team around Callum McGregor
Being an international manager is a bit like being the leader of a political party.…
Monday night could have been a nightmare for Alex McLeish. In fact, the stage was perfectly set for the manager’s second stint to burst into flames and engulf any goodwill that had come from his first period in charge.
Against the backdrop of a dark, rainy night in Mount Florida, with the notable echoes from the almost empty long, unspectacular Hampden stands McLeish threw caution to wind with a starting XI that would undoubtedly prevent any hopes of backtracking should the result go against Scotland on the night.
Steven Naismith, who wasn’t even in the initial squad before injuries made it so, was tasked with leading the line, while the relative outcast, Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell, was picked over Celtic’s James Forrest. McLeish also stuck with his favoured back three, which limited Celtic star Kieran Tierney to a centre back role. This was the first competitive Scotland game under the new manager and he was certainly making his presence felt before a ball had been kicked.
Yet what unfolded before a meagre crowd of no more than 20,000 fans was a professional, resolute performance. A game decided by two goals, but ultimately won thanks to a system in which each of McLeish’s picks on the night played like a well-oiled team. Despite what many had predicted – and perhaps even hoped for – Scotland looked like a drilled side that knew how to defend, counter-attack and ultimately pick up all three points.
From top to bottom, McLeish was completely and utterly vindicated by the personnel and tactics he picked on the night. Naismith’s persistent runs and exploitation of space constantly offered an out ball to an imaginative, combative and dynamic midfield duo of Callum McGregor and John McGinn. The pair happily played the ball down either channel throughout the match while skipping past Albanian tackles and lunges.
In defence, where McLeish’s tactics are perhaps most notable for the way they contrast with his predecessor, John Souttar and Charlie Mulgrew looked comfortable despite the bitter and constant rain, while Tierney took every opportunity to venture forward to provide even further width to a wing dominated by Andy Robertson throughout the evening. Similarly, Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell provided physicality and composure in equal measure on the opposite flank.
Indeed, this may have only been one game but already it looked like the antithesis of what had come before under Gordon Strachan. Where Scotland had once looked like a rag-tag group of players picked in order of Premier League or Old Firm appearances and left to decide their tactics on the pitch, this team was routed in humble backgrounds and as such followed orders from their soaked and hoarse manager on the sideline.
This was a team that not only represented the Scottish Premiership but also emphasised that Scottish football has finally emerged from the old, physical past that had cast such a long and dark shadow over the national team for some time. We may have once headed, ran and tackled as forcefully as any team on the planet, but now we have McGregor, Tierney and McGinn. Small, clever players that would rather nick the ball off you and dance past a lumbering central defender before cutting the ball back to another vertically challenged player to tap it into the net.
We’re only one game in. And two tricky away ties await this young, inexperienced side. But for now, this humble, new Scotland can rest easy in the knowledge that it passed its first real test with relative ease. McLeish’s side earned their three points fair and square and along the way may have even brightened up some dour tartan hearts.