Monday night could have been a nightmare for Alex McLeish. In fact, the stage was…
Scotland’s UEFA Nations League opener against Albania had all the ingredients for a disaster. It was a home game, but Hampden was far from full. It came on the back of a morale-sapping 4-0 friendly defeat to Belgium. Furthermore, it was not only a match many expected Scotland to win, but one they needed to win in order to have any real chance of topping their group and boosting the possibility of qualifying for 2020’s European Championship in the process.
So Alex McLeish went with a rather bold 3-1-4-2 system. Rotating Allan McGregor in for Craig Gordon, he stuck by a back three of John Souttar, Charlie Mulgrew and Kieran Tierney. Kevin McDonald anchored midfield, with John McGinn to his right and Callum McGregor to his left. Stephen O’Donnell and Andrew Robertson took up the wing-back roles, while Leigh Griffiths was left out in favour of a Steven Naismith – Johnny Russell strike partnership.
While far from perfect, the selection worked well. Scotland dominated the game for large spells, created a multitude of good chances, and secured three vital points with a 2-0 win. Here, we take a look at exactly how the victory came about.
Most teams who shape up in a 4-3-3 will fall back into more of a 4-5-1 defensively, with the wingers joining the same line as the central midfielders. Some teams will even have their wingers fall even further back to track the opposition full-backs, forming a 6-3-1 at times. However, Albania – led by former Italy and AC Milan star Christian Panucci – remained in a 4-3-3 without the ball.
Their wingers stayed on roughly the same line as their striker and formed a very narrow front three. This meant the wingers were in a better position to pressure the outside centre-backs in Scotland’s back three when McLeish’s side looked to build out.
With McDonald positioning himself in front of the back three in the early stages of attacks, Scotland had numerical superiority in the form of a 4v3 against Albania’s first line of defence. But because of the narrowness of Albania’s front three, as well as the intensity with which they moved to close down Souttar and Tierney, Scotland – while able to retain possession through the extra man – rarely exploited the overload they had to progress the ball into midfield.
Mulgrew appeared particularly uncomfortable in these situations. Even when McDonald moved horizontally to drag the Albanian striker away and create space for him, the Blackburn man preferred to hit long balls to the front two or diagonals out to the wing-backs. Kilmarnock’s O’Donnell on the right-hand side was a target for several diagonals, using his height to win the header and flick on for runners in behind.
Albania’s narrow front three, combined with their central midfield trident, meant that there was little space for Scotland to progress the ball through the centre. Thus, the safest route forward – when not opting for long balls that often led to giveaways – was to go down the wings. There was space in the wider areas as neither of Albania’s wingers tracked back, meaning both O’Donnell and Robertson could get into 1v1 situations against their opposite men.
Scotland’s left was far more dynamic than their right due to the personnel on that side of the pitch. Tierney, a natural left-back, at times pushed on from his centre-back position to overload the left-hand side – Robertson would step in, and he would overlap down the wing. Meanwhile, Callum McGregor – perhaps Scotland’s best individual player at this moment in time – moved as he does for Celtic to take up intelligent positions in the left inside channel.
McGregor combined well with Robertson on a number of occasions to work crossing opportunities for the Liverpool left-back, who is an outstanding crosser of the ball. At other times, McGregor would exploit the space created in the channel when the Albanian right-back moved out to close down Robertson.
Throughout most of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Scotland preferred to use a big target man up front. Chris Martin was often deployed in this role, tasked with challenging for and winning aerial duels after long balls from back to front. This approach didn’t work particularly well – not because long balls are specifically bad in and of themselves, but because there was no real structure to Scotland’s direct attacking.
For his first competitive game in his second spell as national team boss, McLeish chose a front two rather than a lone striker. What’s more, he chose a front two of players who have spent most of their time playing on the wing or in midfield at club level this season. Russell, a right winger in a 4-3-3 for Sporting Kansas City, and Naismith, an attacking midfielder for Hearts, moved constantly and varied their positions to pose a variety of threats to the Albanian defence.
One of the main benefits of having a fluid front two instead of a static target man is that they enhance the team’s possession. Naismith loved playing in this system, consistently peeling off the frontline to drop deep between Albania’s lines and offer a penetrative passing option. The above graphic is a good example of this – by dropping deep, the Hearts man evades marking from Albania’s centre-backs and allows McDonald to cut out six Albanian defenders with one pass.
Scotland’s front two would also pull wide to create overloads and combine. In the below example, Naismith pulls into the right inside channel to form a 3v2 with Souttar and O’Donnell. Souttar finds O’Donnell, who plays a one-two with Naismith and drives into space down the right-hand side.
Through their movements, Scotland’s strikers created penetrative passing options and overloads. In addition, their staggering – they positioned themselves at different depths, with one dropping off and the other looking to get in behind – also caused a major headache for Albania’s defenders. If the Albanian back line stayed deep, the withdrawn Scottish striker could get space between the lines. If they moved up, the more advanced Scottish striker could attack the space behind. If they decided to go man-to-man, there was a possibility of gaps opening up in their defensive line.
Both teams changed shape for the second half. Albania introduced a third centre-back and took off one of their wingers, moving from 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2. Scotland, meanwhile, brought on Stuart Armstrong for McDonald and modified their system slightly, going from 3-1-4-2 to more of 3-2-3-2. McGinn played alongside Armstrong in central midfield, while McGregor took up a slightly higher and more central role than in the first half.
These changes undoubtedly worked in Scotland’s favour. With Albania taking away one of their front three, McLeish’s men now had a natural 3v2 in their first line of build-up. Additionally, the midfield change meant there were two central midfielders rather than one on the second line for the three centre-backs to connect with. All of this enabled Scotland to build out more centrally and more gradually through the thirds than in the first half, where they frequently went long or straight to the wings.
The benefits of this are seen above, where Scotland pass from left to right, from left centre-back to right centre-back, to access Souttar, the free man. Souttar, no longer under pressure from an Albanian left winger due to their switch to 3-5-2, was then able to drive forward with the ball at feet, advancing the attack and provoking the next line of Albanian defence into closing him down.
Another issue for Albania’s defence was how to deal with Scotland’s new midfield shape. Whereas before all three of Scotland’s central midfielders were in front of them, now two were in front and McGregor was behind. Thus, they were forced into closing down or limiting the options of Armstrong and McGinn while simultaneously having to block passing lanes through to McGregor, who takes advantage of the blind side on a weekly basis for Celtic in the Scottish Premiership.
Scotland’s build-up still needs fine-tuning, but, one McGinn giveaway aside, mistakes in this area were limited. This is promising, as build-up issues have stunted the national team for many years and any reasonably organised opponent – cough, Belgium – has been able to exploit this area.
The team’s attacking play was generally better than before, which is why they created a number of quality scoring chances on top of the two goals scored. There are a few reasons behind the improvement. One is that the back three offers more stability and a wider base to build possession from. Another is that McGregor’s positional play, honed under Brendan Rodgers at club level. Finally, McLeish’s use of two non-traditional strikers gave the team more movement and combination play than the usual ploy of hitting a target man or leaving Griffiths up front on his own.
All in all, Scotland made a strong start to their UEFA Nations League campaign. And, with McLeish paying more attention to young talent and utilising a system that suits the personnel available, there will be reason for optimism when they travel to face Israel in October.