Is the Scotland manager already on borrowed time?
History tells us the frequency of call-offs is often a direct indicator of unrest within the camp
WADING through the wreckage of Scotland’s display against Israel on Thursday night risks leaving any member of the Tartan Army with PTSD. There is no choice though but to hold our noses and trawl through the slag-heap if we are to learn from what went wrong, and at least glean something from a night down there with any of the garbage that Scotland have served up over the years on their travels.
The defeats in Georgia. The draw in the Faroes. The 4-0 thumping from Wales under Berti Vogts. The night Gary Kenneth went up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Lamentably, we have another nightmare to file away under F for, well, let’s say failure.
Our UEFA Nations League group is still salvageable, but that has more to do with the poor quality of our opposition than it does with any progress being made by our brave boys. It would be the easiest thing in the world to fillet Alex McLeish, and while I disagreed with his appointment, I can’t see what is to be gained from another attack on the manager. The problem is, after 10 matches, it is getting hard to defend him or his tactics.
The experimental phase of his tenure, where grace was rightly given as he tried out players and systems, is over.
The 3-5-2 that he has plumped for from that process might have gotten us a result against Albania at Hampden, but it was clear from around the five-minute mark in Israel that it wasn’t working. The midfield were being overrun and Scotland were exposed on the wings, but it wasn’t until we were pegged back level in the second half lost John Souttar to a red card that McLeish changed to a 4-4-1.
There are wider issues with the formation too. It has been designed to accommodate Scotland’s two best players, Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the team. But as Robertson pointed out after the game, it leaves neither playing in their preferred position.
Robertson hasn’t looked comfortable playing on his own up the left, and Tierney toiled at left centre-back. By trying to shoehorn two square pegs into round holes, McLeish is currently getting the best from neither player. Surely it would be more beneficial to have at least one of our quality leftbacks playing at left-back?
There are a couple of ways this could be achieved. Tierney doesn’t want to play at rightback, so you could either have the Celtic man in his natural position in a flat back four with Robertson playing on one, or you make the call that as Robertson is probably the more accomplished left-back, either Tierney moves to accommodate the skipper, or he drops out. My preference would be option one, but option two is still better than the current fudge.
The questions over team selection have to be addressed elsewhere too, with the formation dictating that form players such as Ryan Fraser or even James Forrest can’t get into the team at all. Or in the case of Cardiff City’s Calum Paterson, the squad. Even more concerning would be if McLeish simply judges the value of having Kevin McDonald in his team above that of some of the enforced absentees.
The absence of Fraser and others, most notably Leigh Griffiths, hints at deeper problems than just the formation.
Whatever your take on the rights and wrongs of the Griffiths call-off, history tells us that the frequency of calloffs is often a direct indicator of unrest within the camp.
Whatever way you slice it, McLeish has to turn around perceptions and performances fast. He has been fighting an uphill battle from day one with a public who weren’t exactly enthused by his appointment.
It is early to be calling for his head, but at the same time, there is no way Scotland can risk jeopardising what is a golden ticket to a play-off for Euro 2020.
Anger stems from fans seeing a group of players reduced to less than the sum of their parts by the way they are being set up. Getting bums on seats is perhaps the currency that the SFA value most, and if McLeish can’t do that – and soon – his second spell in charge of his country may be even briefer than his first.