An All Too Familiar Story

Posted on by K Kujawa

Oh right, this is what it feels like. After 23 years, I’d almost forgotten.

For those of you who only really follow the men’s game and don’t remember France 98, welcome to the club. This is how it used to feel being a Scotland fan. We’d qualify for a tournament, we’d go there with high hopes, we’d not quite do as well as we’d like but still have a chance, and then we’d ultimately be disappointed in the end.

Every. Single. Time.

For those of you who got carried away with the women’s performance at the World Cup a couple of years ago, this disappointment might actually be less than that. At least we weren’t 3-0 up at one point against Croatia!

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions as it always seems to be with Scotland. If I’m brutally honest, I didn’t hold out much hope prior to the tournament. I thought our road to qualification was obviously good in the end but a little concerning given it took two penalty shootouts, I thought out Nations League campaign ended very disappointingly with the two defeats, and I thought our start to the World Cup qualifying probably wasn’t as good as it needed to be either with the two draws in there.

The buzz around Scotland helped a bit though. The way the squad was announced was fun, and you could tell that people were engaging with the national team again.

Then came that friendly match against the Netherlands.

Suddenly we saw what Scotland were capable of doing. There was promise all over the park and throughout the squad. That one game sparked belief that maybe we could do it when it mattered against decent opposition after all. The 1-0 win over Luxembourg also showed plenty of promise, even if there were doubts over missed chances.

Maybe we should have been more concerned by that part.

Kevin Nisbet came off the bench and scored a very nice goal against the Dutch. Given he was also second top scorer in the Scottish Premiership last season, didn’t he deserve more of a look in? Especially when you look at the performance of Lyndon Dykes who played in all three games without really having much of an impact. Che Adams came in at half time of the first game and was an improvement, but ultimately he hasn’t managed to get on the scoresheet in any of the three games either. Both strikers wasted great chances in that Luxembourg game, we really should have expected better from our strikers in this tournament.

I’m growing increasingly frustrated by this “expected goals” statistic that does the rounds. Why do we have a statistic that tells you how many goals you should have scored? Have you ever watched football? That’s not how it works! As I said previously, all that statistic is going to tell you is either how rubbish you are at scoring, or how jammy you are at scoring. You either score less than you are “expected” to score, or you somehow score more.

See when they start coupling it with “expected saves”, maybe then I’ll pay a little more attention. I feel like it completely discounts a goalkeeper playing out of his skin. But even then, this is all stuff I can see with my own eyes. I know when we should have scored more. I know when we’ve been jammy. I know when a goalkeeper has had the game of his life. I don’t need a stat to tell me that – and I love a good stat!

But for those of you who haven’t just sat through Scotland’s disappointment over the last three games, maybe you can take a look at the stats and tell me how Scotland did.

Scotland 2.23-0.95 Czech Republic
England 1.91-0.79 Scotland
Croatia 0.64-1.61 Scotland

If I’m reading that right, we should have got six points from this group and we only got one. We should have scored anywhere between 3 and 6 goals in this group and we only scored one.

Does expected goals tell you why this is the case though? No of course it doesn’t. Is it even telling you anything you didn’t already know? Not for me, I can easily see how our strikers have done without that.

So, statistics aside, just why then has this ended so badly for us yet again?

For me, it was the same problem in the first and last games. The tactics were wrong, and we refused to change them. That, coupled with individual errors across the park, has cost us dearly.

I’ve already covered the Czech Republic game in an earlier blog, but against Croatia we seemed to spend far too much of the game standing off them. This was all the more annoying when you saw that the few times we actually pressed them it caused them all sorts of problems! I briefly thought we had figured that out at half time because we started the second half pressing all over the park but that quickly faded away again.

You only have to look at the Modrić goal to see it in action. Yes, the finish with the outside of his boot is absolutely sublime, but why did we spend so much of the game giving a former Balon D’or winner the time and space to do what he wanted? It wasn’t just him either, the entire build up to that goal was Scotland standing off the Croatians as they played it around the edge of our box!

The first goal was hugely disappointing as well. When you’ve already cost yourself dearly by not stopping crosses coming into the box against the Czechs, how do you repeat that mistake against Croatia? It’s really not helped by the fact that Scott McTominay is picking up no one in particular in the box and then wanders over to where the ball is going when that man is already marked!

