A blueprint for the Scottish men's national team
Written by: Blair Newman (@TheBlairNewman)
The first year of Alex McLeish’s return spell as Scotland manager was anything but straightforward. Not only was he tasked with rebuilding a squad ingrained over multiple campaigns, but he had to guide the team through a tough list of friendlies and four big Nations League matches.
For all the criticism McLeish received, he did exactly what was asked of him. He took Scotland beyond Israel and Albania to top their Nations League group, achieving promotion and a Euro 2020 play-off spot. He also introduced new faces, giving international debuts to no fewer than 17 players. Furthermore, of the 14 outfielders he brought into the fold, eight are aged 23 or younger.
Things are moving in the right direction under ‘Big Eck’, but there is plenty of progress still to be made. Qualification for Euro 2020, and ending over two decades of failure, is far from secured, while there remains a lack of real clarity regarding selection policy.
Some within the setup and in the media have described McLeish’s squads as ‘young’. This isn’t really true. The average age of his initial squad for the recent clashes with Albania and Israel was 26.9 – this is generally regarded as around the peak age for a professional footballer, and there’s still 18 months until the next finals gets underway. Once Euro 2020 comes around, this group should, theoretically, be primed and ready.
The squad’s average age, along with the fact McLeish’s contract runs until 2020, suggests that this is far from a long-term plan. Scotland are aiming for the next European Championship, which is fair enough, but it’s no major change on the mentality that has prevailed in recent times.
Good work is being done by the current team. This article is not written to criticise their work, nor is it a cry for a changing of the guard. Rather, the objective is to provide something that seems to be lacking: a blueprint for the Scotland men’s national team. The blueprint will be broken down into four sections: strategy; tactics; selection; and squad. My intentions for each section are outlined below.
Strategy: What should our aim be?
Tactics: What should our tactical approach be?
Selection: What rules should inform our selection process?
Squad: What could our squad look like?
The last time Scotland’s men reached a major finals was the 1998 World Cup. Since then, eight managers have taken charge of the national team. This isn’t actually a huge amount relatively speaking – of the 51 national teams in Europe established pre-1998, only 16 have made fewer managerial hires than Scotland in the same time frame. However, eight managers in 20 years – meaning an average of just 2.5 years in charge, or just over one tournament cycle per manager – isn’t ideal for a country in need of stability and re-focusing after a sharp decline in performance.
This short-term-ism, whereby the national team constantly aims to reach the next available finals by focusing on achieving the best possible results immediately, has not worked. Not only has it failed to lead Scotland to a major tournament, but it has led to constant rebuilding jobs and a lack of continuity and identity. There is a need for more strategic thinking, and lessons can be learned regarding this from good examples elsewhere on the continent.
Lars Lagerback led Iceland to their first ever international finals (Euro 2016), but it took him four years to accomplish this. His first qualifying campaign included a home defeat to Slovenia and an away defeat to Cyprus. Iceland finished with a goal difference of plus two and sneaked into the play-offs, where they were beaten by Croatia.
Northern Ireland’s progress under Michael O’Neill was similar. O’Neill’s first campaign ended with the team fifth in a six-team group, behind Israel and Azerbaijan with just one win and seven points from 10 games. His second campaign ended with qualification for Euro 2016 where, like Iceland, Northern Ireland reached the knockout stages.
Wales were another surprise outfit at Euro 2016. Chris Coleman took them to that tournament, but, again, his first campaign wasn’t so successful – Wales finished fifth in a six-team group behind…Scotland. Yeah
To further illustrate that theirs was not an overnight success, many key members of the Wales team that did eventually reach the semi-finals of the Euros, including Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, had been handed debuts many years before while they were teenagers playing outside of England’s top flight.
National teams don’t train and work together day to day. As a result, it takes years to build a competitive side with a stable identity. Scotland should take a lesson from Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales and set their sights a little further down the line. Targeting Euro 2024 would give McLeish enough leeway to experiment tactically, promote youth and build a team that can not only qualify for, but compete at a major finals.
In order for Scotland to have a coherent selection policy, it is important to understand how exactly they are going to play. One of the most basic decisions regarding this is confirming what system the team is likely to line up in. Deciding on a preferred shape will help by underlining what positions need to be filled.
When choosing a national team’s system, the most influential aspect should be the players. As discussed, international managers have less time to work with their teams, so have less of a determining factor in player development than club coaches. Consequently, they must build their system around the individuals at their disposal rather than crowbar said individuals into their own favourite setup.
