteration, Butcher insists he deserves as much credit as Southgate for ensuring it was effective.
“Offensively, it worked really well for Scotland against Israel on Tuesday night,” said Butcher. “They looked similar to England – really good going forward but still likely to concede at the other end. That will happen until they get the right back four in place. But every time they went forward, I thought they were going to score.
“England played a back three at the World Cup and it was very successful, partly because the tournament draw was very comfortable for them.
“Gareth scrapped it after they were dominated and lost at home to Spain in the first Nations League game in September. He ripped it up, went to 4-3-3 and took seven points out of nine with good performances in the next three games.
“Alex played the same 4-3-3 system to suit the players he had during this international break and that was successful for two games in a row against Albania and Israel. That was brave management because he could easily have stuck to what he had done before.
“I don’t think Alex really knew what shape to play but sometimes it just hits you and you think ‘that’s all I’ve got. They are the players I have. This is the only system I can play’. The players bought into it and there seems to be good harmony in Alex’s team. There is a good spirit there.”
Butcher, back at Hampden yesterday to make the Irn Bru Cup semi-final draw, watched Scotland’s pulsating 3-2 win over Israel from his armchair in his Suffolk home and was pleased to see McLeish find some respite from the recent criticism he has faced.
“I was dreading coming up here today if Scotland had lost the game,” added Butcher. “I was worried I would have seen Alex’s head on a spike somewhere! I’m so delighted for him. He has taken a bit of stick but the system he put in place with the players he had worked a treat.
“Scotland looked as though they were going to struggle in the first 20 minutes. The crowd were a bit naughty with a few boos but the players just ignored that and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
“The last 25 minutes of the first half were absolutely brilliant from Scotland, with good attacking, entertaining football. Scotland, in the past, have fallen short and would have conceded and drawn that match 3-3, but they didn’t this time. That will give them so much experience and confidence having had to come from behind and win a game. It is a big thing at this level.
“It takes the pressure off Scotland a wee bit going into the main Euro 2020 qualifiers next year, knowing they have banked a play-off spot whatever happens. It’s lovely for Alex and he deserves it as it takes time to implement what you want to do with a squad.”
Butcher has been out of active management since 2015, earlier this year quitting as head coach of the Philippines national team just six weeks after being appointed and without taking charge of a match. “It could have worked, because they have got good players,” he said. “But I wanted to change things around, make it a lot more professional but realised it would never have worked out the way I wanted. I felt it best to let someone else do it. Sven-Goran Eriksson has got it now and we’ll leave it at that.
“I’m talking rubbish again in the media – quality rubbish, mind you – playing golf, walking the dog and watching Ipswich Town. I’m delighted Paul Lambert has taken charge at Portman Road – he invited myself, George Burley and John Wark into the club the other week and was brilliant with us. He values the history of clubs and wants Ipswich to reflect that again. He’s put pictures of our team from the 1970s and 1980s all over the ground. There is excitement and energy about Ipswich again and I’m optimistic about them under Paul.”