I appreciate that McTominay is not a defender, but wandering to where the ball is going is stuff that children do and you learn not to do it as you get older. His awareness of his teammates is shockingly bad for that goal and ultimately it’s his man that scores the opener. This is the same Scott McTominay who played in the Europa League final last month! Callum McGregor realised the problems all too late to do anything about it, but I’m not sure what he was doing before it either.

I thought we’d fold after that goal. The first half seemed to be going from bad to worse, the injury to Grant Hanley didn’t help matters and bringing on Scott McKenna raised a few eyebrows – especially when he kicked a Croatian before he kicked the ball and got booked for it! I was definitely wanting half time to come so we could hopefully sort it out in the dressing room and make the changes to our tactics that would get us back into the game. I really didn’t expect to be going in level at the break, but McGregor’s strike into the bottom corner was the kind of thing that was missing all too much at Celtic this past season and was more than welcome to see in a Scotland jersey.

If nothing else, this tournament has finally replaced Craig Burley as the last man to score for Scotland at a major finals. The former Celtic midfielder arguably being replaced by his modern day counterpart in that position.

Sadly, that was as good as it would get. Even before our goal we wasted yet more chances, and actually I thought John McGinn was responsible for too many of them. His decision making wasn’t the best, from the header across goal that was neither a shot nor setting it up for someone else, to the near passback shot that he had moments later. A lot was resting on his shoulders in this tournament, sadly I don’t think he lived up to it.

Nothing said it better than when he beautiful read a Croatia pass in the second half to intercept it on the touchline, only to suddenly seem like he was running through treacle as you would hope that we could break up the park. He looked for a foul in the challenge on him, but he was just so slow when had the ball that I’m not surprised he was so easily dispossessed. And that led almost directly to that second Croatian goal.

The third goal was just the age old debate – do you put a man on the back post at a corner or not? If you do, then that goal doesn’t happen. Near post flick on headers are one of the better ways to score at corners when people don’t do that, and we were punished for it.

Ryan Fraser got some time on the park at the end, but once the third goal went in we all knew it was over anyway. You have to hope that those last few minutes aren’t the only minutes that Nathan Patterson sees in a major tournament for Scotland. We can’t let it be another 23 year until we qualify for one again.

For those of you who think this is worse than having not qualified at all, I suggest you take a look around Scotland over the past week and a half. Andy Robertson has clearly been doing that because his message to the fans just echoed my thinking.

It’s the first time in a long time that I remember seeing so many children wearing Scotland strips out in the street. Actually it’s the first time in a long that I remember seeing so many adults wearing them too! I’ve seen more Scotland flags hanging out of windows and mounted on cars than I can count.

Or at least it’s the first time I remember seeing this many flags in a way that has united the country rather than it being part of a more politically motivated statement. This time these flags were flying for Scottish football, one team for all five million of us.

Euro 2020 has reignited people’s interest in the national team. We’ve seen that ebb and flow over the past couple of decades, even the Nations League campaign that ultimately led us here was poorly attended, but no qualifying campaign comes close to what I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. Imaginations have been captured, we can’t let them drift away again.

Need any more proof? I was pretty angry at the performance last night, and I’m still pretty annoyed today if I’m honest. I’m still fairly cynical and pessimistic about our immediate fate. Yet despite all that, I still found myself singing Do a Deer in my kitchen this morning. Disappointment in the finals is very different from disappointment in qualification.

So with all that in mind, we need to make sure we’re qualifying regularly for tournaments once more. That won’t be easy, we definitely have a lot of work to do if we’re to even think of making it to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Again, being brutally honest, I think it’s probably beyond us already barring some shock positive results in our favour. Denmark are running away with it and Austria will be favourites to be right behind them as things stand. I think Euro 2024 in Germany is a more likely target, and thankfully that is only three years away.

But if we’re going to do that, we’ll need to work on taking our chances and being more flexible in our tactics when they’re not working. Lets not continually make the same mistakes again and again, persisting with the same players who just aren’t performing, that won’t get us anywhere.

Euro 2020 will now carry on without us, just as every major tournament we’ve qualified for in the past tends to do. Maybe next time will be different and hopefully before too long we’ll be looking back at Euro 2020 as the first step on our journey back to the main stage and beyond where we’ve ever been before.

It could have and probably should have gone so much better this time, but it was still good to be back, wasn’t it?