Weathering the storm
WHEN IT RAINS IT POURS FOR ALEX McLEISH, BUT PORTUGAL FRIENDLY COULD BE CHANCE TO SHINE
AS Israel subjected Scotland to relentless pressure in the Sammy Ofer Stadium late on Thursday evening, the decision by Alex McLeish to switch to a three-man defence seemed at the very best unwise and at worst an act of sheer folly.
Andreas Herzog’s men, without a win in any game over a year, had little difficulty finding gaps in McLeish’s porous rearguard and laid siege to the visitors’ goal for long spells.
Only Allan McGregor, who pulled off a series of fine saves in the Nations League match to keep the margin of defeat respectable, and some poor finishing prevented the national team from suffering a humiliation.
The number of supporters who would like to see the country revert to a conventional flat back four – as they did after John Souttar was sent off for a second bookable offence in the second-half with, it has to be said, not much more success – is now growing.
Yet, Scott McKenna, the Aberdeen centre-half who replaced the injured Charlie Mulgrew at half-time in Haifa, remains convinced the current system can work despite the evidence to the contrary and is worth persevering with going forward.
McKenna has featured regularly under McLeish – he made his debut against Costa Rica at Hampden back in March and has subsequently been involved against Hungary, Peru, Mexico and Israel – and is well placed to offer an opinion on the formation his manager has favoured.
The 21-year-old has partnered no fewer than five different players – Grant Hanley, Charlie Mulgrew, Jack Hendry, John Souttar and Kieran Tierney – in the three games he has been involved in where a back three has been used.
He feels Scotland will begin to perform better at the back when the same trio and wing backs have had the chance to play a number of games together and have been able to develop more of an understanding.
“We have played it a few times now,” he said. “We went with a three in Alex McLeish’s first game in charge against Costa Rica back in March. But the problem is it has always been different personnel.
“We have been working on it. We could just do with maybe having settled personnel. Obviously, every camp is different. There might be injuries, suspensions, whatever. But it has worked for us well. Against Hungary, for example, it worked very well. It is just about trying to get a bit of consistency.”
McKenna felt that losing Souttar, who was red carded for a second bookable offence after an hour, had made life even more difficult for Scotland against Israel.
He claimed the ordering off was harsh – Red Bull Salzburg striker Munas Dabbur fell to the ground clutching his face after what looked to be the lightest of touches from his opponent – but expressed hope that his team-mate and all of the young players would know better in their future outings at international level.
“I didn’t think it was a foul to be honest,” said McKenna. “The second yellow was harsh. I was quite close to it and I didn’t think it was a foul. I thought the boy went down quite easily. He made the most of it by rolling about. He gave the referee a decision to make. He deemed it to be a foul and if it is a foul
it is a yellow card. But it is a lesson learned. No matter what age you are, you will make mistakes. On Thursday night it was costly for John. I am sure he will learn from it. If he does it will help us going forward. Hopefully it won’t happen again.
“It is always difficult coming on. But we didn’t start the second-half well enough. They had a few chances early on and they got that goal. When we went down to 10 men it was always going to be difficult.
“I think we have to learn how to see out a game when we are 1-0 up. At this level clean sheets are vitally important. When we were under the cosh we could have been a bit braver and a bit harder to break down. At some points in the game they passed through us too easily. That ultimately led to the goals.”
The Scotland players were booed by their own supporters at the end after a defeat which means there is still much work to be done in League 1 Group C before a Euro 2020 play-off place can be secured.
The defender can understand their anger and frustration of the Tartan Army and assured them and that he and every one of his team mates feels exactly the same.
“We are bitterly disappointed as well,” he said. “We wanted to applaud them at the end for the effort they had gone to in order to go over to Israel. We should have performed better and we understood why they weren’t happy.
“But it’s not as if we walked out of the stadium on Thursday night and forgot about it. We were all hurting as well. Hopefully in the next games we will put it right. If we win our Nations League matches next month this is all forgotten about.”
Young defender Harry Souttar was ordered off during Thursday night’s defeat after two bookable offences
Scott McKenna arrives back at Glasgow Airport yesterday after a fruitless trip to Haifa