5 Ways Scotland Have Improved Under Strachan
Scotland have managed a victory, a draw and a defeat from their first three Euro 2016 qualification games, but the performances have been more impressive than the results suggest, with good showings away in both Germany and Poland.
So far, Gordon Strachan has performed quietly impressive as coach, both on and off the field – the team seems more organised and more confident, and Euro 2016 isn’t an unrealistic target. Here’s five ways Strachan has helped Scotland improve…
1 – Plenty of new call-ups
Since taking charge of Scotland last year, Strachan has handed a first call-up to no fewer than 20 new players. Some of these have shone, some have disappointed, some have barely played. Nevertheless, the new faces have added a freshness and an enthusiasm to a national side that had previously seemed weary, unimaginative, and frankly quite dull.
This week’s selection of Rangers’ Lewis MacLeod, is an interesting example. Some have criticised the decision to select a second-tier player, but Strachan has clearly been informed that this is a highly talented youngster who has a great future for the national side. Why not select him early, get to know his personality and familiarise him with the group, so he’s comfortable by the time he’s needed? He might even play. “He’s not just coming along to make up the numbers,” says Strachan.
Others, though, have already established themselves in the side. Andrew Robertson was the left-back Scotland barely needed, and Ikechi Anya has provided some pace. Crucially, it feels like a completely different Scotland side to the previous regime.
2 – The system
Upon taking charge, Strachan immediately stressed the importance of finding a system which suited the players, rather than crowbarring players into a pre-decided system.
It might sound simple, but that’s what international management is all about. At club level, it’s possible to have a determined style of play, then recruit players according to the needs of the system. For an international side, especially one with a relatively small talent pool, it’s vital to approach things from the opposite direction.
Strachan had a year to prepare Scotland for this qualification campaign, and experimented with a variety of shapes. The 4-2-3-1 seems the default system, but crucially it’s very dynamic compared to the 4-5-1ish shape Craig Levein played. It’s only two years since Scotland played centre-back Gary Caldwell as a holding midfielder at home against Macedonia – Strachan wants a more purposeful midfield.
3 – Flexibility
Qualification for an international tournament means encountering opponents that differ vastly in terms of quality. On one matchday, Scotland are competing against the best sides in the world, the next they’re asked to break down minnows who barely attack.
Strachan has varied his approach well so far. Away in Dortmund, Scotland gave Germany a fright with an organised, disciplined starting XI featuring Steven Naismith as the main striker, and Strachan’s side nearly snatched a point. For the 1-0 victory over Georgia, however, Strachan pulled Naismith back into a number ten role, with Steven Fletcher upfront and Barry Bannan dropping to the bench, a more attacking format.
This is hardly tactical genius, and perhaps the type of thing many managers would do. But Strachan has some interesting tactical options, and he’s using them nicely so far.
4 – More universality
Previous Scotland sides have appeared somewhat old-fashioned – the defenders defended, the attackers attacked, and the midfielders scrapped around in the middle. This approach isn’t really viable in 2014, though: all players must be contributing at all times.
Therefore, it’s been notable that the work rate of the attacking players without the ball has improved, with Naismith epitomising this approach with his tireless running. Scotland’s defence is vulnerable, but the players in front of them are working hard to prevent them being exposed.
Meanwhile, there’s more attacking thrust from deeper positions, too. Alan Hutton’s return to form has been welcome at right-back, but the forward running and crossing skills of Andy Robertson have been even better, and the defence now plays an active part in attacking moves. The centre-backs aren’t the greatest ball-players, but overall this is a much more complete side.
5 – Confidence
Strachan’s sense of humour is often somewhat overplayed – we don’t need to hear the stories about ‘velocity’ or yoghurt’s in his fridge for the hundredth time – but Strachan’s attitude since taking charge has been refreshing. There’s a positivity and a confidence about the way the national side operates, and in conjunction with the best group of players Scotland have had for many years, suddenly the mood of the side feels very different.
“The players make me feel good and confident,” Strachan said last month. “They make me feel good and they determine the mood of the coaches most of the time… watching good players training hard, training intensely and asking questions, which is good. It isn’t just the training – it has been the performances over the last year that have allowed us to feel good about ourselves.”
It’s difficult to imagine Levein being so enthusiastic. With 24-team Euros giving Scotland hope, there’s a very realistic chance Scotland could play at a European Championships for the first time in two decades.
November 13th, 2014 by Michael Cox