McLeish opted for a back three for Scotland’s first two Nations League games, against Albania at home and Israel away.He was criticised for this, with some pundits suggesting the approach didn’t suit the players available. On the face of it, this critique sounded baseless. However, upon closer inspection, it may have some merit.
Of the Scottish Premiership’s 12 teams, only four make regular use of a back three: Hamilton, Hibernian, Livingston and Motherwell. The league’s top half is populated predominantly by back four systems. And, outside of Rangers with their preferred 4-3-3, most deploy either a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1.
Three of this season’s success stories, Hearts, Kilmarnock and sexy St Johnstone, line up in some variation of 4-4-2. Meanwhile, in the league as a whole, 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 are the first-choice formats for eight of the 12 clubs. This not only suggests that most Scottish players operate in back four systems far more frequently than they do back three systems, but that most also operate in systems with two central midfielders, two (at least nominal) wingers, and two (at least nominal) forwards.
On this basis, Scotland may be wise to consider the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 as a primary system. McLeish reverted to a rough 4-4-1-1 at home to Israel, so he’s off to a good start here. But how should Scotland play within the system?This is where it gets slightly more complex.
Rigid man-marking is not a universally fashionable defensive concept, though it’s still popular in Scotland. This is an observation, not a criticism – for anyone who thinks otherwise, check out Atalanta’s rise up Serie A in recent years to see how effective man-marking can be when used correctly.
Aberdeen are the Premiership’s most rigid man-marking side, though Livingston and Motherwell also make use of it. Even those that prefer a zonal defensive approach are often heavily man-orientated in their pressing, with Hibs being a good example of this. However, over the last year or so, Kilmarnock have shown the benefits associated with another way of defending.
Since taking charge at Rugby Park, Steve Clarke has implemented a zonal defensive scheme. His favoured 4-4-2 is made up of three clear lines, within which players move in unison, keeping their shape by maintaining the distances between one another. They block the centre effectively and force teams into the wider areas, where they begin to press. As a result, they are compact and tough to penetrate.
Other Premiership sides such as Hearts and St Johnstone have followed Kilmarnock’s lead by employing similar zonal defensive strategies, albeit the former are more flexible and the latter do have some focus on marking opposite men.Throw in the improvements Rangers have made since Steven Gerrard introduced a more zonal approach, and it seems that strict man-to-man defence is becoming less visible at the highest level in Scotland.
Kilmarnock, Rangers and St Johnstone can also provide the national team with tactical inspiration in an attacking sense. A number of Premiership teams attack via long balls from back to front and/or crosses from out wide. However, there are teams – including the three above – that build out from the back and attack through the thirds with dynamic play in the wider areas of the pitch.
Rangers are the most obvious example of this. They make good use of positional rotations between the No.8s, wingers and full-backs within their 4-3-3 to confuse opposition defences, work triangles and create free men to progress. Their full-backs make overlapping or under-lapping runs and supply exceptional crosses, their wingers hold a wide position to open up the inside channel or drift into space between the lines, while the No.8s oscillate between dropping deep, pushing beyond the opposition midfield line, or swapping positions with the wingers.
Few teams in the league use rotations as successfully as Gerrard’s side, though Kilmarnock and St Johnstone both attack well in the inside or wide channels. Killie and St Johnstone’s attacking movements are actually very similar – both have at least one central midfielder drop deep centrally while the full-backs advance down the wings and the wingers take up positions within the opponent’s defensive block, usually within the inside channels. They then look to progress through penetrative passes and combinations in these areas.
We have established some basic principles to think about for the defensive and attacking phases, but what about Scotland’s play in thetransition phases?
Counter-pressing in defensive transition is seen throughout Scotland’s top flight – some teams, like Hibs, do it deliberately; for other teams, it seems to happen almost as a natural consequence of their players’ desire to hunt the ball and be aggressive. It makes sense, therefore, to incorporate this into the national team’s tactical identity.
As for attacking transitions, most Premiership sides make use of instant counter-attacks to exploit space on the break. Whether through one or two fast wingers or through a support striker/No.10 acting as a more central focal point, co-ordinated quick counters seem an obvious aspect to make part of the national team’s DNA.
To recap, below are six tactical principles that both suit Scotland’s current players and football culture.
Defend zonally with focus on retaining shape and forcing opponents wide.
Counter-attack quickly using a support striker and/or wingers as focal points.
Build possession from the back and through the thirds, not directly from back to front.
Attack via wing dynamics with attacking full-backs and fluid wingers.
Having established a strategy and some tactical principles for the Scottish men’s national team, we know the following:
The year we intend to achieve finals qualification by.
