Steven Naismith and Leigh Griffiths are unavailable. Scotland desperately need a striker now to reach the Euro 2020 play-offs. One Scot has scored three goals in his last four games playing as a No.9 in England’s Premier League. Perhaps it is time to unleash Callum Paterson.
Events have aligned to create an opening up front for the vital Nations League ties against Albania in Shkoder and Israel at Hampden Park. Paterson’s form, physicality and pace make him a serious candidate for the role.
The Cardiff manager Neil Warnock converted Hearts’ home-grown right-back into an attacking midfielder after signing him in summer 2017. For the last four games, Paterson has led their forward line with distinction by scoring against Fulham, Liverpool and Brighton. Indeed, he is the only away player to net at Anfield in the Premier League this season.
Steven Fletcher, Matt Phillips, Oliver McBurnie and Johnny Russell are the other attackers in Alex McLeish’s Scotland squad. None can claim such potent goalscoring form in one of the world’s top leagues.
One coach who helped rear Paterson at Riccarton believes now is the time to let him flourish at international level.
“Callum has been involved in more than 20 Scotland squads and he’s got nine caps. I know what he’s like. He will be frustrated,” explained Darren Murray, head of coach education at Hearts. “This is now the opportunity. There is no Griffiths, no Naismith. When is he going to have a better chance?
“I think Callum deserves the opportunity. He has taken very well to the English Premier League. He’s scoring goals, he will be confident and in a good place mentally.
“We all want to get the ball down and play nice football, but sometimes we have to remember what Scotland are good at. That’s playing with heart, desire and aggression. Callum is a quick, aggressive player.
“Is he a brilliant No.9 in terms of linking play? No, he isn’t. But you can get somebody in around him to do that. He will always give everything for the cause. He is scoring goals at the top level in England and Scotland don’t have anyone else doing that right now.
“I’m sure the Scotland management will get the team playing good football, but if we get the ball wide and into the box, then with Callum Paterson in there you will have a chance of scoring goals.”
Paterson played as an emergency striker on several occasions for Hearts, one of them ironically coming at Anfield in a European tie. He also lashed a spectacular overhead-kick for Scotland Under-21s six minutes from the end of a 1-1 draw with Georgia in 2013 after being thrown on as an attacking substitute.
He now finds himself thrust into that position again due to Cardiff’s desperation for Premier League points. His goal in the 4-2 win over Fulham helped the Bluebirds record their first win of the season last month to move off the bottom of the table. He struck again the following week in a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool.
On Saturday, he and Sol Bamba claimed the goals as Cardiff secured another three points with a 2-1 victory over Brighton. The job of “crisis” striker seems to suit the 24-year-old.
“Callum has a real physical presence. The way Cardiff play, it suits him playing up front. They try to get the ball wide and then fire it into the box,” said Murray, arguing that Scotland could use him in a similar way.
“Ryan Fraser is on fire in the Premier League, getting to bylines and putting crosses into the box. James Forrest goes past defenders and delivers balls on the other side. So who is attacking them when they arrive? You could have Callum as No.9 with Matt Phillips just beside him.
“Set-plays is another thing. Set-plays are a massive part of the game. Surely having Callum in there to attack free-kicks and corners would be a good thing.
“The coaches need to get him to do what they want. If he isn’t going to get a chance now, when does he get a chance? If you ask Callum, he will probably tell you needs to get better linking the play. That becomes the job of the coaches.
“Steven Fletcher might link the play better. Is he more aggressive than Callum? No. Will he attack the ball better than Callum? I don’t think so. If Scotland are going with a No.9, give Callum a chance. He is still a young player and he is a coachable lad. He has played centre-back, right-back, wide right, No.10 and centre-forward. That tells you he is coachable.”
It is quite some time since Scotland had a bustling centre-forward barging his way through opposition defences. Paterson’s rare attributes offer something fairly unique in the modern game.
“I’ve actually thought about this a lot,” added Murray. “Who is the last top No.9 Scotland produced? You have to go way back. The reason for that is: There are too many No.10s running about getting in their way. Honestly, that’s true. There are too many of these tens running about.
“I’ve looked at it so many times. We used to develop No.9s but we don’t now. I understand football has changed but we have to think about producing No.9s again. I would go back to Joe Jordan as Scotland’s last out-and-out No.9. Ally McCoist was probably a centre-forward but he was slightly different. Mo Johnston was more like a No.10 because he drifted.
“If you’re looking for a real, solid No.9 who attacks the ball in the box, you need to go back to Jordan. Now, it’s difficult to compare Callum to him because Joe Jordan was so good. However, he is that type of player who is aggressive and attack balls in the penalty area. He anticipates things in the box very well and always has done. That’s a really good attribute to have.”