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Scotland missed out on their tenth consecutive major international finals, with the possibility of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia erased by a 2-2 draw away to Slovenia on Sunday evening.
A lacklustre performance meant that, despite going into half-time with a 1-0 lead, Gordon Strachan’s side were unable to keep hold of a crucial three points that would have seen them finish second, behind England, in UEFA qualifying Group F.
Defending too deep and with Leigh Griffiths lacking support up front, Scotland succumbed in the second half, conceding twice from set pieces. Robert Snodgrass restored some hope with a goal in the game’s dying embers, but – as is so often the case – it was too little, too late.
Now it is time for yet another post mortem, another dissection of dashed dreams. Here, Football Whispers analyse what was behind the Scottish national team’s latest failure to qualify.
In truth, the discussion around Scotland’s failings is a long time coming. While the country may not be one of Europe’s largest, or possess a league with real financial backing, it does have a long history of producing quality players.
Contrary to the opinions of some, as well as the reality their last major finals was the 1998 World Cup in France, this particular aspect hasn’t changed. Talented youngsters continue to come through at Scottish clubs, but they are often recognised too late, if at all.
In fairness to Strachan, each campaign since 1998 has been punctuated by this theme; the inability or unwillingness to think ahead is nothing new. But he did have a chance to change this when he arrived in 2013 amid a doomed 2014 World Cup qualification bid. He then had another opportunity post-Euro 2016.
Instead, however, he persisted with many of the same players throughout, showing loyalty to those with experience and a general distrust of the untested. It is because of this that Stuart Armstrong – for years one of the finest midfielders in Scotland – has just four caps at 25 years of age. Meanwhile, his Celtic team-mate Callum McGregor, at 24, remains without a single senior international appearance despite playing an important role at club level.
Others to have been bizarrely overlooked include Leeds United captain Liam Cooper (26 years old; zero caps), Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser (23 years old; one cap), domestic stars such as Kenny McLean and Graeme Shinnie, who inexplicably have one cap between them despite being integral to Aberdeen's mini revival in recent years, as well as prospects such as Liam Lindsay, John Souttar and Ryan Gauld.
Aside from failing to maximise the talent available at the time, another major consequence of this policy is that there is a huge rebuilding job ahead; the recently selected 23-man squad’s average age is just over 28. Fast forward to Euro 2020, which is the next tournament Scotland can viably compete in, and over half of the current 23 will be over the age of 30.
LACK OF STRATEGY
One acceptable justification for a failure to blood quality new players would be that Strachan was attempting to build a ‘club mentality’.
This is something done by many of the world’s finest footballing countries, including Germany, who make an effort to create a pathway between the youth teams and the senior side. Hence, seven of the 11 players that started in their European Under-21 Championship final victory over England eight years ago are in and around Joachim Low’s squad today.
However, there is a difference between fostering unity and showing blind loyalty in the face of underperformance.
It’s also worth noting that Strachan was not entirely unafraid to alter his team. For the first three qualifiers, he stuck by a centre-back partnership of Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, with David Marshall his chosen No.1. By the end of the campaign, this trident had been completely overhauled in favour of Christophe Berra, Charlie Mulgrew and Craig Gordon.
Further forward, Matt Ritchie and Snodgrass were the preferred attacking midfielders for those opening fixtures. But neither were in the line-up by the end, their places taken by the likes of Matt Philipps, James Forrest and James Morrison.
Meanwhile, up front Strachan initially persisted with one of Chris Martin or Steven Fletcher despite the form of Griffiths. The Celtic hitman eventually made a starting berth his own, responding with four goals in the final five qualifiers.
Scotland failed to blood new players while at the same time completely changing their spine as 2018 World Cup qualifying went on. Short-termism was paired with a serious inconsistency in personnel. In short, there was a total lack of selection strategy.
Northern Ireland are perhaps the best example of why a limited playing pool needn’t hamper a national team’s chances of progress. While in West Bromwich Albion trio Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt, as well as Southampton's Steven Davis, they have some Premier League players, much of their squad comes from the English lower leagues.
Despite that, they could make it to a second successive major finals. Having reached the second round of Euro 2016, they finished behind Germany in 2018 World Cup qualifying to secure a qualification play-off berth.
Northern Ireland’s success has much to do with Michael O’Neill’s tactics. Since being appointed in 2011, the manager has overseen a gradual turnaround thanks to his implementation of a compact and organised defensive setup. His side are extremely difficult to break down, which is why only eight other European nations have conceded fewer than their six goals against in this campaign.
Scotland have lacked this sort of tactical clarity and cohesion in recent years. This was highlighted by late changes made by Strachan, who went from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 for the draw with Slovenia, before reverting back to 4-5-1 during the match.
That fateful 2-2 draw also showcased an inability to identify issues as they were unfolding. Sitting deep and retaining the shape worked at 1-0 up, but at 2-1 down it took far too long for a change in defensive approach to be made.
Scotland started to press more aggressively and higher up the pitch in the later stages, but by that point the writing was on the wall. The damage had already been done, with Slovenia enjoying the time given to them on the ball and finding the net twice.
There has been more than enough time for tactical certainty to have been achieved, but the system and style of play have been open to change far too frequently. And that inconsistency has been reflected in the performances.