1. We beat Albania in spite of McLeish’ s esoteric team selection, not because of it.
When the starting eleven for the Albania game was released everyone whiteyed a little. It seemed McLeish had started his first team against Belgium in our friendly 4-0, and decided to field a B side in our competitive fixture. Unprecedented mind games. While Naismith worked hard and got on the scoresheet with an instinctive header (and understandably though in vain claims the first) his link-up play was poor and he scuffed a good few chances; once a good player, he is past it, and Griffiths is objectively a better finisher. Likewise the decision of Johnny Russell over Armstrong. Not only was Russell glaringly out of his depth, creating little and impeding the momentum of attacks with sluggish decision making and inept passing, his selection pushed Callum McGregor deeper into midfield, limiting his ability to influence things further up the pitch. Allan McGregor over Gordon was expected, and the in-form Rangers man performed well –especially in the wake of Gordon’s mistake for Belgium’s first goal and a erratic at best start to the season with Celtic. McDonald is utter pish and doesn’t deserve rote analysis. You’d hope, desperately, that neither him or Mulgrew are considered in the first team plans going forward. Generally, the quirky team selection inhibited not liberated us, apart from…
2. Stephen O’ Donnell, tentatively, could prove our long-term right back solution.
After ten years of Alan Hutton, Phil Bardsley, and Steven Whittaker, we thought our right back problem was solved by the emergence of Calum Paterson around 2016. A bad injury and subsequent metamorphosis into a goalscoring midfielder for Cardiff signals that, though Paterson would indubitably be competent here, there’d still be some degree of shoehorning. Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell performed excellently against Albania, arguably even Man Of The Match. His positioning was sound, tackling hard, and passing precise. His best moment came after a ‘Straight Off The Training Ground’ corner routine saw Tierney uncharacteristically sclaff a shot from the edge of the box and Albania were provided a quick break opportunity. Though Tierney looked like recovering, O’Donnell had both the pace and awareness to read the situation intuitively and quickly regained possession. Though he didn’t get forward as much as I’d like to see him do, his unfussy proficiency was promising and allows us a different option to the dynamism of Fraser and Forrest in that right wing back slot.
3. John Souttar’s competence completes our (hypothetical) long-term back three.
As said above, and in my previous Scotland takeaways piece, Mulgrew shouldn’t have a future as a Scotland defender, despite his form for Blackburn. We all know how complacently mistake-prone he is and his technical limitations. Scotland has grown into the back three system, with Tierney and McKenna impressing here previously (and Tierney, with permission to go forward with the deepest midfielder covering, impressing again in that last fixture), and now it was John Souttar’s turn. He’s a funny one, Souttar, one of those Dundee United prospects who started at 16 and very quietly began fulfilling his potential, especially after his move to Hearts. He was comfortable and confident against Albania, unfazed and driven, but also–one slack pass excepted–composed in possession and tactically sound. He strikes an excellent balance between McKenna’s no-nonsense graft and Tierney’s more cultured approach. You’d imagine (hope) that this is the envisioned long-term back three, and the prospect of these players continuing to improve at their current rate is offering up that naïve, forgotten instinct of excitement.
4. In a 3-5-1-1 Griffiths might not fit.
The three at the back works with the players we have, given our surplus of wing-backs and decent central midfielders, but losing wide forwards places a Herculean amount of responsibility onto the lone forward’s defensive and link-up play. They can’t just be a poacher or advanced forward. Their integration with a stretched midfield, especially with vertical passing and long balls, is pivotal to the system succeeding. I don’t think Griffiths, as good a finisher as he is, can provide that. The obvious answer to this isn’t Steven Bloody Naismith, but Swansea’s Oli McBurnie, who is on form and fits the tactical profile perfectly. I hate the Scottish manager’s inherent instinct to choose mediocre English Championship players over good SPFL players, but I think this is that very rare occasion where the decision has merit. McBurnie deserves a run in the team.
5. Kevin McDonald is an abysmal footballer and shouldn’t be starting for Scotland under any circumstances.
Nothing else to say.