Last night Scotland followed up their impressive 1-0 win in Croatia with a typically determined performance against England and, despite eventually losing 3-2, showed that their potential lies beyond that of a side with solely battling qualities.
Of course it is far too early in the reign of Gordon Strachan to be making ludicrous sweeping statements about the inevitable success he will have because of the past two games, but the performance and desire shown by the players since his takeover has exceeded anything witnessed under the Craig Levein era.
This game was technically just a friendly and the outcome shouldn’t be used to install ignorantly false optimism that Scotland will now be world beaters. However, there were a lot of aspects shown in last night’s game that do give reason for confidence in Strachan’s administration.
It may be because it was just a friendly or it may be because Scotland had nothing to lose in a game where they weren’t expected to do well, but they showed (in stages) a belief in their ability as well as a competence when on the ball that has been void in the national team for a very long time.
I thought the first 15-20 minutes epitomised this to no end. Scotland were by far the better team in this early period and, through a combination of strong battling all over the park and a composure on the ball from the midfield, dominated the game as England were unable to string anything together.
An early goal from the impressive James Morrison was the entire team’s reward for a great start where the neighbours south of the border looked the more over-awed.
Naturally England came into game and begun to show their inevitable class as Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverly began to abate Scotland’s midfield dominance.
Although England grew more confident and were pressing with more possession, Scotland seemed content at the back and were compact enough to deny any real clear cut chances before the goal on the half hour mark.
At this stage Scotland began to sit in more, having lost their ability to keep the ball confidently and press England back for any significant spells. The pressure finally told when an excellent pass from Cleverly - probably too easily - split open the Scottish defence and Theo Walcott was never going to be caught once in on goal.
Scotland’s worst period in the match probably fell between Walcott’s goal and half time when they were mostly penned in and hanging on. The ‘back to the wall’ feeling for the Scots was present at many times during the game.
However, unlike countless other performances against higher rated teams in recent times, Scotland did manage to pose both a counter attacking threat when breaking, and the ability to relieve pressure by playing the ball out of danger rather than the obligatory ‘lump it up’ to the solitary striker tactic Scottish fans are so used to seeing.
Half-time came as the Scottish defence limited the English pressure to half-chances from a Wayne Rooney shot after great skill from Danny Welbeck, and a poor offside decision which, had it been correct, could’ve seen Scotland go in behind at the interval.
Scotland came out with a renewed confidence and, again, started the better. It is difficult to write about Kenny Miller in an article like this where you are outlining the potential for this Scottish side in the future, given that he is surely coming to the end of his reign as one of Scotland’s first choice strikers.
I, like many Scots, vehemently questioned the decision to start him in the lone striker’s role but to his credit, Miller had an inspired game. He rolled back the years with tireless running and when called upon, was able to keep the ball and link up well.
Miller’s best contribution came just 4 minutes after half-time when he neatly controlled an Alan Hutton pass, swivelled Chelsea defender Gary Cahill and curled a superb effort past Joe Hart.
Throughout the game Miller’s role was helped by impressive ball handling by James Morrison and James Forrest, who both had excellent games, as they helped with the burden of relieving pressure on the Scottish back line.
The most disappointing aspect of the game for the Scots was their defending from set pieces. While otherwise they looked mostly solid and organised at the back - apart from a few scary moments of indecision and lapses of concentration - their defending at set plays was atrocious.
They failed to heed the warning Steven Gerrard gave them just prior to England’s second goal. Allan McGregor managed to save brilliantly from a characteristically dangerous free-kick from the England captain, but moments later another fantastic Gerrard set play was this time converted by Danny Welbeck.
While the next 20 minutes consisted mainly of English possession, Scotland were continuously able to threaten (sporadically) from breaks and allow the defence a breather. Lampard’s drive was as close as England got to opening up the Scots in this period apart from an athletic opening for Welbeck from a corner.
Frustratingly, the crucial blow came from a corner and although overall Strachan can be happy with the defensive display, the marshalling from set pieces is something that will disappoint him greatly as, if this aspect were improved, Scotland may have came away from the game with more than just a promising performance.
On 70 minutes Ricky Lambert headed home with his first touch in a penalty area devoid of any challenge and a lack of a man on the post.
It’s hard to take many positives from the last 20 minutes from a Scottish point of view as substitute changes seemed to show England’s greater strength in depth and ability to continue their game plan more efficiently with different personnel.
The game became far more stretched and Scotland were opened up easier here than at any other point in the game, which can be understood given they were clearly going for an equaliser.
Overall I believe Strachan, and the tartan army, will be more than pleased with this performance against the Auld Enemy.
Their belief of ability and confidence on the ball was better than I have seen for a very long time and showed a greater amount of passion and desire than I saw at any stage under Levein.
Morrison, Forrest and Scott Brown were particularly impressive, all for different roles and showed they could more than hold their own in future Scotland starting elevens.
While they were troubled at the back, the amount of pressure on the defence wasn’t really converted into a huge amount of clear cut chances.
Also, the ability to relieve pressure was something that must be taken as a positive as Scotland have been notorious for inviting teams on without offering anything in return - I cite the 4-6-0 formation by Levein as a prime example.
Going forward was an improvement on previous performances as the midfield were able to supplement the attack more often with Robert Snodgrass, Forrest, Shaun Maloney and Morrison all getting forward in stages. The full backs and in particular Alan Hutton also helped going forward but the overall attacking prowess of the team could still be improved.
As I have said the most disappointing aspect was the inability to cope with set plays and the conceding of cheap goals. These are features which can be worked on though, and positives in the overall performance from Scotland did outweigh these lapses in defensive proficiency.
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