The wait is finally over. After 22 long years Scotland have once again qualified to play in a major international tournament. As ever with Scotland, however, they had to do things the hard way in finally overcoming familiar foes Israel in the playoffs. The final act came thanks to goalkeeper David Marshall who threw himself low and to his left to save the final penalty in the shoot-out from Serbia’s talisman Alexander Mitrovic.
An entire generation of fans have grown to adulthood having never seen their country take part in a major tournament. Now that wait has come to an end but what can we expect from this Scotland team under Steve Clarke?
The answer? Organisation and teamwork but no shortage of talent in certain areas of the pitch. Since this is Scotland, of course, things are anything but straightforward. Arguably their two key players are both natural left-backs in Kieran Tierney, of Arsenal, and Andy Robertson, of Liverpool although Clarke has found a way to make this work with Tierney featuring as a left-sided central defender with licence to attack down the outside while Robertson patrols the left side in a wingback role. Next we have two midfielders who are Premier League regulars in Scott McTominay of Manchester United and John McGinn of Aston Villa. McTominay, however is likely to play as the right-sided central defender in a back three with licence to move into midfield when Scotland are in possession.
This tactical analysis will provide insight into the players who are likely to feature for Scotland as well as offering insights into the tactical system that we are likely to see.
Steve Clarke seems to have settled on preferring a three at the back system with Kieran Tierney on the left and Scott McTominay on the right being given licence to push on slightly, depending on which side of the pitch the attack is on.
The configuration of the midfield is still a question mark. It remains to be seen whether Clarke will favour a ‘6’ with two ‘8’s or two ‘6’s and a ‘10’ and this will dictate the players selected for any given match. Callum McGregor and John McGinn will likely play regardless although the selection of the 19-year-old Chelsea midfielder Billy Gilmour offers an intriguing option.
It is in the attack that Scotland tend to struggle and Clarke will have been relieved to see the Southampton forward Che Adams accept a call up and then impress in World Cup Qualifying in the last round of competitive fixtures. Lyndon Dykes offers a similar profile to Adams but is likely to start alongside unless the likes of Ryan Christie or Ryan Fraser can push their way in.
This scatter graph provided an age profile of the Scotland squad over the last calendar year with the lighter blue area representing those players who are in the peak age range. While the oldest players in the squad are represented by the goalkeepers in Craig Gordon, David Marshall and Jon McLaughlin the other two players to the right of the graphic, Andy Considine of Aberdeen and Robert Snodgrass of WBA were not called up to the squad.
As you can see the majority of the expected first eleven are firmly in the peak age range and this bodes well for the future of Scottish football. This is especially the case in the midfielders and defenders in the squad while the defenders, understandably, are towards the upper end of our age range.
In the defence Liam Cooper and Scott McKenna provide cover options although neither is as comfortable in possession as the likes of Tierney and McTominay.
While Billy Gilmour offers an interesting younger option in the midfield the likes of Stuart Armstrong and John Fleck are more experienced options. Ryan Christie is a flexible member of the squad with the ability to play as a forward, as a ‘10’ or in the centre of the midfield. It also remains to be seen where Clarke sees the role of David Turnbull fitting into the squad. Similar to his teammate at club level, Christie, Turnbull offers interesting positional flexibility.
While Ryan Fraser offers a more indirect option in the attack with his tendency to move wide, the Hibernian forward Kevin Nisbet is a more direct goal scoring option. Nisbet has beaten out Lawrence Shankland of Dundee United to a place in the squad and the Hibernian forward has the capacity to drop and link play or run in behind.
Under Steve Clarke we have seen Scotland develop into a side that prefers to attack in transition with an emphasis on moving the ball forward into the opposition final third in order to create attacking opportunities.
You can see from the attacking radar that over the last calendar year we have seen Scotland tend to attack directly into the final third but rely on crosses in order to access the opposition penalty area. The forwards tend to play with their back to goal before receiving and looking to link with midfielders who are moving from deep whether wide or in central areas.
It is no surprise that Scotland rely on crosses with the tendency to look for Andy Robertson to provide a creative spark when in the final third. On the opposite side, however, Stephen O’Donnell also offers the ability to move the ball into the area although he does so more often from the half-space on the right side.
Scotland tend to create shooting opportunities either from these crosses or from winning the second ball in and around the penalty area with John McGinn in particular impressing in these areas.
Scotland uses the width of their defensive line in the build-up phase. This is especially effective when Tierney and McTominay play as the wide central defenders with their ability to progress the ball.
They tend to play short in and out of the midfield initially in order to pull the opposition defensive block towards the ball. This then allows the ball to be switched across to where the far side central defender can comfortably progress the ball.
As Scotland move forward in the attacking phase it is John McGinn who tends to provide the catalyst in the opposition half.
