Andrew D Duffy
Scotland Squad September 2020
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
A Look Over The Scotland National Team Squad For The Nations League Games Vs Israel (H) And Czech Republic (A)
We fans of the Scottish Lower Leagues, we proper Fitba fans, have been looking on enviously as the Scottish topflight has worked its way through its opening six fixtures (notable exceptions aside) but for this Tartan Army Footsoldier and Airdrie fan, the National Team are finally going to give me a game in which my interest can be fully invested.
Sure, I've been able to watch the odd game using the PPV options provided by top flight clubs, but I've had no dogs in any of those fights, no skin in any of those games. Scotland V Israel, then, changes all that. The result won't be met with a shrug and a goal for the home team will be greeted with an exuberance one simply cannot remotely muster for matches when one's an objective observer.
Of course, this means the 90 minutes will be fraught with nerves, peppered generously with tension and excessively ageing. And worst of all, the result could be utterly deflating.
I'll not be able to go to Hampden on Friday 4th September, nor grace the fair city of Prague on the following Monday, which is without doubt a deep personal disappointment. I'll be sourcing a television with the necessary package to take them in and then hanging on for dear life in the hope that Steve Clarke can build on the three wins that brought to an end the disappointing Euro 2020 Qualification Group.
These games are there to be won and the Israel game is of particular interest, given the much more important replication of the fixture in October. That said, success in that October Semi-final, if followed up by an away win in Serbia or Norway, will see us lining up against the Czech's in the Euro 2020 tournament when it gets underway in Summer 2021 (I know, I know, all very strange,unprecedented times, yadda yadda yadda).
So what of the selection, then, made by Steve Clarke and announced Tuesday (25th August) afternoon?
David Marshall was well ensconced as Steve Clarke's number 1 Goalie by the time Scotland's last game came to a conclusion in November 2019, a 3-1 win at home to Kazakhstan. His move to Derby ensures he will remain in the English Championship following the Administration induced relegation of his former club Wigan Athletic, but will the fact that he has not played since the completion of the Championship season leave him too rusty to wear the gloves?
If so, Jon McLaughlin seems ready made to step in. He has started the last five Rangers games in Allan McGregor's stead and kept a clean sheet in each of them. He's been in squads before and already has 2 caps. Robby McCrorie, the young Rangers loanee getting top flight experience at Livingston, has been promoted to the senior squad from the Under-21s, having represented Scotland from Under 15 level all the way up. He will gain valuable experience of the Senior set-up, lay the foundations of a relationship with Steve Clarke and his staff and seems very much a future Number 1 in the making.
My expectation is that Marshall has the gloves unless he seems particularly, excessively rusty in training, but McLaughlin having had game-time under his belt already is a great comfort. Had his teammate McGregor not been injured, the likelihood is our squad would have two keepers with no minutes behind them and a young goalie joining the set-up for the first time.
The defence has long been a mixed bag for Scotland, with genuine class in the left back area, limited options at right back and a veritable chasm at centre half. This pattern is repeated in the current squad, with 3 excellent left backs, two right backs and only 3 centre backs named. With Kieran Tierney making his return at long last after eventually overcoming injury problems to cement himself in the Arsenal side, Celtic left back Greg Taylor can consider himself incredibly unfortunate to be third choice for a position in which he has performed well for club and for country. Andrew Robertson, Liverpool regular and Scotland Captain, seems certain to start, leaving Kieran Tierney as the round peg in search of a square hole.
[2018 AMA Sports Photo Agency]
It could be that he is deployed as a right back, with Scotland yet to lose a game in which he has been used on that flank. Alternatively, it's possible that Clarke is going to try playing him in the centre of defence. Only three centre halves have been called up, which is quite unusual. More often that not, a fourth will be included in the group, so this could be an indication of how Clarke intends to accommodate both his English Premier League left backs in his starting eleven. That would make Taylor cover for Robertson, Motherwell's O'Donnell cover for Liam Palmer at right back and Tierney one of four options at the heart of defence alongside Leeds United captain Liam Cooper, Motherwell captain Declan Gallagher and Aberdeen defender Scott McKenna.
