Alex McLeish’s first matches in his second spell as Scotland manager take place this Friday 23rd March 2018 and next Tuesday 27th March 2018. In this preview article we highlight some changes in approach under the new manager and areas to improve upon, provide some detail on the opposition Costa Rica and Hungary, take a look at Scotland’s Under 21 team and, finally, some of our staff here at Pure Fitbaw pick the starting 11 they would select.
New (GPS trackable) direction under McLeish
The Scottish FA have been impressive in the social media content they have provided in the wake of Alex McLeish’s appointment and in the lead up to these friendlies. One of the key elements has been the ‘Official Scotland Podcast’.
In his appearance on the podcast McLeish was keen to stress that he has hasn’t been left behind by the game despite a period away from the top level and has a lot of experience using statistics and performance analysis and understands the psychological aspect of management. He also stated that he believed these friendlies could be an opportunity for for some of Scotland’s talented younger players. This does appear to be a positive contrast to Gordon Strachan who could be perceived as stubborn and loyal, to a fault, to an established core of players. Further evidence of a change in approach has emerged via an interview in the Daily Record with Scotland’s new Head of High Performance Graeme Jones. In the interview Jones disclosed that Strachan had opted against the use of GPS trackers and other analytical tools with the senior side. These measures, considered as standard by all top flight clubs, are now being embraced by McLeish in a quest to optimise performance.
As well as the gains which can be made with modern approaches to physical training there are three basic playing areas which can be improved upon from Scotland’s failed 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign under Strachan; chance creation, defending balls into the box and ball retention in defence.
Scotland struggled to break teams down and create chances. This is evidenced by the fact that almost half of our goals were scored after the 76th minute of games and, excluding the games against Malta, we only scored ten goals in eight matches. Only one of those goals was created by an attacking midfielder. Scotland need to expect more of a clear contribution from their attacking midfielders and McLeish should set his team out to be braver and more positive right from the start especially at Hampden.
All of the goals which Scotland conceded were scored from close in to goal in clear danger areas. While the fact that half of them were headers may have led to Strachan’s infamous statement about Scotland’s comparative genetic deficiencies the goals were really due to basic errors in terms of poor marking, lapses in concentration and failure to track runners. McLeish will need to work on these fundamentals and ensure the defence is well organised.
Finally, Scotland’s retention of the ball in defence, especially when pressed by the opposition, was very poor. Craig Gordon had a pass completion rate of 39% at home to England and Charlie Mulgrew 48% away to Slovenia. While a ponderous quest for deliberately inflated passing stats between our centre backs is not something to advocate for these stats are evidence of the fact that our poor technical ability and lack of confidence at the back invited pressure, led to opposition attacks and also meant we rarely managed to break the lines and supply our attackers with possession in good areas.
Opposition in Brief
Scotland and Costa Rica meet for only the second time ever this Friday. Both Alex McLeish and the Costa Rican manager, 75 times capped Oscar Ramirez, played in the first meeting which was a 1-0 victory for the central Americans at the 1990 World Cup. For Costa Rica this match is preparation for the 2018 World Cup where they are grouped with Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland. Given how out of favour he is at club level it seems unlikely that Celtic right back Cristian Gamboa will start but experienced pair Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges (200 caps between them) and Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas may feature.
Scotland’s opposition next Thursday, Hungary, actually beat Costa Rica in an evenly matched friendly last November. They face Kazakhstan this Friday evening and that game will give us a greater understanding of their likely tactics and lineup for next week but key players may include RB Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, 91 cap veteran Balazs Dzsudzsak and young Bologna midfielder Adam Nagy. Hungary placed third, as did Scotland, in their 2018 World Cup qualification group but they were fifteen points behind the teams in first and second place. The fact that Hungary even lost away to Andorra in the group should give Scotland hope that they can put to rest any lingering memories of the last time the two teams met; a 3-0 win for Hungary at Hampden in 2004.
Coincidentally Scotland’s Under 21 team face Andorra this Friday night. There are several players named in Scott Gemmill’s Scotland Under 21 squad who can be considered unfortunate to have missed out on a spot in the senior squad and should be considered for a call up in the near future. John Souttar, Chris Cadden, Greg Docherty and Eamonn Brophy have had particularly impressive seasons in the SPFL Premiership.
The youth level national team is at the half way point in their attempt to qualify for the 2019 European Championships in Italy and allowing too many players to make the step up might damage the effort to make it to a finals for the first time since 1996.
Scotland sit fourth in their group and have two games against bottom placed Andorra before facing rivals for second place Netherlands and Ukraine and finally group leaders England. The second tie against Andorra is in September so there could be an opportunity for even more young, new faces in the senior friendlies against Peru and Mexico in May and June.
Pure Fitbaw Selections
McLeish named nine uncapped players in his squad for the two matches. Since the original squad announcement Kieran Tierney, Russell Martin and Dylan McGeouch have withdrawn due to injury and Jack Hendry has been added in.
There are reasons to be positive about much of the squad; Andrew Robertson is performing excellently as first choice left back for Liverpool, Oli McBurnie has scored six goals in nine appearances for Barnsley and Manchester United youngster Scott McTominay has committed to Scotland over England. There are some notable absences; Scott Brown has retired from international football, Craig Gordon and Leigh Griffiths are injured and Christophe Berra has been left out due to his age.
Two of the staff here at Pure Fitbaw have picked a starting eleven each for the match against Costa Rica. Let us know which selections you agree or disagree with and send us your own picks to Pure Fitbaw on Twitter