Winners & losers from Scotland’s international double-header

Kieran Tierney put in a good performance in his first competitive start for the national side. Picture: PA
Kieran Tierney put in a good performance in his first competitive start for the national side. Picture: PA
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Craig Fowler selects the winners and losers from the Scotland squad after the national side picked up only one point from two World Cup qualification matches.

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LOSER - All of us

The wait to qualify goes on. It was 18 years, it was always going to be at least 20, now it’s going to be at least 22. The same “what’s wrong?”, “what can we do?”, “who’s next?” narratives start again also. Oh fun.

Actually, it’s a little presumptuous to say this campaign is already over. We’re only one point off second place right now. Subtract results against Malta, and it’s four points off Slovenia and two off Slovakia (and still one off Lithuania). That can be pulled back. It will require tremendous consistency. Wins against Slovakia and Slovenia at Hampden are a must, as would picking up victories in the remaining matches over Lithuania and Malta. We’d also need a big result by either beating England or scoring an away victory in Slovenia.

It may sound far-fetched - because, after last night, it is - but think back to the start of the group and look at what we know now. Slovakia and Slovenia are no great shakes, and this has to be the weakest England team in years. If we can somehow recapture the form and confidence from the first half of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, then we can salvage something from this wreckage.

Whether that occurs with or without Gordon Strachan, remains to be seen.

WINNER - Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney

The lamenting over Scotland’s abundance of talent at left back (Graeme Shinnie can’t even get a look-in for chrissake) and lack of it elsewhere became particularly pertinent following this latest double-header. Robertson was the consensus pick for man of the match against Lithuania, while Tierney was a strong contender in Slovakia. For years Scotland, as a football nation, has looked to other countries to adopt a style or system or structure that will allow us to be competitive again at international level. Instead, we should be looking to create our own unique way of playing, and preferably one in which a team can still function with multiple left-backs.

LOSER - Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass

These two encapsulated so much of what was wrong with last night. Their poor performance and the instructions laid down to them sealed Scotland’s fate from the moment the game kicked off. Each player was situated on the opposite flank from where they were comfortable. The reason for this was that Gordon Strachan, presumably, needed his wide players to support Steven Fletcher in a central area. With Oliver Burke dropping out of the squad (???), an attack-minded central midfielder was sacrificed for a more industrious one, which did work to an extent with Scotland enjoying a lot of the play. In addition to this, Scotland started with Callum Paterson and Tierney at full-back, two players who enthusiastically get forward from deep. At Celtic, when Tierney rampages forward, Scott Sinclair looks to attack the centre, providing support for the lone striker and giving Tierney another body to pick out with a cross. Either the instructions weren’t clear, or Snodgrass and Ritchie weren’t sure how to fulfill these roles, because it looked familiar to the Lithuania game, with the crosser having to aim for one man in the centre of the area.

Then there’s the issue on the defensive end. Both of the first two goals came from Slovakia getting a two-on-one against Paterson with McArthur struggling to get over and cover. Ritchie is posted missing for both, while Snodgrass could do more to help cover the back post cross at Slovakia’s first. It’s possible that Strachan wanted these players to forget the defensive side of the game, to stay high and hit Slovakia on the counter. If this was his plan, it doesn’t explain the absence of Burke, James Forrest and Ikechi Anya from the starting XI, the three Scottish attackers with searing pace.

WINNER - Leigh Griffiths

He was limited to two substitute appearances, but seeing as Scotland were complete guff in both games, it only strengthened the case for the Celtic striker to become our leading marksman at international level. Even though he missed chances, it still highlighted Griffiths’ abilities to get into good areas. He moves with pace and purpose and the bewilderment at his exclusion from the starting XI only grew as each game went on.

LOSER - Grant Hanley

The number of Grant Hanley sympathisers, of which this writer was one, have reduced dramatically in the last four days. While some derided his lack of subtlety on the football and ungainly manner in which he moves, others saw a no-nonsense defender who’d rarely let Scotland down and, at 24, had the potential to improve. Unfortunately, there is no denying that he was badly at fault for the third goal against Slovakia, and culpable for Lithuania’s strike on Saturday.

The real worrying issue is the lack of suitable replacements to come in. Even if Gordon Greer is better, he’ll turn 36 before the end of the year and won’t fit with the promises of a new manager looking towards the future - yes, we’re back there again.

WINNER - James McArthur

He netted the equaliser against Lithuania and produced an impressive first half (and only the first half) performance in Trnava. The midfield three, with Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan, did an excellent job at denying Slovakia any space through the centre of the park in the first period. They were tigerish in their closing down and composed on the football. Things might have worked out better for Scotland if Bannan, for example, actually had some willing runners ahead of him when he got his head up to look for a pass, instead of Fletcher standing static 20 yards from goal, with Ritchie and Snodgrass slinking into the corners.

LOSER - Gordon Strachan

*sighs*

What happened? Remember how we all felt after Shaun Maloney’s goal defeated Ireland? It was going to be different. We were going to shake off the heavy burden of repeated failure and actually make it to an international tournament. Fast forward two years and it actually feels as if we’ve regressed to a situation as hopeless as it seemed under Craig Levein, before Strachan took over.

How did it get to this? Not since the days of Craig Brown have we had a manager lose his grip on things to this extent, where success ultimately slides into failure. Vogts, Burley and Levein were all poor; Smith and McLeish left while the going was still good. It certainly feels as if Strachan has lost some of the magic. The possession based, energetic side he initially turned us into was entirely absent from the Lithuania match. And while there were signs of improvement in the first half last night, ultimately he was let down by the wrong team selection further forward. Unlike the barren years under Bertie Vogts, or even the Levein era, there’s an impression that we have good players, and should be performing to a higher standard than we are. And that’s why Strachan should go.

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