Scotland’s UEFA Nations League opener against Albania had all the ingredients for a disaster. It…
Well, that was disappointing. After starting the Nations League in excellent fashion with a comfortable 2-0 win over Albania, Scotland fans were brought back down to earth following last night’s defeat at the hands of Israel. The match started well enough when Steven Naismith was brought down for a penalty for Charlie Mulgrew to convert early in the first half, but things only went downhill from there.
Two second half goals for the hosts were enough to secure the win for Israel – only their second home victory in the last four years – as a lacklustre and passive Scotland slumped to a disappointing defeat, with John Souttar also getting sent off for accumulating two yellow cards for good measure.
Any optimism gained from the Albania performance has been wiped out and now the usual soul-searching and recriminations will begin. After all, Israel are ranked 94th in the world, yet they dominated the match in large spells and in truth could have won by a bigger margin. Scotland still top League C Group 1 on goal difference but with all three nations tied on three points at the halfway stage, the group is finely poised and will almost certainly go down to the wire.
The performance in Haifa was a particularly frustrating one for the Tartan Army, as Scotland continually struggled to gain a foothold in the game against the dominant and aggressive Israelis. Despite looking so positive and confident on the ball against Albania, the players were unable to carry their form from the previous match into this encounter – and it ultimately cost us the game.
The graph above breaks down each side’s passing statistics for the game and it says a lot about where Scotland went wrong last night. Israel dominated the ball, particularly after Souttar’s red gave them a man advantage, and finished the match with 56% possession – but it’s how the Israelis used the ball that ultimately won them the game.
Scotland’s passing was absolutely fine when looking laterally or backwards, roughly matching or surpassing Israel’s accuracy in this regard. But when it came down to playing forward, we struggled. Scotland’s forward passing accuracy dropped to 67% – around 10% lower than Israel’s – and our passes into the final third had a success rate of just 47%, meaning that they were inaccurate more often than not. Compare this to Scotland’s overall passing accuracy of 87% and the decline is stark and worrying in equal measure.
This is in part, no doubt, due to how Alex McLeish set up his team on the night. Defence was the priority and it wasn’t unusual to see eight or nine men parked behind the ball when Israel were in possession. Naismith and Johnny Russell looked isolated in attack with little support from midfield, which meant that finding them with penetrative passes was always going to be an uphill struggle.
This passivity in attack was also apparent at the other end, where all too often Scotland were happy to give their opponents time and space around the box without closing them down effectively. Israel hit no fewer than 27 crosses over the course of the game, with the majority of them coming from just outside the Scotland box. Time and time again, Israel would drive forward and with no one there to deny them, attempt a delivery into the box.
This refusal to close the opposition down severely hurt Scotland’s chances of getting anything from the match. Both goals that Israel scored were a direct result of this: Taleb Twatha ran unopposed towards the Scotland goal before teeing up Dor Peretz for the equaliser, and Beram Kayal was given far too much time to weigh up his effort that ultimately resulted in Kieran Tierney’s own goal.
40% of Israel’s crosses were finding their man, which is a worryingly high figure for McLeish. When you’ve got a team hitting so many deliveries, with a relatively high success rate, then the result is seemingly inevitable. Scotland either had to stop the crosses at the point of delivery – a task which became significantly more difficult after Souttar’s dismissal – or focus on tightly man-marking the opposition to snuff out balls into the box. In the end, Scotland did neither and ultimately paid the price for their defensive passivity.
The image above from WhoScored maps out each player’s average position over the course of the game, with Israel in orange and Scotland in blue. As we can see, too many of our players were congested in the middle of the park with very little width offered. With Israel set up in a 3-5-2 formation, this simply played into their hands and allowed them to control the game in the middle of the park.
Scotland were set up in a similar fashion and for this system to work, much reliance is placed on the two wing-backs to contribute going forward. Andy Robertson and Stephen O’Donnell performed admirably in these roles against Albania but both players struggled to replicate their performance in the stifling heat of Haifa, to the great detriment of the team.
Take a look at each team’s average position again. Robertson (3) and O’Donnell (2) were usually found in their own halves, while their opposite numbers Tawatha (13) and Eli Dasa (2) pushed right up into the Scotland half. This tendency to push up exploited space in behind our full-backs, creating width in the Israeli team that Scotland consistently struggled to deal with. By driving forward, the Israeli wing-backs forced Robertson and O’Donnell onto the back foot and ensured their efforts were focused on defence, effectively nullifying the threat from either player and ensuring that Scotland were forced into playing a reactive game.
The post-mortem will continue over the next few days as McLeish looks to identify and address the issues that ultimately caused Scotland to falter and suffer a humbling defeat. McLeish’s team are still in a good position in the Nations League and success is still possible, although Scotland cannot afford to put in another lacklustre performance. In the end we probably got off lightly with the 2-1 defeat in Israel but if McLeish doesn’t learn from the performance, then history will be doomed to repeat itself when we face the Israelis again next month.