WHEN the UEFA Nations League was created, all the talk was that it would make things easier for Scotland to qualify for the European Championships. When we were drawn in Group One of the League C pot with Albania and Israel, for once we were given a very kind draw.
Yet again, the National team find a new way of making life very difficult for themselves by going down 2-1 to an Israel side ranked NINETY FOURTH in the World Rankings, and had went into the match having lost seven of their previous eight games.
What made matters worse was that the hosts could, and should, have won by a far more comfortable winning margin. A combination of a superb display by Alan McGregor and poor finishing from the Israeli’s kept the score line more respectable for an abject Scotland side, who left the travelling Tartan Army massively short changed.
From the moment Charlie Mulgrew converted a penalty midway through the first half to give the visitors the lead, it all went downhill rather than give the Scots momentum to secure a second successive victory in the section. Wave after wave of Israel attack followed and the visitors simply couldn’t cope, with the toxic mix of tactical ineptitude and players hiding causing a recipe for disaster and ultimately led to a Kieran Tierney own goal sealing our fate.
In no way should Tierney be singled out for defeat because his sliced clearance ended up in McGregor’s net, that’s just one of those freakish things that can happen in football. Plus, there were at least six or seven outfield players who were far worse than he was in a game where only the Rangers keeper comes away with pass marks.
That said, the conundrum of shoehorning Tierney and Captain Andy Robertson into a system to get them both in the team is proving problematic and there is little evidence to say that it’s working.
Manager Alex McLeish will point to last months victory over Albania as evidence to say the 3-4-1-2 formation with Robertson at left wing back and Tierney at left centre back is the way ahead. However, it’s fair to say that the comfortable 2-0 win in front of under 20,000 at Hampden was as much down to the level of opposition, who offered no threat to test the Scots that night.
It may well be the case that Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson are our two best players, and in most circumstances you should try to get the two of them in the same team. However, the fact is that both are left backs and only play in those positions for their clubs. Tierney has had a couple of games at centre back for Celtic but not regularly enough to be classed as a centre back, his strongest asset is getting forward, overlapping the left midfielder and getting his crosses in. It just so happens that is also Robertson’s game at Liverpool and their pace gets them back to cover in defence too.
Gordon Strachan tried Tierney at right back in the latter part of the World Cup Qualifying campaign last year. To a degree, it worked as Scotland’s results improved, though not enough to reach the Playoffs or save his job. Again though we didn’t see the best of the young man as he was uncomfortable playing on his opposite side, which is a trait with left footed defenders unable to fill in at right back yet right footed players seem more adaptable to playing at left back.
By trying the 3-4-1-2, or 3-4-3 whatever way you want to call it with the forward players interchanging, the system is alienating our two most in form wide players in Ryan Fraser and James Forrest. Fraser has the second most assists in the Premier League with Bournemouth, and has four goals to his name, and Forrest has just come off the back of four goals at St Johnstone. However, they can’t fit into this system as it doesn’t allow for natural wingers to express themselves, hence why McLeish didn’t start Forrest tonight.
Fraser, who missed the game through injury, has been tried as a right wing back but his inability to defend makes him vulnerable in that position. It is arguable that we should be looking to build a team around those two as our wide players in a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 rather than shoehorn two left backs into the team.
One of the players heavily criticised for his performance in Haifa was Stephen O’Donnell, and there is no getting away from the fact the Kilmarnock man had a night to forget. However, he was not helped by the lack of cover in front of him that the formation brings, meaning that he was exposed every time he went forward and the lack of protection was glaring. He was also not helped by a dreadful performance by right centre back John Souttar, who’s night was compounded by two silly bookings that led to a deserved red card.
Now, we can talk about formations and systems all day long but they only work if everyone pulls their weight, and too many went missing in Israel. The midfield were bypassed time and time again all night and the forwards didn’t offer much ahead of them to offer encouragement. Going into your shells at International level is inexcusable, especially where any frailties gets punished. If this is what the team ranked 55 places below us can do, imagine what could happen if we play like that against the top sides (and a Belgium side in second or third gear tore us to shreds at Hampden). No matter what formation is picked, the players need to step up to the mark and our side in particular can afford no passengers, which is essentially what McDonald, McGinn, Callum McGregor, Naismith and Russell were in Haifa.
At the end of the day, the blame lies at the feet of Alex McLeish. It’s his job to pick the best system and pick the best team based on current form to deliver results. He was far from a popular appointment, from reasons stretching to walking out on his first spell as manager in 2007 to being out the game for over two years prior to his return, and the result in Israel will crank up the pressure on a man who has produced a rolls reverse in results so far this time around compared to his spell eleven years ago.
If he is going to win over the many doubters, then he needs to pick a system that suits all the players and not two, no matter how good they are. If it means dropping one to get a better shape and the best out of players in the attacking third, then so be it! The three at the back with wing backs is not working and McLeish needs to fix it, even if it means going to his trusted 4-1-4-1 that worked well for him prior to when he went to Aston Villa in 2011.
The longer he dailies in the Tierney and Robertson conundrum, whilst neglecting the strengths of the forward thinking players, the more likely we are to adding another two years to the two decades of Major International Tournament famine.