It's more likely the case that the versatility of Kieran Tierney is the key here; he's a left back by trade, he has played right back for Scotland before, he has played as the left sided member of a back three and he's capable of doing a job as a centre half too. Clarke has options, never a bad thing, and he also has a player who can adapt to whatever his manager needs from him.
Declan Gallagher did himself no harm whatsoever in his caps late last year and played alongside Scott McKenna in Cyprus and at home to Kazakhstan. Indeed, with Liam Cooper enjoying a strong end to a title winning season with his club, it's probably Aberdeen's McKenna who's most at risk of losing his place, either to the aforementioned Cooper or to Kieran Tierney. Again, the curious circumstances which sees those players employed by Scottish Clubs already in action whilst their compatriots await the commencement of their new league season could well determine who is and isn't ready to start competitive games.
[Image: Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images]
It's only going to be Clarke and his coaching staff who will be able to determine this when the squad comes together for preparation, leaving the rest of us to guess as to what impact, if any, inaction could have on the starting eleven.
Ah, the midfield. Scotland's safe space. Our genuine, not-even-kidding strength in depth at centre mid allows many permutations to be posited, none of which would be ridiculous, all of which could be viable.
We're allowed to be properly excited at the problem this gives us, the varying combinations that could be quite reasonably put forward. Callum McGregor. Scott McTominay. Ryan Jack. John Fleck. John McGinn. Kenny McLean. Stuart Armstrong. Ryan Christie. You could put any of those guys in. That's eight good footballers, all playing at a high level, all capped already, all with varying strengths and weaknesses, but more of the former than the later. If ever there was a time to try a 4-6-0...
... Okay, no, never again. It's likely that we will deploy a deeper sitting two behind a more advanced three, if not a flat four, so you're probably looking at two spaces for out and out centre mids, with three at most. It's perhaps worth considering that the best pairing to make might not necessarily be the two best players; you want to identify a central unit which best complements each other and the rest of the side, that is best suited to the gameplan and is best able to establish a working understanding. We might be leaving players on the bench who are objectively better players, but who miss out more for the way they don't play than the way they do, or because one pairing happens to click better.
James Forrest will be a strong contender to start, especially considering that the last time we played Israel at Hampden he scored all three of our goals in a vital 3-2 win. The Israeli players will surely take any omission of their tormentor as a morale boost and whilst we cannot expect the Celtic wide man to repeat his hattrick, his presence alone could unnerve the opponent. They will be wary of him, potentially paying him more focus than they might any other player, which would create spaces for his teammates to exploit.
Alternatively, Ryan Christie could find himself out wide right, a player with a good delivery who can cut in to devastating, often goalscoring effect.
Wide left is a trickier area, although presumably most of our width on the left hand side will come from whichever outstanding left back we deploy in their natural position. Stuart Armstrong, then, could do a job on the left side, a player of great technical skill, a goal threat and a creator of chances, who will enjoy cutting in to allow a gap for Robertson or Tierney or Taylor to catapult into on the flank. Christie is probably more likely out on his natural left foot, though, and has match sharpness over the Southampton player.
Sigh. What's the bigger problem area for Scotland; striker or centre half? We badly miss a Leigh Griffiths goalscorer or a Steven Fletcher type lynchpin. That neither are available means the striking berth is very much up for grabs for messers Burke, Dykes, McBurnie and Shankland. It looks like Shankland will struggle to make the game, having been unable to feature for Dundee United since the opening game of the season. Newly called up Lyndon Dykes, fresh off his move from Livingston to Queens Park Rangers, could be in that Steven Fletcher mould and has shown signs that he could do a job up top for his adopted country, the land of his parents' birth.
Oli Burke remains the perennial enigma; a player with natural attributes far beyond the rest of his peers, with pace and strength in much more abundance than any other name in contention for the spearhead of the attack, but who seems to lack the finesse or the nous to really bring it all together. Having won the match for Steve Clarke in the manager's inaugural game and started in Belgium and Russia, it's clear he retains the faith of his National Team manager even as he searches for what Clarke calls 'a home' in Club Football.
