International tournament qualification is, for a country of Scotland’s size and quality level, tough and getting tougher. There’s a lot of luck and factors that can’t be controlled at play such as the group draw and injuries and fair comparisons cannot be drawn with the relative regularity with which we qualified in the past.
Maybe using the limited coaching time to focus on defensive organisation and marginal gains such as set pieces can increase our chances but my feeling, based on analysis of the teams in the UEFA Nations League pot above us (all of whom have qualified for one of the last three tournaments), is that we’ve really just lacked a top class attacker who can conjure goals from nothing and be clinical in the limited opportunities international football provides.
As Leigh Griffiths pulls out, leaving us with Steven Naismith (overperforning xG and 32 years old) and Oli McBurnie (not shooting nearly enough) to lead the line, consider the players those pot B teams have had over those last six years and the historical lack of goal scorers for Scotland which means that our tenth highest scorer of all time, the founder of RS McColls newsagents, scored some of his international goals in the 19th century.
In their qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup Austria finished third in the group; behind Germany, who went on to win the tournament, and a Zlatan Ibrahimovic powered Sweden. Although they failed to progress David Alaba, who often plays a more attacking, central role for his country than the left back position he occupies at club level for Bayern Munich was joint second top scorer in the group with 6 goals.
They topped their qualification group for Euro 2016 ahead of Russia and Sweden with Marc Janko scoring 7 times to be joint second top scorer, Alaba chipping in with 4 and Marko Arnautovic adding 3. Arnautovic was second top scorer in the group as they failed to qualify for World Cup 2018.
Janko scored 28 goals in 66 caps for the Austrians and Alaba has notched 13 in 65, as well as providing lots of creativity, while Arnautovic has scored 19 goals so far and could well score many more as he has transitioned to more of a centre forward role.
Gareth Bale is Wales’ top scorer of all time with 30 goals in 72 matches and has been a key figure for them in recent years.
They finished behind Scotland, in fifth, and failed to qualify from their World Cup 2014 qualifying section despite Bale being joint top scorer in the group. Wales did qualify for the 2016 Euros and this was due, in part, to Bale once more being the joint top scorer in the group. In fact he scored an important winner at home to 2018 World Cup semi-finalists Belgium. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, finishing third in their group, but Bale was second top scorer.
Oleg Blokhin is classed as Russia’s top scorer of all time with 42 goals for the USSR but in second spot is more recent player Aleksandr Kerzahakov with 30. In the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign Russia topped their group and Kerzahakov was second top scorer.
Russia also qualified for the 2016 Euros and Artem Dzubya, who has 15 goals in 29 caps, helped them to do so by being the top scorer in their group. Their qualification for the 2018 World Cup was performance enhanced somewhat as they were the hosts and progressed automatically.
Despite only playing their first official match as Slovakia in 1994 the Falcons already have three players with over 20 international goals – just one fewer than Scotland.
Slovakia failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup but in 2016 they finished second behind Spain and ahead of Ukraine to make it to the Euros thanks to Marek Hamsik topping the group scoring chart.
They finished ahead of Scotland in the qualifying group for 2018 World Cup but did not qualify. Hamsik has scored an impressive 21 goals in his mighty haul of 106 caps and also provides a great deal of playmaking creativity from midfield.
Although Sweden failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup they almost made it; finishing second to Germany and then losing out in a play off to Portugal. It’s likely he’d consider that being the joint second top scorer in a group is nothing to shout about but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s strikes were certainly key in getting them close.
He did help propel them all the way to the 2016 Euros, joint top scorer in the group with 7 and then adding 3 more in the two legged play off victory over Scandinavian rivals Denmark. The Swedes did also qualify for Russia 2018. Ibrahimovic, the nation’s all time top scorer with 62 goals in 116 caps, not on hand anymore but Marcus Berg took up the mantle and finished top scorer in their group.
In 2014 World Cup qualifying Ukraine scored 28 goals in ten matches and came second behind England to progress to a play off with France. Although they failed to beat the French Andriy Yarmolenko was second top scorer in their group.
