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Talking points from the Cyprus game

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hislopsoffsideagain

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We won
This is the most important thing to take away. Realists would acknowledge that Steve Clarke has had barely any time at all to get the hang of this international management malarkey and has been denied the luxury of training camps and friendlies to get his ideas across before competitive action; therefore a lack of cohesion was inevitable.

You don't find many realists in football crowds though, as the half-time jeers indicated. The Tartan Army's patience has long been exhausted and just because Clarke was a popular choice didn't mean that they would tolerate toiling against a country ranked 89th in the world by FIFA. The victory may not have been convincing but it's the same number of points as we'd have got by thumping them. And it largely shields Clarke and a squad low on morale and belief from further pressure and criticism. With the trip to Brussels on Tuesday something of a free hit - nobody expects a positive result there - the focus can now move onto the next round of matches in September and, realistically, building a team that can win the Nations League playoffs and qualify for Euro 2020 that way.


A decent striker would make the world of difference
Having a world-class striker that opponents need to plan for can make such a difference - just look at Poland (Robert Lewandowski) or Wales (Gareth Bale). Scotland simply don't have that; here they also missed Steven Fletcher, Leigh Griffiths and Oli McBurnie who all might have fancied themselves as the starting centre-forward had they been fit. The obvious logic to picking Eamonn Brophy was that Clarke likes his attackers to defend from the front and as a Kilmarnock player Brophy could do that job without a second thought. And he did it fine.

The problem was that 'the wolf' offered no bite. Apologists will say he was starved of service but in truth Brophy struggled to get even half a yard of space on his markers in open play and when he did so he was generally offside. James Forrest and, in the second half, Ryan Fraser got into plenty of dangerous positions but Brophy was never in a position to feed off them. He was, sadly, out of his depth.

Whilst he was up against tired legs, Oli Burke looked so much brighter, linking up play with intelligent headers and stretching the game with his pace. Even before his goal he looked like someone had hooked him up to an intravenous drip of confidence before coming on. This was the Burke we've been waiting for ever since RB Leipzig paid £15million for him, but he needs to do it for more than twenty minutes to become a viable first choice up front.


At least there was a clear plan and shape
Coming up with a plan of attack is so much harder for a coach than getting the defence organized - and even more so at international level because of the lack of time available to work with players. But even at this early stage the difference between McLeish's Scotland and Clarke's Scotland was night and day. The attackers and midfielders clearly knew their roles without the ball and once the first ten minutes had passed and they had adjusted to Cyprus' surprise decision to play a back three the home side completely controlled the game. Unlike during his predecessor's tenure, it was also clear that the boss had done his homework; I was perturbed by the lack of defensive midfielder in the lineup, but Clarke clearly anticipated that there would be few defensive responsibilities needed in that area and so deployed a more technical player, Kenny McLean, in that position.

Clarke also made important changes at half-time, instructing Callum McGregor to get higher up the pitch and encouraging Ryan Fraser to carry the ball instead of crossing early. These contributed significantly to the improved second half performance.


Cyprus never actually looked much like scoring
Yes, I know that sounds daft given that they did score but David Marshall made one save in each half and could have spent long periods leaning on the post doing Su Doku puzzles. I was supremely confident that we'd see it out at 1-0 because the players looked like they knew exactly what they were doing and actually looked more likely to score than Cyprus did. And whilst they were let down by a rare lapse by Andrew Robertson, who blotted his copybook by losing his marker at a corner, the back four looked really comfortable in open play. Scott McKenna had arguably his best game in a Scotland shirt, undoubtedly helped by having an experienced partner in Charlie Mulgrew.


What next?
The next four qualifiers are Belgium away, Russia at home, Belgium at home, Russia away. Ooft. It's certainly not all that unlikely we won't win any of them - and even if we do the chances of finishing second in the group are minimal unless we can get four points or more off at least one of those two teams. Realistically the onus has to be performance rather than results, with next spring the priority. Rome wasn't built in a day.


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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