A hopeful nation got its first glimpse of a new era on Wednesday night, with Gordon Strachan fittingly taking his bow as Scotland manager at Pittodrie, the grass he graced as an Aberdeen player. With expectation levels at an all-time low during the morale-sapping Craig Levein tenure, Strachan’s arrival has injected the Tartan Army with a newfound optimism. This was to be the first chance to see if he could deliver. The outcome? Well, a narrow win over inferior opposition doesn’t look like much to write home about but Scotland fans have learned to take nothing for granted anymore and there may just have been evidence of the green shoots of recovery on the awful Pittodrie pitch. The match also gave the first indications of the kind of approach the nation can expect from Strachan’s reign and where they could go from here with the legendary former captain at the helm. So here are 5 things we learned from Scotland v Estonia.
Strachan’s team will have a go
Winning 1-0 against the world’s 83rd-best team is hardly reason to rejoice and celebrate the brave new dawn of Scottish football, but there was a noticeable difference between Strachan’s team and the dire displays of the recent past. The difference was in the formation (more than one up front - what new-fangled trickery is this?) but it was more than that. It was in the body language; it was in the attitude; it was in the desire of the players to take people on and run with the ball. Best epitomised by the returning Chris Burke in the first half-hour, Scotland had clearly been told to have a go; to drive forward with the ball and give the opposition something to think about. The anticipation of victory overshadowed the fear of defeat; the polar opposite of the mentality written on the faces of the same group of players under the previous coach. This was only a friendly against Estonia, it wasn’t exactly like watching Brazil, and Scotland ran out of steam in the second half - but the intent was there. Strachan is unlikely to be gung-ho against the likes of the Belgians, Croats or whichever big guns come calling in the next qualifying tournament but even in a game like Wednesday’s, it’s doubtful Levein’s team would have got the ball wide with the same frequency or spent so much time in the Estonian half. This whole attacking lark is new territory for Scotland and it may take time for them to get the hang of it, but they’re trying.
Scotland’s stars are wide boys
Recalled after seven years in the international wilderness, Chris Burke looked the part in the first half. The end product may not really have been there but, for a while, everything went through the Birmingham City winger and he tried to run at Estonia every time he got the ball. The evidence so far suggests his will be a welcome return to the fold. However, it does contribute to a growing problem. Scotland have a clutch of genuinely gifted players but most of them play in basically the same position. It’s well documented that Gordon Strachan likes to play wide midfielders and get crosses into the box, and he’s well equipped with the players to do this – maybe too well equipped. Burke, Robert Snodgrass, who looked excellent in flashes when he came on as a sub, Shaun Maloney, James Morrison, James Forrest, Matt Phillips, Kris Commons and Steven Naismith could all count themselves among the better players in the squad. Typically, though, they’ve been fighting for the same two jerseys. Strachan proved he’s keen to include as many creative players as he can by playing Maloney in behind Steven Fletcher as well as using two wide men, but shuffling this pack could be a key factor in whether he manages to get the right balance to take the Scots forward. If only Scotland could swap one or two of them for a decent centre-half. Speaking of which ...
There’s no case for the defence
Scotland won, and kept a clean sheet, but Estonia caused problems at the back. Last few minutes aside, they looked likelier to score in the second half despite Scotland’s greater possession. Barring good recovery work from McGregor, Mulgrew and Scott Brown, and one or two debatable offside calls, the scoreline could have been different. Any front line with pace, skill or, frankly, the will to attack can cause the Scots problems and Strachan has to do something about it. There’s not much he can do about the personnel. Gary Caldwell, absent against Estonia, Christophe Berra and Andy Webster are pretty ordinary but there isn’t anybody beating the door down. The only option is to try and organise them better. At Celtic, Strachan went for zonal marking rather than man-to-man and he must consider whether this would work for the national team. It could be a disaster waiting to happen but after Wednesday night’s wobbles he’s almost certain to give it a go.
Gordon Strachan is a coach
Without wishing to put words in the mouth in the nation, there was always a degree of bafflement about what Craig Levein actually did with the Scotland players on the training field. Shapeless, directionless and seemingly without a clear idea of strategy beyond ‘for God’s sake don’t go into the other half – we might lose a goal’, there was little evidence that his players ever knew what they were supposed to be doing. Again, without over-praising a performance that was competent at best, this clearly wasn’t the case against Estonia. The system was clear – keep possession, get the ball wide, run at the full-backs and support the strikers. Not exactly rocket science but a far better approximation of tactics than anything shown under the previous regime. Strachan has a reputation as a tracksuit manager, happiest on the training field showing his players what he expects of them. After just a short time with his Scotland squad the message is getting through. It didn’t necessarily translate into the kind of performance he would have wanted on the night but if he can bring about that amount of change in a couple of days, what can he achieve in the longer term? Case in point: Scotland’s goal. A well-worked free-kick, straight from the training ground. Almost like a proper football team.
Playing for the jersey is back
Under the last two Scotland coaches, Craig Levein and George Burley, the attitude of some players left much to be desired. Despite their rhetoric in the press, it was clear that playing for Scotland was a pretty low priority for some of them. Although this is ultimately the players’ fault, the coaches have to take their share of the blame. Cultures and attitudes begin at the top. Burley couldn’t exert his authority over the team, though in his defence he was undermined by his employers as much as his players. The outcome was Boozegate, humiliating defeats and his eventual sacking. Levein failed spectacularly to motivate and gel the squad, with key figures withdrawing at vital times and players quitting the national side. Those who did report for national duty often looked like they’d rather be somewhere else. Those days are over. There will be no players waiting for the coach to pander or apologise to them before playing for Scotland again. There will be no booze-ups or PR disasters. And most importantly there will be nobody in a dark blue shirt going through the motions. Even in a meaningless mid-season friendly, when many of the players have huge games coming up for their clubs, everyone was busting a gut to impress the new boss. Plenty of holes could be picked in the performance at Pittodrie, but one thing that could not be faulted was the team’s work-rate and commitment. Would you slack off with someone like Gordon Strachan waiting for you in the dressing room? Thought not. Strachan has already begun to inject his unique brand of passion into the team, and that is the one thing he can absolutely guarantee Scotland fans.
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