Yarmolenko, currently keeping Robert Snodgrass out the team at West Ham United, was again second top scorer in Ukraine’s group as they attempted to qualify for the 2016 Euros. This time they did make it through a play off with Slovenia and booked their place at the tournament. In the qualifying process for the 2018 World Cup they placed third behind Iceland and eventual finalists Croatia and did not progress but Yarmolenko was the group’s top scorer. In fact he is their second top scorer of all time with 36 goals in 79 appearances, behind the legendary Andriy Shevchenko’s 48.
Republic Of Ireland
Robbie Keane has 68 international goals. That’s more than Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish added together. In the 2014 World Cup qualifying process he was the joint second top scorer in the group even though the Irish only finished fourth. They did qualify for the 2016 Euros, with Scotland in their group, via a play off with Bosnia.
They failed to qualify for Russia 2018 but did get to a play off with Denmark after finishing second in their group. Shane Long has managed to score 17 goals for them and Jon Walters, with 14, would be Scotland’s ninth top scorer of all time.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Despite the nation only playing its first matches in the mid 1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina already has four players with over 20 international goals. They qualified for the 2014 World Cup after topping their group. Edin Dzeko struck 10 of the 30 goals they scored and was the group’s top scorer.
In the 2016 Euros qualifiers they lost out via play-off to Republic of Ireland but Dzeko was again top scorer in the group, joint this time, on 7 goals. With Dzeko and fellow high scorer Vedad Ibisevic now in their thirties they were unable to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, finishing third in their group behind two of the eventual semi-finalists; Belgium and Croatia. Dzeko has a quite incredible record of 53 goals in 95 caps.
He may have pulled out of this week’s internationals but Kyle Lafferty has been an important goalscorer for Northern Ireland in recent years. They failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup but did make it to the 2016 Euros as Lafferty finished top scorer in the group and his country topped the table above Romania and Hungary.
Northern Ireland lost out in the play off stage of 2018 World Cup qualifying, to Switzerland, but Lafferty’s return of 20 goals in 68 matches exceeds anything a Scottish player has achieved recently.
Denmark’s top scorer of all time, Jon Dahl Tomasson, is now their national assistant manager. Although unlikely to overtake his haul of 52 goals the much maligned Niklas Bendtner actually has 30 international goals. This would put him joint top of all time for Scotland but only places him seventh for Denmark. In ninth place is the real current star – Christian Eriksen – with 25 goals in 83 caps.
The Danes failed to qualify for 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Euros but they did make it to the 2018 World Cup. Eriksen was the second top scorer in their group with 8 goals and he went on the score a hat trick in the play off against Republic Of Ireland to clinch qualification.
The Czech Republic failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup but did make it to the 2016 Euros, topping a group containing Iceland and Turkey. They placed third behind Germany and Northern Ireland and failed to make it to the 2018 World Cup.
Their all time top scorer, with 55 goals, is Jan Koller but creative force Tomas Rosicky – a key part of the first half of the 2016 qualification process before succumbing to injury – actually has 24 international goals in 105 caps.
Turkey failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup but Burak Yilmaz was joint second top scorer in the group. Yilmaz was only third top scorer in their qualification group for the 2016 Euros but they did sneak through as the best third placed team.
Yilmaz made it to 23 international goals in the 2018 World Cup qualifying process but Turkey did not qualify even though Cenk Tosun was the joint second top scorer in the group. In addition to those two players Arda Turan has also pitched in with 17 goals in 100 international matches.
Scotland came fourth in their qualification groups for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros, failing to qualify for either. In the 2016 group Steven Fletcher was third top scorer but six of his seven goals were scored against dead last Gibraltar.
In the 2018 World Cup qualification process Scotland came third and again did not progress. This time Leigh Griffiths and Robert Snodgrass were joint third top scorers in the group with four goals each but half of those were against dead last Malta. None of Fletcher, Griffiths are Snodgrass are into double digit international goals and our most recent player who is – Kenny Miller with 18 – got one goal in 2014 World Cup qualifying before retirement.