The year was 1989. Mo Johnston had turned down Celtic for Rangers, Milli Vanilli were…
International football is back with a… bang? While a match against Costa Rica is hardly worth cancelling your Friday night plans for it will be a great indicator of what we can expect from Alex McLeish’s Scotland.
His squad selection was met with a mostly positive reception. Many of the players who continuously retained their place under Gordon Strachan are absent and in their place are some of Scotland’s most exciting young talent. Similarly, there are six players who have received their first call-up. Simply put, there are many players who we could see don a dark blue jersey for the first time.
It’s hardly a glamour friendly but it does present an opportunity for McLeish to see which players can make the step up ahead of the Nations League and UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers. Scotland’s Nations League campaign starts in September and allows us a genuine route to a major tournament. Therefore, it’s vital that McLeish gets a better idea of the players at his disposal and how to get the best out of his team.
You’d have to go back years since a goalkeeper aside from Craig Gordon, David Marshall or Allan McGregor got a run in the Scotland team. And although McGregor is in McLeish’s squad we could very well see a new keeper for Scotland against Costa Rica. There’s the opportunity to hand young Jordan Archer and Hearts’ Jon McLaughlin some game time.
Were McLeish to select McGregor you’d presume that’s a strong indication that Archer and McLaughlin are nothing but back up. And whilst nobody is doubting his credentials the former Rangers keeper is 36-years-old and approaching the twilight of his career. With Gordon in a similar position, you’d think it wise to give one of the other goalies an opportunity.
Now is the time to start preparing for life without Gordon and McGregor. McLaughlin has been a standout performer in the Premiership and it would be interesting to see how he performs at international level. Some game time for him or Archer could mean there’s a genuine chance that we will have a new face in goals for our competitive fixtures.
OK so the selection of Charlie Mulgrew as captain hardly screams ‘change’ but there’s a chance for McLeish to try a few different combinations in his defence. It seems pretty obvious Mulgrew will play but hopefully, he’ll be partnered with Scott McKenna or Jack Hendry. A number of fans have shouted from the rooftops for the likes of McKenna to be included and now they’ll be able to see how he performs in a Scotland shirt.
With Mulgrew and Hanley already having international experience it’s not necessary for them to have as much game time against the South Americans. This is a big chance for McKenna and Hendry to impress given that McLeish surprised many by leaving out the likes of Christophe Berra. Add to that Russell Martin’s injury and the young defenders have an opportunity to prove their worth before some of the older heads become available for selection again.
The other thing we’ll perhaps learn is what formation McLeish is going to opt for. During his first reign as Scotland boss, he settled on a 4-4-2 for the majority of his matches. Another option would be to play all three of Mulgrew, McKenna and Hendry as centre-backs with two wings backs. This would have been a great time to see the manager’s plans for Kieran Tierney but unfortunately, he misses out due to injury.
One of the most exciting prospects about these friendlies is seeing just how well Callum Paterson slots into the right-back position. Right-back has been an ongoing problem area for Scotland. Alan Hutton had a few good years in him but then held onto the position for way too long purely due to a lack of competition. It might be simplistic, but Paterson is a beast. He’ll have been waiting for this opportunity and we’ll get to see if his excellent form with Cardiff City can translate to international level. If it does, our right-back crisis could be well and truly over.
And of course, it’s an opportunity for Andy Robertson to show why he’s been getting rave reviews for his performances in a Liverpool shirt. Again this is why the choice of formation will be interesting. Sure Robertson is effective as a left-back no matter what, but playing a defensive three with two wing-backs could really allow him (and Paterson) to bomb down the flank. For the first time in what feels like an age, Scotland have defensive options. You’d hope McLeish is the man to get the best out of and develop the younger defenders in his squad.
The spotlight will undoubtedly be on Scott McTominay. These friendlies will be the first time many of the Tartan Army will see the 21-year-old play. Getting him to pledge his allegiance to Scotland could prove to be a huge coup for McLeish. Given the Scott Brown-shaped hole in the team, we are crying out for a box-to-box midfielder. The Manchester United star could be just the ticket. He’s physically imposing and is already showing he can do it at the highest level for his club.
These friendlies also allow John McGinn to stake his claim for a regular starting place in this Scotland side. He’s having another impressive season at Hibs and will be attracting attention from a host of clubs in the summer. Up until now, his international opportunities have been few and far between but he’ll be wanting to prove to the new manager that he’s part of his plans going forward. It’s just a crying shame we couldn’t see him and his Hibs’ teammate Dylan McGeouch play together at this level. Next time perhaps.
Furthermore, Stuart Armstrong has performed well for his country but hasn’t had the best time at Celtic this season. That said, if McLeish can find the right role for him he’ll prove vital to this Scotland side. Similarly, these friendlies could signal the start of a run in the team for Callum McGregor. He was unfairly overlooked by Strachan and may now finally get the chance to shine on the international stage.
With Leigh Griffiths missing through injury McLeish can afford to experiment with his attacking options. Oliver McBurnie is in red-hot form for Barnsley scoring six goals in nine games. For years Scotland fans have lambasted the continued inclusion of strikers Chris Martin and Steven Fletcher but now they have a young prospect to get genuinely excited about.
We could see him partnered with Rangers star Jason Cummings. Although “Cumdog” hasn’t enjoyed a whole lot of game time at Ibrox he’s most definitely a threat. Conversely, McLeish may opt to go with two wide attacking players rather than two centre-forwards. If this is the case he has a plethora of options to choose from.
Jamie Murphy has been extremely effective on the left-wing for Rangers since arriving on loan in January. Similarly, Christie is enjoying his best season to date and will be keen to prove to McLeish that he deserves a place on the right flank. The beauty of this squad is that they both face stiff competition for places. Particularly from James Forrest who has improved his all-round game significantly under Brendan Rodgers this season. Furthermore, the manager also has three Premier League players in Ryan Fraser, Matt Phillips and Matt Ritchie to choose from.
Not many would argue against Griffiths being Scotland’s first choice striker. In fact, it’s hardly a secret that Scotland have been light in attacking options for the last few qualifying campaigns so it will be useful to see whether any of the aforementioned players can step up to help fill that void.