International football is back with a... bang? While a match against Costa Rica is hardly…
Being an international manager is a bit like being the leader of a political party. Each and every day you’re faced with the possibility of choosing countless options that can lead you down a number of paths. Each one more diverging than the last.
The very best politicians know how to identify the problems on the horizon and pick the right path to either avoid future complications or set them up as best they can for the inevitable battle ahead. But, crucially, they make their decision and stick to it. Flip-flopping is political suicide. If voters don’t know where you stand on key issues then they can’t lend you their support. As the old saying goes: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Alex McLeish finds himself in a similar scenario. With the Nations League starting in September, the new(ish) Scotland manager has a short window of opportunity to play around with his options. But by the end of this summer, the Tartan Army will fully expect their new commander in chief to have a clear idea of how his team will look for the coming campaigns. McLeish will need to make a decision and stick with it.
Some decisions will be easier than others. For example, Leigh Griffiths will almost certainly be McLeish’s talisman up front. Similarly, Craig Gordon will most likely keep his spot in between the posts. And although Scotland hasn’t been blessed with great central defenders in recent times, it’ll come as little surprise to most fans if they see Scott McKenna, Christophe Berra and one or two other faces dominate that position for the next year or two.
No, the real headscratcher for McLeish will come in midfield. Although Scotland’s national team hasn’t always been brimming with genuine talent, there’s no denying that the centre of the park is where we’ve always seemed to produce our best players. And the current crop are no exception.
McLeish has so far favoured a back three with wingbacks, meaning in any given game he’ll be playing with either two or three central midfielders. Which means we can break the current crop of central midfielders into defensive and attacking players. With the latter group fighting amongst themselves for just one or two spots in the team.
Among this group, Callum McGregor currently stands out as the most reliable option for McLeish going forward. Even if he won’t be playing against Peru or Mexico.
James McArthur may have had another decent season with Crystal Palace, but the midfielder will be 31 in October and has never really provided the performances in the dark blue of Scotland that he promised at Hamilton once upon a time. Another old favourite, Robert Snodgrass, has also had a super season with Aston Villa but remains far more effective out wide on the right rather than through the middle.
Similarly, Kenny McLean and John McGinn have each had strong seasons in Scotland but both struggled to match the heights that McGregor showed at Celtic. McLean is just about to begin a new career in England and McGinn may be following him shortly, but for the time being McGregor is undoubtedly the more accomplished of the three.
Tom Cairney and Stuart Armstrong are ultimately McGregor’s greatest barrier to the Scotland team. The former has just had an outstanding season with Fulham, while the latter has already established himself as a competent Scotland international. But McGregor could still prove more useful than both.
Cairney and Armstrong are both much better playmakers than McGregor. As we can see in the graph above, they average more assists, key passes and through balls than the Celtic no.10. But what they may boast in goal creating they certainly lack in goalscoring.
McGregor’s 12 goals for Celtic this season is more than Cairney and Armstrong’s combined tally for the past campaign. And although McGregor’s average shots per game (1.95) is only slightly higher than Cairney’s (1.6) and in fact much lower than Armstrong’s (3.28) he tends to find the net far more often.
This is important for two reasons. The first is that being a more direct, goalscoring midfielder helps McGregor stand out in this Scotland squad. That’s not to say that goalscoring is more important than goal creating, but there’s no denying that Armstrong and Cairney are far more interchangeable with the likes of Kevin McDonald or Scott McTominay. And when McLeish opts for two central midfielders instead of three he might then opt for a goalscorer alongside his defensive, passer of the ball rather than another player that likes to pull the strings.
The second reason is that McGregor tends to step up and score these goals in important games. Just a few weeks ago we saw the Glasgow lad fire home the opening goal in the Scottish Cup final. He also scored two goals in cup competitions against Rangers this season and four of his six league goals came against top-six opponents. And let’s not forget the goal he scored against Bayern Munich in the Champions League as well as the solitary, late winner in Celtic’s 1-0 victory over Zenit St Petersburg in the Europa League.
In comparison, Armstrong didn’t manage a single goal or assist in four Champions League appearances this season. In fact, his only goal in cup competitions for Celtic this season came in an opening-round 5-0 win over Kilmarnock before Steve Clarke had arrived at Rugby Park. And his three league goals came against Partick Thistle, Ross County and Hamilton, while his assists came against St Johnstone, Motherwell and again Hamilton. Hardly the blockbuster matches Celtic fans tend to remember.
In McGregor, McLeish not only has a proven goalscorer from midfield but also a player that thrives in the big games. Whenever Celtic’s opponents step up a gear so too does this fledgeling, Scotland international. And that’s why he should be front and centre of McLeish’s plans going forward.