Scottish FA chief Stewart Regan has claimedGordon Strachan has “done as much as Nicola Sturgeon to rally the nation”. Of course, the Scotland boss might have to wait a while longer for a White House invitation – as the First Minister was recently granted – but such acclaim illustrates the extent to which Strachan has invigorated the country’s national team.
It will be 18 years since Scotland last qualified for a major tournament by the time Euro 2016 comes around next summer, and there is a certain giddiness among the Tartan Army over their chances of qualifying. At the halfway point of qualifying, Strachan’s boys are in good shape to be in France next summer.
Gord not so almighty
However, the way in which Scotland have manoeuvred themselves into such a position is rather more difficult to explain. There have been commendable performances – most notably in the away displays against world champions Germany and Poland – but a lot of questionable decisions in between. Strachan keeps making the wrong calls, but, rather strangely, Scotland keep winning.
For starters, his squad selections are baffling. Strachan would surely struggle to explain why Charlie Mulgrew – a player who last took to a competitive pitch in December – warrants a place as Scotland travel to Dublin this weekend, for instance? James Forrest has also been included in the squad to face Ireland, despite being out-performed by Celtic teammate Gary Mackay-Steven – who has not been selected – over the past few months.
There’s also places for Barry Bannan and James McArthur, despite the omission of Matt Phillips and Stuart Armstrong – both of whom deserved to be involved this weekend on the basis of their recent form. Strachan has long spoken about creating a “club atmosphere” around the Scotland set-up, but that means that he has his favourites – who are picked over players in better form.
From a tactical perspective, Strachan has been suspect too. Despite the eventual margin of victory, the former Celtic and Southampton boss got it badly wrong in Scotland’s last qualifier against Gibraltar. His decision to go with three at the back from the start left the Scots exposed, even against a team of such meek stature. Their forward play looked disjointed and laboured, as if Strachan thought that by fielding as many attacking players as possible Scotland would run up a cricket score.
Even in the result which has defined Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualification campaign to date – the 1-0 Celtic Park win over Republic of Ireland – Strachan struck fortune. His use of Steven Fletcher – the Sunderland forward who had missed much of the season until that point through injury – as the lone striker did little to liberate Scotland’s frontline.
Against Poland in Warsaw Fletcher’s link-up play on the counter-attack was central to Scotland picking up a valuable point, but at home – against a team that sat deep and invited pressure on top of themselves – he was a misfit. Strachan should have recognised that Fletcher wasn’t suited for such a match-up, but didn’t. It took until the second introduction of Chris Martin for Scotland to finally find some attacking spark.
Strachan’s tenure must be considered a success in the immediate term, but he might have compromised the country’s outlook towards future campaigns. While Scotland are in a good position to make Euro 2016, Strachan has piled all his chips on the one qualification campaign. His team might be at their peak right now, but soon enough they will be an ageing outfit – with Andy Robertson the only young player to have forced himself into the Scotland team over the past two years or so.
There will be blooding
Strachan will now have to blood a lot of young talent during the next World Cup cycle – something that will be all the more traumatic should his team fail to punch their ticket to France. Scotland could once again find itself in the kind of situation it endured under Berti Vogts – when his predecessor Craig Brown’s insistence on using only experienced players left the country desperately short of fresh blood at the turn of the millennium.
Martin O’Neill finds himself on a similar knife-edge, with Ireland also a team of experienced veterans banking everything they’ve got on making it to Euro 2016. With Poland surging to the top of the standings, Group D – as far as Scotland are Ireland are concerned – has become something of a play-off: two teams, one place. Whoever misses out will have to view their campaign as a failure – as harsh as that may seem in such a tough group.
Defeat to Scotland would leave Ireland adrift of third place by five points – and with four games left to play that would be a fairly damning indictment on O’Neill. But such a potential outcome shouldn’t come as a surprise. Going against the grain of a national typecast, Scotland under Strachan are now winning even when they shouldn’t be.