Scotland – Latin American Lessons May/June 2018

While Scotland may not be heading to the World Cup in Russia this summer, they are playing their part in the preparations of both Peru and Mexico with a post season jaunt over to play in a couple of warm up games for both these successful qualifiers.

In the early hours (GMT) of Wednesday morning Scotland fell to a 2-0 defeat to hosts Peru at the Estadio Nacional in Lima. A weakened Scotland side, featuring no less than 7 debutants was never going to find things easy against an experienced and ultimately very decent Peru side.

The Scotland squad has been made up of a mix of relative experience such as Charlie Mulgrew and Matt Phillips, young up and coming players set to become regulars like John McGinn and Scott McKenna as well as some slightly less heralded players perhaps being rewarded for good, consistent seasons in Scotland such as Lewis Stevenson and Graeme Shinnie. Some top players missing include Andy Robertson – too busy with the Champions League Final, Celtic stars Kieran Tierney and James Forrest for whom their club have requested they be rested and other players who have pulled out with various injuries and fatigue at the end of a grueling season.

While justification and criticism or cynicism regarding players pulling out or missing from the squad could be laid out in equal measure depending on your perspective, a fact of the matter is that the end result is a depleted squad with which the freshly appointed manager Alex McLeish has to work with. At this time of transition, where McLeish looks to freshen up the squad, bring new players through and establish a structure, playing style, team personality and methodology this serves as something of a hurdle or hindrance.

One positive that will have been seen by many fans will be the inclusion of a number of up and coming Scottish players in the squad. The “home based” nature of players like the aforementioned John McGinn, Scott McKenna as well as Dylan McGeouch, and Lewis Morgan will also add to some positive feelings about the squad and “progress” being made.

Despite football now being very much a global game, a certain nepotism still exists within club and international football – fans want to see home grown and home based players being given their chance in their team and are often far more tolerant of the learning curve or accepting of the mistakes that inevitably occur.

Conversely, there has been much grumbling over past years with regard to the lack of young or home based players in Scotland squads. The reliance on players from the English Championship or similar has sparked criticism and frustration among fans, moreso when performances haven’t quite hit the mark.

Many more informed fans may point to the English Championship as a stronger or better league than the Scottish Premiership, this is a debate which could rumble on in perpetuity in all honesty. It is a much richer league, there is more money within the league and respective transfer budgets than for the Premiership – with the exception of Celtic of course. Another fact or truth would be that it is a very physical league. Many teams are strong, made up of big, physically imposing players. This could also be said of the Scottish Premiership by some of course, but it remains true that the English Championship is a league where physicality and physical attributes are a high commodity, a place where players can still be “too small” at 6ft to play centre half for example.

The above is not to diminish the league, it is of course very competitive and is not short of quality. However statements from certain players, like Fulham’s Kevin McDonald that he had been playing regularly in the English Championship and was thus deserving of a Scotland cap can grind somewhat. Now, of course good club form is always meriting of at least a chance, but there is no divine right. The English Championship is a different beast from International football, the physicality does not always translate across. Yes, physical teams have been successful in the past in terms of Iceland in 2016, Uruguay in past tournaments and even the robust Dutch side of 2010. But the point is that the ability to “mix it” physically doesn’t necessarily fit within what can be a more tactical, mental or skillful environment. A perfect example of this would be in Scotland’s friendly against Costa Rica in March 2018, where the aforementioned McDonald failed to track his man in a Costa Rica attack which ultimately led to that player assisting in the only goal of the game. An islolated incident maybe, a single lapse in concentration and perhaps even an episode where other players could have picked up or instructed on the losing of the man – but an insight into the fact that with quicker, slicker opponents that physicality doesn’t always triumph. A welcome attribute of course, but in this example it did not compensate for losing a man and a goal. As such, frustration has grown among fans when they perceive that players with limitations from other leagues are being given chances ahead of home based favourites.

Conversely of course, players like Mulgrew and Callum Paterson are welcomed into the side from the English Championship, illustrating the contradiction and fickleness of fandom. Both players have played important roles – Mulgrew as captain and centre half and Paterson as a strong, roaming right sided defender or midfielder. The harnessing of the various attributes and applying where beneficial – such as centre half or right back is therefore important, as opposed to playing for the sake of it or on the sheer reputation of the league or inference that this qualifies a certain player more than a less imposing individual from a Scottish side.

The Scotland side which faced Peru, as outlined above, had a mix of home based and English Championship players. The inclusion of the young home based players as outlined above has been met with positive reactions, notwithstanding Scott McKenna conceding a penalty (albeit arguably the ‘keeper – Jordan Archer – was at fault there, as he was for the second goal). But midfielders McGeouch and Morgan came away with plaudits from the media, and subsequently evoke a sense of positivity around the fanbase. Overall, the depleted Scotland team was not embarrassed but they were comfortably beaten with Peru enjoying the bulk of possession, territory and attacks.

The side is still lacking a potent goal threat. Matt Phillips and Oliver McBurnie have proven to be the choice strikers in recent games in the absence of Leigh Griffiths. Both actually help to illustrate the physicality analogy outlined above (Phillips played in the English Premiership last season, rather than the Championship, albeit for the physical West Brom side that were relegated). Both are strong, hard working and honest in terms of doing their part for the team. However when it comes to potency or ruthlessness in the final third of the pitch, neither has yet to set the heather alight for Scotland in terms of goalscoring.

But this will be something McLeish is aware of and the fact that he has seen fit to hand debuts and game time over the past few friendlies to you, attacking midfielders is perhaps a reaction to this. Morgan, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and Kenny McLean have all played some part alongside the likes of John McGinn or Scott McTominay who are more orthodox midfielders but capable of thinking and acting positively on the pitch. Harnessing the good feeling derived from the opportunities given to home based or young favourites as well as utilising stronger or more physical players where required will be an important task for McLeish in the coming months.

Next up is Mexico in the early hours (GMT) of Sunday 3 June 2018 at the truly brilliant and vast Estadio Azteca. It will be interesting to see how McLeish tries to establish the correct blend of players and what approach he takes. One notable element against Peru was the back 4, as opposed to a back 3 which had been utlised in the March friendlies. There has been a wide school of though that the back 3 allows for both Robertson and Tierney (when available) to fit into the side but also with the questions over attacking threat it also allows for an additional attacking midfielder within the side. This of course could be down to the players available in this depleted squad forcing his hand with regard to structure or formation in this instance.

It is clear from the friendlies over the past few months and more apparent following the Peru game that strength in depth is still an issue, albeit experience and positive performances are being chalked up by the likes of McGinn, McLean and McGeouch here. McLeish is happy to play the young, home based players and ride on the crest of that particular wave of plaudits from fans and media alike – an astute move perhaps in harnessing a positive attitude while he restructures the squad. Furthermore it is also clear that a reliance on physicality or league status is no longer necessarily a prerequisite for the squad, albeit there are of course players in other leagues well worthy of game time and caps. Finally, it also appears as though a structure and style is being settled upon by McLeish in the games so far which is important in terms of allowing players on form to fit into the side or indeed gaps to be plugged when certain individuals are missing.

There are therefore positive aspects to take from the Peru game despite the defeat. Hopefully we can also see further green shoots of recovery in the Estadio Azteca on Sunday.

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