The Solution to Scotland’s Qualification Problem? Learning to Punch Down

The Solution to Scotland’s Qualification Problem? Learning to Punch Down

By Gordon Sheach

There has been a lot of talk in the last week about how Alex McLeish will manage the task of ending Scotland’s 20-year drought of qualifying for an international tournament.


Much of the debate has raged around formations (three at the back? 4-2-3-1?) and personnel. Having analysed each qualifying campaign since France ’98, I would like to suggest one thing should be at the top of McLeish’s to-do list – creating a Scotland team that can consistently punch down.


When a qualifying draw is made, the two bottom seeds in the group are there to be beaten home & away. Not taking 12 points from the bottom seeds in your group is incompatible with having realistic ambitions of winning your group or even securing a playoff place.


In the ten qualifying campaigns since that glorious summer in France, Scotland have taken full points against the bottom two seeds only once.


To demonstrate my point, let’s take a depressing trip down memory lane:


Euro 2000

Coming out of Pot one, Craig Brown’s side finished 12 points behind the Czech Republic, dropping four points against Estonia and the Faroe Islands along the way. A 1-1 draw in Toftir followed by a 0-0 draw in Tallinn.


World Cup 2002


In Craig Brown’s final campaign as Scotland boss, the full 12 points were secured from matches against San Marino and Latvia. Only taking three points from four games against Belgium and Croatia ended qualifying hopes.


Euro 2004


Berti Vogts led Scotland to the playoffs despite struggling on the road against the bottom seeds. The group kicked off with a 2-2 draw against the Faroes (yes, them again) followed up later in the group with a 1-0 reverse in Kaunas against Lithuania.


World Cup 2006

A miserable campaign for Scotland as seven out of 12 points were dropped against the bottom two seeds. A draw in Moldova saw the end of Berti Vogts’ tenure before Walter Smith oversaw an away draw and a home defeat to Belarus.


Euro 2008

Tbilisi. Maroon shirts. Graeme Murty at right back. We all know where Scotland dropped points in this campaign.


World Cup 2010

Three points dropped in the searing Skopje heat in George Burley’s first game left Scotland playing catch-up.



Euro 2012

Another new manager (Craig Levein), more points dropped in his first competitive fixture against a bottom seed (0-0 away vs Lithuania), another campaign hamstrung before it had really kicked off.


World Cup 2014


A bit of an anomaly this one with Wales drawn out of the bottom pot of seeds. Levein’s side lost home and away to the Welsh and added a home draw against Macedonia for good measure.


Euro 2016


Tbilisi again. Dejà vu.


World Cup 2018


Second game of the campaign and Gordon Strachan’s Scotland could only salvage a late draw at home to Lithuania. Those dropped points pushed Scotland into a position that even an unbeaten 2017 couldn’t recover from.


Had we done what was expected of us and taken the 12 points from the bottom two seeds in each campaign, what could we have won? The table below conveniently tells you exactly that.



From two playoffs in 10 campaigns we are left with six playoffs and two automatic qualifications. Of course, there are a number of unmentioned factors involved as well. So let us look for context and further clarification by looking at the wider European and World Cup qualification stages as a whole.


By analysing every qualifying group since 1998, we see that 57.95% of group winners have taken 12 points from the bottom two seeds while 42% of group runners-up have done likewise. The table below shows the average points dropped by each group winner and runner-up against Scotland in each qualifying campaign since 1998.


The table below shows the average points dropped by each group winner and runner-up against Scotland in each qualifying campaign since 1998.



Only in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2012 have Scotland been above the average set by group winners or runners up. Easier said than done of course, but if McLeish can find a system, squad and mentality to take full points against the bottom two seeds in Euro 2020 qualifying then we’ll definitely be on the right path to the finals.


This, of course, may prove quite pertinent in the coming Nations League campaign that begins in September. Scotland may have a slightly easier task of guiding their way through a three-team group rather than facing off against three other opponents, but the teams they will have to beat are of the calibre that has caused us problems in the past.


Albania currently sit 58th in the FIFA world rankings, while Israel sit even further down the pecking order at 94. Of course, Scotland’s current position in 32nd is hardly anything to sing and dance about either, but these are both teams that would probably have been seeded bottom in a hypothetical qualification group – and therefore exceptionally dangerous to our ability to become complacent.


As we all know, Scotland rarely struggle to drum themselves up into a frenzy when a European giant comes to Hampden and some of our most cherished memories of the past 20 years – there are a few, I promise – revolve around such games. But from here on in we have to acknowledge that bigger scalps are completely pointless if we can’t overcome the minnows.

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