And then there's Oli McBurnie. If Burke is an enigma, McBurnie is a mystifying, frustrating prospect. His time in the English Championship was laden with goals. His form for Sheffield United in the top flight has been much, much less prolific, but he has put in many good performances and unsettled many a Premier League defence. If he can replicate that form, he could be a huge asset to the National side.
To say this has yet to materialise is to put it mildly. McBurnie has varied between anonymous and dreadful in his Scotland career thus far, a career which is only nine caps old. Not all players taker to International football immediately. Nonetheless, that doesn't change the fact that in his nine caps and four hundred and sixty minutes thus far he has been at best ineffective and at worst downright abject.
You see McBurnie do very well in some games for Sheffield and you think, 'hm, maybe we're the problem; maybe the issue is we're just not setting up to get the best out of him'.
The you think back, or rewatch, his performances against against Cyprus, against Kazakhstan, against Russia, and you remember just how poorly, clumsily and lazily he played and you hope beyond hope that Griffiths gets a shift on before October.
His appearance in Cyprus in particular was painful to watch. That we surrendered possession and territory so easily and consistently to them as the game went on was in large part down to his utterly feckless performance as a second half sub.
Frustrating beyond belief.
Whilst i'm generally sympathetic to the argument that McBurnie hasn't been helped by the players around him at times for Scotland, his level of endeavour, even his basic ball control, has been pretty abysmal throughout his nine caps. In Cyprus he had plenty support from the midfield when he came on, but the players soon stopped giving him the ball after repeated failures to trap it, control it or even make any sort of run. His cheap surrender of possession was actually quite remarkable in what was surely his worst performance yet. At one point, he had a one on one with the goalie if he could have just bothered his arse to actually run 20 yards. Alas, arsed he could not be, choosing instead to just stand and watch the keeper recover from his trip, dust himself down and then nonchalantly collect the ball.
No wonder he didn't get a sniff at home to Kazakhstan after that dreadful display, as Clarke quite rightly kept him on the bench at Hampden. Harsh as this might seem, and accepting that it would be silly to write off a player on nine caps, even if it was nine starts, I don't think it's unreasonable to have formed a judgement on how he has performed in the minutes he has had in a Scotland shirt thus far, whilst accepting it is entirely possible he will get better. His Sheffield United performances cannot be ignored and they do warrant an inclusion in the squad, yet those nine caps are the most relevant games if one wants to draw a conclusion about how he has done for Scotland. Indeed, they are the only relevant barometer to judge his Scotland performances thus far, being as they are his only Scotland performances.
There's absolutely no reason that a player can't have nine absolutely stinking caps then go on to have a cracking tenth, but as it stands, he has nine dug-meat performances for Scotland to his name and this hardly inspires confidence.
Dykes, then? He certainly will be full of confidence, having earned his move to Queens Park Rangers, but he remains an untested prospect at any level higher than the Scottish Premiership. He has proven he can upset Europa League defenders (If we can class Old Firm centre halves as Europa League defenders) but international football remains a significant step up; as touched upon already, players don't necessarily adapt seamlessly even when in good form for their club.
I'm going to assume it will come down to Dykes or McBurnie and that Clarke will determine this when he gets the squad together and sees them in training, with the odds seeming to favour another chance being given to the Sheffield United forward to put his poor international form behind him.
[Tim Goode/PA Wire.]
It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, gets called in to replace Shankland, who seems a certainty to have to withdraw through injury, but it's unlikely to make much difference to the likely starter for Scotland.
Here's hoping that, however he deploys Kieran Tierney, whichever combination is deployed at centre half, whomever makes up the midfield and whatever the hell he does with our forwards, Steve Clarke gets Scotland's hugely consequential 2020 fixtures off to a winning start.
The Idle Hands starting XI-
Tierney, Gallagher, Cooper, Robertson
Forrest, McGregor, McTominay, Christie