You know, there’s a difference between like and love. I like football but I love it when Scotland win at football. And that’s now seven wins from the last eight matches so let’s run through the ten things I love about this Scotland team right now.
A Plan To Score
We may have hit the target infrequently (although I sort of feel that hitting the woodwork should count towards that stat) but, particularly against Slovakia and in the first half versus Czech Republic, there have been signs that Scotland know how they want to create chances. A low pass from Scott McTominay into a recipient in the halfspace then knocked around the corner for the wingback to play a cross was clearly a pattern of play being attempted by Steve Clarke’s team. Add that to other moves such as attempting to win the ball back high up the pitch in wide areas and long balls for Lyndon Dykes to flick on to the scurrying Ryan Fraser and chances will come for this team.
The Duracell Bunny False Winger
Ryan Fraser’s performances in this international break’s matches were startling for their combination of will and skill. For a footballer that had only played a handful of senior competitive minutes since March and has sometimes faced doubts over his commitment to the Scotland national team he was a real surprise in a unique role as part of Scotland’s attacking little and large act. Fraser was tasked with operating from a central starting position, ready to link up with Lyndon Dykes, but also expected to be a winger on both flanks. He was a threat running in behind, contributed by defending from the front and scored the winner against Czech Republic. This seems as though it must be an exhausting role but is a perfect match for our Duracell bunny Fraser.
Talking of those that have faced question marks over their commitment to the cause of course brings us neatly on to Oli McBurnie. No goal again, though he couldn’t have come much closer with an effort against the bar in both Nations League ties, but he’ll have endeared himself to fans with an open and honest SFA podcast appearance and the sheer delight he clearly took in frustrating Slovakia during his cameo role. McBurnie, Andy Robertson, Ryan Fraser and Callum McGregor teamed up to retain possession, carry the ball away from dangerous areas and win Scotland throw-ins and corners in order to see out the victory. That streetwise desire to win was great to see from this side.
Teams can benefit from having an individual that embodies their image. If Scotland are to be a somewhat lucky, scrappy team that overachieves and gets some success against all expectations then who better to have at the tip of the spear than Lyndon Dykes? A Pure Fitbaw favourite since a trip to watch Queen of the South in the #PureChampionship but a player that even we probably didn’t expect to end up a Scotland international now has two goals in his first four caps. Dykes has posed problems for the best defenders in the Scottish Premiership but still there appeared to be a sense of bemusement among fans of other clubs that Livingston had managed to get a fee of £2 million for him. Well, this underdog is answering all those doubters now.
Club Stalwart Recognition
Paul Hanlon at left wingback for Scotland is maybe not the worst thing I could have imagined happening this year and, clearly, it’s not even in the top billion bad things that actually did happen in 2020 but prior to this week it’s not something I would have welcomed. However, couple his introduction with the solid performance by Andy Considine at left centre back and there’s maybe something to consider about the impact – off the pitch – of their selection. By involving these club stalwarts; Considine becoming our oldest debutant since Ronnie Simpson in 1967 and Hanlon finally getting a senior bow at the age of 30 despite having twenty-three u21 caps, Clarke may have found a way to tackle the apathy of some club fans about the national team. The intangible positive impact experienced players can make on their teammates is often alluded to but it could be that the involvement of these players will have a tangible impact on the fanbase.
Before some of the older replacements and additions were called up Steve Clarke had named a squad for these ties with no outfielder aged over twenty-nine. Into the squad by the time of the final tie against the Czech Republic came Ryan Porteous, aged twenty-one, and the McCrorie twins Robbie and Ross, aged twenty-two. The signs are there that the manager wants to involve players as soon as he thinks they’re ready regardless of age and there will be a clear pathway from youth level to senior international football. With Fraser Hornby, Billy Gilmour and Allan Campbell all near to knocking on the door and an even more promising clutch of players at u19 and u17 levels this is a heartening development.
Just look at that photo of the line of delighted Scotland players as Kenny McLean’s winning penalty hits the net. Beaming smiles, out of control outstretched limbs and wide eyes lit up at each other. That’s the easy bit though, right? The relief and clear build up and celebratory moment a penalty shoot out gives. Even teammates that hate each other can celebrate winning moments together. This seems real though. The evidence is there on the pitch in the hard work from front to back and it’s also there off the pitch in the form of social media posts, even from sidelined players.
It’s much easier to love a team that seems to enjoy playing with each other and to be playing for each other and us.
It might just be the results or the absence of crowds that’s making me think this, and of course he wasn’t even needed (same for Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie, Liam Cooper etc!) for the Czech Republic match, but it feels as though Andy Robertson is growing into the captaincy. He’s been vocal on the pitch; encouraging, cajoling and dictating and has also been a chief cheerleader off it; letting his personality show a little more in social media posts about Scotland and being deliberately celebratory and cheekily irreverent about teammates. That’s the type of more present leadership which fits this team, can play as a bit of a counterpoint to Steve Clarke’s more serious and understated tone and can resonate with a younger generation of supporters who’ve previously been apathetic.
I’m loath to contribute to the general co-opting of OTT fan nicknames for club favourites – from Sam Cosgrove Ballon d’Or to the Portobello Pirlo – but our stand-in captain against the Czech Republic does deserve special recognition. John McGinn. With an arse that he’s able to use in the way most footballers would use an outstretched palm of a hand to keep onrushing opponents at bay, an engine that powers him through pressing runs, blocks of passing lanes, up into channels and on into fearless challenges and a nose and a mind that sniffs out opportunities and makes snap decisions and befuddles defenders. He’s unorthodox and by no means perfect in modern technical terms. And that just makes him more suited to Scotland and even more perfect for us.
Let’s just hope the xG gods don’t demand their sacrifice in our Euro 2020 play-off final against Serbia because they certainly favoured us against the Czech Republic. The signs of a system being implemented are there but this is not really a team that defends like Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock and it’s not yet a team that is skilled at limiting chances. Sixteen shots conceded to Czech Republic a few of which were huge opportunities is a concern – we were lucky. Winning in a penalty shoot-out is lucky too. But I say that partly to sound a note of caution but also to celebrate it. Luck’s a lovely thing to have and we should love being a team that finally appears to have some.