The tactical system and style we will implement to achieve qualification.
The above information helps us to develop a more coherent selection policy. Knowing our target tournament allows us to begin building a team specifically for that year, while understanding our basic tactical approach allows us to focus on players that suit stylistically.
Before going any further, one important issue to address is bias. There is a genuine belief among some that the club a player represents can affect their chances of a call-up to the national team. Focusing on data, tactics and having clear guidelines in place helps to eliminate this form of bias. There should also be no bias against players based on their age –individual footballers don’t all peak and decline at the exact same point.
Scotland has a fairly small player pool and simply cannot afford to discriminate against players based on, well, anything. So, if the player can genuinely help the national team to achieve the aforementioned strategic and tactical aims, it doesn’t matter that he is 35 years old or playing for a bottom-four Scottish Premiership club.
That being said, some sort of age-related guideline is necessary to ensure the national team stays on track for the targeted tournament outlined here:Euro 2024. An individual age limit – no players over the age of 32, say – isn’t viable as it is inflexible and doesn’t take into account the reality that some outfielders play their best football well into their 30’s. An average age limit per squad area would be more feasible, however.
Many different studies have been conducted with the aim of assessing the peak age for an outfield footballer. A 2014 BBC study found that the average age of all World Cup-winning teams up to and including 2010 was 27.5. With this in mind, Scotland could set a maximum average age for all outfield areas – defence, midfield, attack – of 28 come Euro 2024. Given goalkeepers tend to peak later, the maximum average age for them come 2024 could be set at 32.
Taking into account Euro 2024 is roughly five years away come Scotland’s next game – Kazakhstan away next March – and the average age limits for the next squad should be as follows:
23: Defenders, midfielders, attackers.
Another crucial aspect to incorporate into the selection process is data. Just as the average age guideline helps Scotland pick players in line with the strategy of reaching Euro 2024, data can help the national team when it comes to picking the right players for the recommended tactical approach.
Breaking down the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 system by position and considering the tactical principles mentioned in the previous section,some or all of the metrics below can be used to guide – but not govern – selection.
Goalkeeper: Short passes per 90 and success percentage; challenges per 90 and success percentage.
Centre-backs: Passes per 90 and success percentage; challenges per 90 and success percentage.
Full-backs: Passes per 90 and success percentage; crosses per 90; dribbles per 90 and success percentage; ground challenges won percentage.
Central midfielders: Passes per 90 and success percentage; attacking and key passes per 90; ball recoveries per 90.
Wingers: Crosses per 90; attacking and key passes per 90; dribbles per 90 and success percentage.
Support striker/No.10:Attacking and key passes per 90; dribbles per 90 and success percentage; shots per 90 and accuracy percentage.
Striker: Shots per 90 and accuracy percentage; goals per 90.
Sifting through the data relating to Premiership players who are active and available for Scotland, it is possible to identify standout domestic options for each position in my recommended tactical system.
Given my suggestion that Scotland build out from the back, it’s important that the goalkeepers selected are comfortable in these situations. Craig Gordon ticks the relevant boxes – not only does he complete more short passes per 90 minutes than Allan McGregor, his nearest Scottish rival, but he does so at a higher success percentage (95.5 per cent to 93.8).Outside of the Old Firm duo, the most obvious candidates are Jamie MacDonald and Zander Clark.
Clean progression of the ball from the back is important to the tactical approach discussed here, so the centre-backs also need to be accurate passers. Hearts’ John Souttar is an obvious candidate with this in mind, though Ryan Porteous’ stats catch the eye. Not only does the 19-year-old average more passes than Souttar, but his 80.4 per cent completion rate is higher.Fellow Hibee Paul Hanlon and Aberdeen’s Michael Devlin also appear high in these columns.
As attacking down the wings will be fundamental to this 4-4-2 system, Scotland need full-backs who can provide quality on each flank. Good crossing is valuable, but, before Ricky Foster gets too excited, so too is dribbling, passing and defending.
Unsurprisingly, Stephen O’Donnell and Kieran Tierney are at/near the top of the list when it comes to successful passes, crosses and dribbles. The former also wins a higher percentage of his ground challenges than any other active domestic Scottish full-back. More surprising were Cammy Kerr’s numbers.The Dundee right-back betters O’Donnell in dribbles completed and pass success, while his 0.65 crosses per 90 isn’t far off the Killie man’s 0.7. This, along with the fact he’s only 23 and plays for a team that tries to build possession from the back, mean she might be worth considering.
