It was interesting that Scotland manager Gordon Strachan chose to see his team’s recent miseries in a broader context during his post-match musings after Saturday’s 3-0 filleting by France. He didn’t confine himself to talk about double-header duntings caused by the outclassing in Metz that followed the Italians’ total superiority over his men in Malta the week before.
These two games, which would appear to have served no purpose beyond reinforcing what poor men of Europe Scotland are when set against major tournament contenders, Strachan made half of a four-game package. The friendlies won away to the Czech Republic and at home to the Danes in March were part of the continuum to prepare for the World Cup qualifying campaign that begins in September. Played four, won two, lost two sounds a heck of a lot more acceptable than played 180 minutes and never forced even a simple save from two opposition keepers. Yet, the problem with chucking in the Czech and Danish wins to improve the landscape is that Strachan himself was anything but thrilled by all too many aspects of these decidedly fortunate victories.
Of course, we shouldn’t read too much into two end-of-season friendlies against two top teams with their juices flowing as prepare for the sense-sharpening combat of the Euro 2016 finals. However, let’s look at not four games but the nine that Scotland have played in the past 12 months – starting with deeply unimpressive 1-1 draw against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin that sowed the seeds of Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualifying failure. In patches, Scotland were decent against both Germany and Poland but their defensive inadequacies – writ large in the errors that allowed Olivier Giroud to finish with elan for his early opener and, after he had hit a second, let his team-mate Laurent Koscielny make it 3-0 with a routine header direct from corner – then and now appear frankly unconquerable. Strachan can’t be blamed for that, since he can’t magic up a centre-back that plays to any sort of standard in British football.
The Scotland manager will find a growing number of detractors because of the poverty of the displays in what deserved to be acknowledged were invidious circumstances this past week. His players retain genuine enthusiasm and regard for his methods, though. Robert Snodgrass has returned to the international fold in recent months after being sidelined for a year and a half with a dislocated kneecap. He won’t give headspace to fingers being pointed at the Scotland manager.
“I’m not focusing on that. I think he has done a terrific job. I think he is the best man to take us forward,” said Snodgrass. “He has proved that when we have beaten some good teams. You can’t judge anyone based on friendlies. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think you can sit and talk about this manager or that manager. As a team we have got to do better in certain stages of the game.
“We can’t concede three goals in the first half. If you do that, it doesn’t matter if you have ten top managers on the sidelines. That’s what your job is. It’s what you have to avoid and ultimately that’s what you have to do to win games. We can sit here and talk about this or that. But the manager is shaping things up nicely for the World Cup campaign.”
That is seriously open to debate and even Snodgrass, perhaps unwittingly, betrays the direction of travel in ruminating on whether there has been any progress at international level in his time out with injury.
“It’s hard because it’s been all friendlies I have come back to,” he said. “When I went out we were beating Croatia back-to-back and they were fourth best in the world at the time.
“We have had two good results against the Czech Republic and Denmark. But we have gone that step further taking on two favourites for the tournament. We have lost, but only when the campaign starts will we see if there is progress or not. These games are against teams preparing for the Euros and we have not quite made it. The manager was trying to give debuts to people.
“It’s not the full squad you would say will start in games. He is trying different things with Russell Martin at right back and Barrie McKay making his debut. Stephen Kingsley as well. It’s all things the manager wants to try out.”