Scotland snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; it’s hardly news and with every passing failed qualification campaign it becomes more and more predictable. However, this time is probably one of the hardest failures to take in recent years given the optimism around Gordon Strachan and his team. An optimism that is perhaps unfounded and that was ultimately always going to end in heartbreak as, just when it looked like Scotland were going in the right direction, they decided to go full Scotland on us and throw it all away. Ultimately, the buck must stop with WGS as the manager. He picked the squads, the tactics, and the starting eleven. He decided that Steven Whitaker was a better bet left back than Andrew Robertson, when everyone else was still trying to figure out just how he manages to get a game at any level, in any position.
But does failure to progress from the easiest qualifying format for a major championships to date and the baffling decision to keep Steven Whitaker within a 10mile radius of a football pitch spell the end for Strachan. Should he fall on his sword, or should Scotland do whatever it takes to keep him because, quite frankly, who else is there for the job? Derek McInness anyone???
So where did Scotland’s qualifying go wrong?
We could answer that with Georgia and just leave it there, but for me, it started to wrong before that. The group started well with a narrow yet to be expected defeat in Germany, followed by a narrow yet to be expected win against Georgia, and a respectable draw away in Poland. Four points from a possible nine, and Scotland were playing some good football. It was attacking, fairly expansive with good use of wide players, and the high pressing was working. 4-5-1 also seemed to suit the players and confidence on and off the pitch was high. So far so good.
But game four, the victory against the Irish is where it started to go wrong. Ireland are not a great team, and certainly not a great footballing team. They try hard and have that dogged determination so typical of a Martin O’Neill team. They have a very British style of play and are pretty ordinary. Scotland on the other hand were moving away from that and seemed to be playing a more modern game, within the limitations of being Scottish of course, but more often than not, were looking to play football on the ground. After all, God didn’t put grass in the sky. But against Ireland Scotland forgot all about that and let themselves be dragged in to a battle, and you generally don’t win a battle against a MoN team. However, Scotland did win the game thanks to a rare moment of football and the brilliance of Shaun Maloney. Surely, with a points advantage over Ireland, Scotland would gain the confidence to see it through? Next up was Gibraltar and Scotland scored six, what a time to be alive.
But the Ireland game had shown that Strachan had no real Plan B, and no idea how to beat a stuffy and well organised defence. Germany and Poland were the bigger teams and impetus was them to attack, Scotland could pick them off on the break. But Ireland, well, Scotland were arguably the bigger team there and had no idea how to deal with that. With Plan A not working Scotland panicked, played abysmally, and scrapped a draw. Qualification was still in their hands but cracks were showing. There was no creative spark in the midfield, no game changer, and an insistence of playing a goal-shy Steven Fletcher upfront. The loyalty shown to players like Fletcher and Whitaker might be admirable in club football where the team plays together every week, but at international level you need in form players playing at all times. A striker like, say, Leigh Griffiths who was banging them in for Celtic or Jordan Rhodes at Blackburn should have been in with a shout, but not under Strachan.
But hey, Scotland were still on course for at least the play-off spot. Georgia away would be tricky, but doable. Just go out and play football and the result would follow. Alas, it was a Craig Levein or Berti Vogts Scotland that showed up and the 1-0 defeat was inevitable. Worse though, qualification initiative was handed to the Irish. A resurgent Germany, even at home, was not the ideal game to follow on and with no points from six, Scotland now trailed Ireland by four points with two games to go.
The first of which was Poland at home. Poland who were top of the group. Poland who have Robert Lewandowski, currently the most lethal striker in world football, up front. But it’s ok because Scotland have Grant Hanley and Russel Martin at the back; what could possibly go wrong?
Well, apart from some dodgy defending and a late goal that I’m sure I’ve seen Celtic concede a few times before in Europe, nothing much. Scotland actually played quite well for long spells and matched Poland for both commitment and football ability. See what happens when we actually turn up and play? Also though, see what happens when you switch off for a split second at this level? You get punished and maybe, just maybe, we learn that Scotland just aren’t good enough yet. With Ireland doing the impossible and beating Germany, Scotland’s campaign was over with one game to spare; the shooty-in fest against Gibraltar where Scotland again scored six with Steven Fletcher netting a hat-trick, really, what a time to be alive.
Scotland failed to make the play-off spot by three points, so naturally the defeat to Georgia takes the bulk of the blame. However, Scotland’s inability to mix things up effectively in terms of style of play and personnel on the pitch also contributed to their downfall. An over reliance on under-performing players and an unwillingness to blood some of our exciting and fearless young players may have cost Scotland dearly. Strachan’s insistence of overlooking the likes of Griffiths, Mackay-Steven, and Armstrong, the three Ryan’s of Jack, Christie, and Gauld, as well as underusing Robertson and McArthur may have played a part in Scotland’s inability to break down certain opposition and make headway in the group.
There is a good bunch of young players coming through at the moment but unless they are given a chance to show what they can do at international level from an early age, then Scotland will continue to lurch from one failed campaign to another. Why else did James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady switch allegiance to Ireland at any early age; because they knew they’d be given a chance to shine and develop. For Scotland to improve in the next campaign then risks must be taken in terms of squad selection. Is Strachan big enough to do that? Probably not, but maybe retirements will force his hand. Is Strachan still the best man for the job? Probably yes, we don’t have an abundance of good Scottish managers at the moment.
Will Scotland’s next qualifying campaign be equally as frustrating? More than likely.