In central midfield, Callum McGregor needs no introduction. Ryan Jack perhaps deserves more recognition, however. The Rangers No.6 has a higher pass success percentage than the Celtic play-maker, while he also averages more ball recoveries – important stats considering the need for stable build-up and my recommendation that Scotland defend zonally.
Graeme Shinnie appeared in the top five Scottish domestic central midfielders in a number of categories, while Hibs’ Stevie Mallan isn’t just about low-xG long-range wonder-strikes. In fact, he is one of the more accurate passers, while only McGregor can best his average of 1.3 attacking and key passes per 90. Throw in his decent tackle and ball recovery averages and he has the profile of a central midfielder suited to the suggested system.
James Forrest is an obvious candidate on the wing, leading the way in key passes per 90, dribbles per 90 and dribble success. Behind him, Gary Mackay-Steven and Callumn Morrison are contenders. Both average more crosses per 90 and compete with the Celtic man in taking on their opposite men and creating opportunities. Motherwell’s Chris Cadden is also worthy of mention with his 1.5 attacking and key passes per 90 bettering Mackay-Steven and Morrison’s numbers.
The support striker role in this system will need to be creative, a competent dribbler and a decent finisher. Five obvious domestic candidates emerge when looking at the numbers: Ryan Christie, Greg Stewart, Stevie Naismith, Matty Kennedy and David Turnbull.
Christie leads the way in shooting. He averages more shots per 90 and his accuracy of 63.2 per cent is far higher than all bar Naismith, who hits the target 60.9 per cent of the time. When it comes to dribbling and making chances, however, Stewart is top man. Not only does he average 2.4 attacking and key passes, but he averages 3.61 dribbles at a success rate of 54.9 per cent. No player mentioned here bests him in any of these categories, and it’s also relevant to point out he plays as a support striker behind Eamonn Brophy at club level with Kilmarnock.
Brophy is a strong candidate to the lead the line for my hypothetical Scotland side, averaging more goals per 90 than Naismith, Leigh Griffiths or Tony Watt. He also averages more shots on target than all bar Griffiths, but the Celtic No.9 has a slightly higher shot accuracy – 53.8 per cent to 50.
Considering the Scottish Premiership data and adding in some ‘must selects’ from outside of Scotland, such as Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser, Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong, Hamburg’s David Bates and Aston Villa’s John McGinn, and the squad has one problem: it doesn’t meet the average age guidelines set out earlier. To fix this, I’ve added in some younger alternatives in all areas of the squad.
Apologies to Allan McGregor, Paul Hanlon, Graeme Shinnie, Gary Mackay-Steven, Stevie Naismith and Leigh Griffiths, who all had to make way. In their place come the below.
Liam Kelly: Isn’t used to building out from the back as at club level he tends mostly to go long, though he is a fine shot-stopper and, at 22, a good prospect for the future.
Scott McKenna: Just beats Halkett to the final centre-back berth on account of data suggesting he is a more adept passer. He’s also a left-footer, which makes him a natural replacement for Hanlon.
Stevie Mallan: Tends to play in a central midfield three at club level, but would fit a two. Drops deep to support build-up and his excellent passing range would allow Scotland the option of switching play to the far wing when appropriate.
Glenn Middleton: Cadden has played more often, but the Rangers winger shows outstanding 1v1 ability in attack. His pace, dribbling and aggression on the ball would make him a good stand-in for Fraser. He’d just need to get used to a narrower position defensively.
Jack Harper: Has established himself up front with Malaga in Spain’s second tier this season. He’s versatile, can strike well with either foot and has shown a proclivity for finding space in the penalty box.
Oliver McBurnie: Striker with a good record at English Championship level, hitting 17 goals in 38 games over the last year for two different clubs. On top of that, he’s adept when coming deep or drifting wide to link up attacking moves.
Below is a Scotland squad which fits the strategic and tactical approach outlined in this article.
Goalkeepers: Zander Clark; Craig Gordon; Liam Kelly.(Average age = 27.7)
Defenders: David Bates; Michael Devlin; Cammy Kerr; Scott McKenna; Stephen O’Donnell; Ryan Porteous; Andrew Robertson; John Souttar; Kieran Tierney.(Average age = 22.7)
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong; James Forrest; Ryan Fraser;Ryan Jack; Stevie Mallan; John McGinn; Callum McGregor; Glenn Middleton; Callumn Morrison.(Average age = 23.4)
Forwards: Eamonn Brophy; Ryan Christie; Jack Harper; Greg Stewart; Oliver McBurnie. (Average age = 23.4)