As Scotland attack quickly to the strikers of via wide play that allows the wingbacks to develop their position it will be the Aston Villa man who moves into pockets of space in order to connect everything together.
The role of Kieran Tierney is key when the opposition look to press higher in order to prevent and delay the build-up from Scotland. His movement profile and ability to carry the ball forward allows Andy Robertson to move into advanced positions quickly in order to help the attack to develop.
We see this here as Tierney makes a small lateral movement to collect the ball out from the goalkeeper before then engaging and outplaying the Austria attacker who looks to press the ball. This allows Scotland to move the ball towards the opposition half and Robertson takes a position more like a traditional winger.
As expected given their stature in the World game Scotland have been extremely active in the defensive phase over the course of the last calendar year. They have a tendency to defend in a medium to deep defensive block and as such they will always see a large proportion of aerial duels and clearances.
In the established defensive phase Scotland dropped into a medium to deep defensive block with limited space between the lines for the opposition to exploit.
Here we see that Ryan Fraser has dropped deeper to engage the ball carrier and this is where Scotland will have to find a solution as Adams and Dykes are selected to play together.
This deeper defensive block means that when the opposition try to attack into the final third there tends to be a spare defensive player who can quickly engage and attack the ball.
We see this here as Austria try to drop the ball into the edge of the Scottish area. The spare defender however is able to read the game and comfortably win the ball before transitioning into the attack.
Even if the opposition do find a passing option that allows them to comfortably progress the ball into the final third the Scottish defensive organisation means that they do not easily get outplayed.
As the ball comes into the feet of the Austrian striker there are runners looking to move off the ball in order to open up passing lanes. Scotland, however, maintain their line and the pass is easily intercepted.
In transition from defence to attack Scotland will tend to always have a target striker to play to should the need arise. Both Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams can receive comfortably with their back to goal.
If the pass is on, however, Scotland will look to switch the play to access the space on the far side and to stretch the opposition defensive structure.
If the opposition are high up the field in moments of transition then Scotland will not be averse to playing more direct in order to quickly outplay a large number of opposition players. The ability of the Scottish players to shield the ball before bringing others into play allows them to play quickly in this manner.
We see this here as six opposition players are immediately outplayed and Scotland can build the attack.
When the opposition are transitioning to attack Scotland will drop off in the front line in order to delay the opposition from building their attack. They will sit deeper in the opposition half and then wait for the opposition to move the ball forward before engaging and looking to win the ball back.
In terms of the forwards that have received Scotland call ups in the last calendar year it is interesting to note that the best performing forward is in fact Lee Griffiths, although the Celtic forward has not been called into the squad. This is, however, likely due to personal issues that the forward has suffered over the last 12 months which have limited his minutes at club level.
As you can see Kevin Nisbet impresses in terms of his shots per 90 and touches per 90 but also on the second chart when looking at his goal contribution and expected goal contribution. This further shows why many observers feel that Nisbet is the most natural goalscorer in the squad.
When we look at the midfielders in the squad we immediately see that Clarke is unfortunate to have lost both Ryan Jack or Rangers and Kenny McLean of Norwich City to injury. Both have impressed in their ball progression metrics.
You can see from the first chart that Billy Gilmour offers an interesting profile in terms of his ability to move the ball into the final third.
The chart with expected goal contribution and goal contribution shows how valuable Ryan Christie is as an option to play in the attacking phase. His output in each metric comfortably outperforms the rest of the squad.
The defensive metrics for those players in the squad show that arguably Ryan Porteous of Hibernian was unfortunate not to receive a call up. He was active and efficient with his defensive output. Liam Cooper and Jack Hendry each offer interesting options from a purely defensive perspective.
In terms of carrying the ball forward for their teams and moving the ball through the thirds we again see an unfortunate Hibernian player in Paul McGinn but Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney both offer ball progression.
Despite the importance of Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney to this squad we feel that midfielder John McGinn will be the key player for this Scotland team. While for a midfielder his passing and progression metrics are lower than expected, his performance in the attacking phase cannot be ignored.
In the final third McGinn really comes to life and he will be the player who collects second balls or breaks the lines of the opposition defensive structure with his surging runs from deep. McGinn will be one of the most important players in the squad when it comes to finding ways to access the opposition penalty area.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
The likes of England and Croatia will, of course, provide stiff opposition in the group stage for Scotland and they have played close games against Czech Republic in recent years. It is worth, however, acknowledging that they will benefit from two ‘home’ matches in Glasgow.
Scotland ignited the nation in qualifying for the tournament and in doing so in such a nail-biting fashion. There is a feeling that anything more from this point is an added bonus. With that said, however, Steve Clarke has developed a reputation as a coach who is fiercely competitive and he will not settle for just making up the numbers.
Second place in the group may not be out of reach but a lot will rest on Scotland’s performance in the opening match.