Scotland will kick-off crucial Nations League tie with untried back four
The city of Shkoder that will host Scotland's Albanian assignment this evening was once a foremost Islamic seat of learning. The seven mosques dotted across it bear witness to that.
The midnight and dawn calls to worship projected out loudly from the minarets within these structures account for Alex McLeish’s squad holing up two hours away in Tirana the night before their Nations League encounter. However, the feeling persists that Scotland will arrive at the Loro Borici Stadium on a wing and a prayer anyway.
Crucially, it appears McLeish what will not do is offer meditations on wing-backs ahead of his team taking to the field for a game they can afford to lose without fatally wounding Euro 2020 play-off ambitions; yet daren’t do so.
Winging it will be forced by personnel issues, exacerbated by a shed-load of call-offs that yesterday cost him the presence of Kieran Tierney. The sheer paucity of numbers in defence following the loss of Charlie Mulgrew, Stephen O’Donnell, Mikey Devlin and even potential auxiliary right-back Ryan Jack ahead of being denied the Celtic left-back is likely to force his hand.
The result won’t just be dispensing of the 3-5-2 formation he set as his “dynamic” default formation when in February he was placed in charge of his country for a second time. It will be selecting a back four that is untried in any environment.
A debutant in David Bates will surely partner Scott McKenna in the central roles. One plus of that is the fact it will allow Andrew Robertson to be berthed in the left-back role he occupies so winningly for Liverpool. The negative is that Callum Paterson is probably going to be deployed at right-back despite his Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock’s pushing of him into attack this season because he entirely doubts his defensive qualities.
The needs-must elements to these modifications is entitled to cause a degree of fretting. If these might be assuaged by the fact the game is not a must-win, there remains a desperate need to produce a performance ahead of Scotland – baring a three-goal thumping in Albania – facing a victory-or-vanquished confrontation with Israel at Hampden on Tuesday evening.
Following the tousing in Haifa last month, frankly McLeish has few backers to lead Scotland to the top placing in the Nations League C Group 1 that carries the prize of a Euro 2020 play-off slot.
Scotland players dropping like flies for the climax to a qualifying campaign that was supposed to open up new frontiers will be taken as a slight on the man in charge. It is impossible to determine whether that is fair or not. McLeish would argue he has simply been a victim of circumstance.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and these are the things that as a manager or coach you can never legislate for,” he said. “Injuries are part and parcel of the game that you can’t control. OK, you can sometimes control the input of a player when it comes to resting but when it’s freak injuries, you don’t have a leg to stand on…oops, that was a pun.”
Little credit is given to McLeish for any developments that may have occurred on his watch. His moulding of Scott McKenna, though, has suggested that the historic problems Scotland have suffered in central defence may not prove so pronounced in coming years. There is an entitlement to have faith in him over his willingness to throw in Bates, whose assimilation into German football since joining Hamburg from Rangers in the summer has been impressively smooth.
“Well, I’m not scared to throw the young ones in,” the Scotland manager said. “I’ve done it in the past and I’m not scared to throw them in and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and say ‘you’re in’. You can’t find the perfect player to slot into the position and there’s a young very, very good one coming up in David Bates. “His form at Hamburg has been excellent. I’ve watched the games. He did get sent off a couple of weeks ago. They got a credible result, I think it was a draw, and the coach kept faith with the guy who took his place. Which is normal. Sometimes you keep the same team. He’s now looking to get back in the team but he’s slotted in here as if he’s been here with us for the last six months.”
At the other end of the pitch, McLeish has been forced to re-assimilate Steven Fletcher, pictured, into the international fold with Steven Naismith and Leigh Griffiths sidelined. It is more than two years since the Sheffield Wednesday man score in a competitive international for his country. None of the XI that McLeish is going to send out in Albania this evening can boast a goal for Scotland in the past year. Fletcher’s undoubted craft has never translated into a capacity for consistent goalscoring – of his nine strikes for Scotland in the course of 31 caps, Gibraltar account for six and Malta one.
“He’s vastly experienced – I’ve worked with him before and I know his holding abilities,” McLeish said. “Look at the French team with [Olivier] Giroud – he hasn’t scored that many but he’s integral to the system of the team. There’s not a lot of people who can play with that holding skill that Fletcher has – that’s just one of his traits.
“We are short of goals in terms of other players in the team so it’s something we’re looking to change and Steven might not score but he might set up for others. To be fair, the form he’s in he’s looking likely to get on the international scoresheet again.” Someone has to in order that the debate does not become where McLeish ought to have a Scotland future beyond the next week.