In the build up to the Slovakia match at Hampden, many Scotland fans would tell you that John McGinn and Callum McGregor simply had to start in midfield.
With captain Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong injured, they seemed the ready made replacements. Both had been in impressive form for their clubs, scoring goals and generally playing vital roles in the engine room of their respective teams.
That made it glaringly obvious to a large amount of the Tartan Army that they should step in to the side in the absence of the aforementioned Celtic pair. But Gordon Strachan was always likely to go with a three from Darren Fletcher, James Morrison, Barry Bannan and James McArthur and here’s why.
As good as McGinn and McGregor have been the rest have been consistently doing it a high level for a number of years.
McGregor has been scintillating under the stewardship of Brendan Rodgers - when he has played. He is not a regular starter in Celtic’s midfield, which there is no shame in, given the players he’s competing for a place with, but that’s not enough of a body of evidence to show Strachan that he can be trusted ahead of some experienced players.
Conversely, McGinn is an ever present in an exciting and energetic Hibs midfield, arguably the most exciting and energetic of the lot. But again, does two seasons in the Scottish Championship and a quarter of one in the Premiership mean he should be hoisted ahead of Scotland regulars who are playing in the English Premier League? That’s a judgement call for Strachan to make but you can certainly see the logic in his choice.
Between them, Fletcher, Morrison and McArthur have 152 caps and have years of experience in the English top flight. Strachan knows they can cope at the highest level and that he can hang his hat on them. Fletcher has played in a number of crucial Champions League matches and was Alex Ferguson’s go-to guy for big matches in a star-studded Manchester United team. Bannan has been a stand-out performer in a Sheffield Wednesday team which came agonisingly close to promotion to the Premier League last season and is going well again at the moment. That’s a level McGinn could potentially earn a move to, with Ipswich and Nottingham Forest credited with interest, so Bannan is consistently performing on a stage McGinn is still aspiring to.
Scoring goals in the Scottish Premiership does not necessarily mean McGregor and McGinn can go and fulfil the roles required of them at international level. McGregor is playing semi-regularly for a team which is light-years ahead of anything it plays domestically. Does that mean he can go and put in a disciplined performance in a must win World Cup Qualifier? Perhaps he could, but the evidence Strachan had available to him suggested the others were more reliable.
McGinn’s game is to be a bit of a charger, with and without the ball. What was required from this double-header, like most internationals, was calmness, a responsible midfield display with positional awareness, defensive solidity while also offering something going forward and being assured in possession. McGinn might have been able to deliver such a performance but, while there is that doubt, the manager has to go with the tried and tested.
During the flurry of support for those two in the build-up, people were still sure Strachan would not pick them and were already using it as a stick to beat him with. Even after the game, some would rather focus on negatives rather than the fact that the team Strachan picked won the game to make it four wins and a draw from the last five qualifying matches. The draw of course came against England and the four wins were gained with clean sheets.
Of the players that were preferred, Barry Bannan took the brunt of the supporters’ ire. That narrative was set and so everybody was then desperate for Bannan to prove them right and not be up to the job. As a result he was widely chastised all over social media, despite the fact he did Scotland a turn. He worked hard, made positive runs, used the ball reasonably well and put in some dangerous crosses. He did give the ball a way a few times but then we can’t expect him to be Andrea Pirlo. Possession is always going to be surrendered on occasion, as long as it’s not too often and in dangerous areas. Bannan probably played a six out of ten, maybe a seven, but he certainly was not anywhere near as bad as Twitter users were making out. It wasn’t a Lionel Messi performance, but it wasn’t Chris Iwelumo either.
The Scotland manager is picking from a pool of players who are very close together in terms of ability and what they bring to the team. Each supporter has their favourites and certain individuals they feel should be in the team, but a case could be made for them all, meaning Strachan is on a hiding to nothing when picking his side. No matter who he picks or leaves out there is always going to be a section of supporters unhappy. Had McGinn and/or McGregor played there would have then been some demanding Darren Fletcher’s experience, James Morrison’s energy or Bannan’s guile.
During the course of the match on Thursday I saw calls on social media for McGinn, McGregor, Robert Snodgrass, Ryan Fraser, Ikechi Anya, Chris Martin and Steven Fletcher to be on the pitch. The fact that there is such an array just goes to prove the point. There could be cases made for anyone of those to play, but there could be cases made for the ones who did. Had Fraser replaced Matt Phillips, for example, some would then have said it was an absolute travesty that Phillips wasn’t starting and that it was just another example of Strachan’s ineptness. He’s going to be criticised whatever team he picks.
Fans should be aware of this and that, regardless of the personnel, the squad is capable of winning matches. They should get behind the team and Strachan, if he gets it right again on Sunday we might just have a World Cup to support them in.