The biggest of things require the least preamble and this, well, this is the distance from your seat at Hampden to the pitch, the average number of inches of waist added to kilt sizes since the trip to France in 1998 and the likelihood (thanks Covid-19!) that the Euros will played without Tartan Army supporters regardless of whether we qualify or not all added up together. It’s big. One match to decide if we qualify for our first men’s international tournament in over 20 years. So, what are the quick details we need to know about Serbia?
Outwith their play-off semi-final victory over Norway their recent results have not been that impressive. Ljubiša Tumbaković was appointed manager last July and his team are currently bottom of their Nations League group, consisting of Russia, Turkey and Hungary, with two points after four matches. In the November international break they drew 2-2 away with Turkey and lost 1-0 at home to Hungary. In fact, Serbia haven’t won a match inside 90 minutes for over a year and that victory was only a 3-2 home tie with Luxemburg in which they allowed the visitors 10 shots.
Ahead of their goalkeeper, likely to be one-time FM legend Pedrag Rajkovic – whose last match for his club Stade de Reims saw him concede four goals – Serbia tend to use a 3-4-2-1/5-2-3 type shape. The three at the back try to remain compact and don’t pursue opponents dropping deep if they can help it. Aleksander Kolarov, who’ll play as the left sided centre back, although experienced at defending the flank due to his years as a full back is particularly fearful about being drawn out of position due to his age and declining athleticism. Out of possession the wingbacks often draw narrow and deep to form a back five.
This can leave the central midfield pair with a lot of pitch to cover. They’ll try and stay as a pair, relatively parallel and tight. If Scotland can move the ball from one flank to another quickly and rotate positionally we may be able to draw one of them out of position and open up a lot of space especially if we can make the centre backs unsure about the choice between following a player deep or covering the threat in behind.
The greatest opportunity in these situations might be found in the space that can exist between the defence and midfield. So big it at times it could’ve been included in this article’s intro. If McGinn and whoever is performing the Fraser role (Christie, please) can exchange positions and find that space with enough support from our wingbacks we may be able to break through and make chances.
How about the threat to us? Remember Artem Dzubya? Well, he’s out of this week’s internationals for Russia because of a scandalous leaked home movie but Aleksander Mitrovic might make Scotland fans have flashbacks to another video nasty; the matches we played against Russia recently. Mitrovic is a bit of a physical freak and plays at the top of that front three for Serbia. He’ll try and pin defenders and be an aerial target for his teammates, which makes him a particular threat if Kieran Tierney starts or if we retreat too deep. The Fulham centre forward has an incredible ability to win long balls and then carry the ball towards the box. Turkey man marked him with a midfielder recently but whatever the specifics of our approach we’ve got to keep him high up the pitch, be aggressive and rough to win duels with him and be ready to win the second balls that result.
The two playing just off Mitrovic, as narrowly positioned mobile 10s, are likely to be Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinković-Savić. They are quite different from each other and very dangerous. Tadic offers the unexpected and unpredictable with his dribbling, vision and crossing. Milinković-Savić is a quite multi-faceted player who can be an outlet for long balls in a similar way to Mitrovic but also loves to drop into midfield to receive a low pass before releasing the right win back down the line and is also powerful and skilful on the ball. Together the front three love to play flicks around the corner and make runs in behind so our centre backs and central midfielders need to be very switched on, communicate with each other and not be caught ball watching. Finally, given the relatively similar formations, it seems likely to me that Serbia may find that their wingbacks have more time and space than normal. We’ll need to be mindful of that and have made a decision about how aggressive we want to be in terms of closing them down and how much we want to assert control of the flanks.