Rugby fanatic - but so much more
Rugby fanatic - but so much more
It’s something that England have struggled with for years, yet it’s also something that Scotland managed to crack at the first attempt. That something is winning on penalties. The Scots achieved their first ever penalty shoot-out victory at the first time of asking against Israel in the UEFA Nations League last week in Glasgow.
That dramatic win in the shootout, which followed a pretty hopeless display from both teams during 120 goalless minutes of highly tense football, will most likely be looked back on as a significant milestone in this team’s journey under Clarke’s leadership. Performances have not looked that great, but results are bringing greater confidence.
Significantly, Scotland seemed to have changed their luck. The Czechs missed a couple of good chances on Wednesday evening at Hampden that in days gone by would probably have gone in. Clarke seems to have instilled something that has been very rare in Scottish national teams – they seem to know how to win games. Even when playing poorly, this group have clocked up the results, and are now eight games unbeaten.
There have been some concerns about a certain lack of creativity in attack, but the Scots have looked increasingly solid at the back. That has to be down, at least in part, to Clarke’s organisational skills. His Kilmarnock teams in the past enjoyed plenty of success by knowing how to sit and soak up pressure when the time was right. A 5-3-2 formation certainly has made Scotland harder to break down.
Picking Manchester United midfielder Scott McTominay as a right-sided centre-back has divided opinion. But the player has proved his quality and has started to look very comfortable in the position. The likes of Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean and John Fleck have looked accomplished in midfield. Australian-born Scot Lyndon Dykes has given the side a new edge in attack too.
Dykes played rugby league growing up in Australia and it shows. He has no fear of anyone and offers a real physical presence up top as well as an obvious goal threat. He provided the assist for Ryan Fraser’s only goal of the game on Wednesday night, and has a clear competitive spirit and drive to win that may well come from his Australian upbringing. There is none of the fear of success that has often seemed to haunt Scotland strikers of the recent past.
Dykes looks like he enjoys his football, and playing for the country where both his parents were born certainly seems to suit him. Scotland have a real focal point in attack now. Dykes can hold the ball up and also harry defenders when not in possession. His relish for the more combative aspects of the game also makes him popular with supporters. No defenders of whatever level will relish coming up against the Scottish-Australian, who recently moved to Queens Park Rangers from Livingston.
Much of his professional career has been in the domestic Scottish league, for Queen of the South as well as Livingston. His showings at international level so far provide further evidence that the Scottish domestic game can produce and develop talent that is more than ready to succeed at a higher level.
Another key figure in this revival has been Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn. The former St Mirren and Hibernian midfielder has developed into one of the best midfielders in Britain over the last couple of seasons. The energy and drive he provides from the middle of the park mean that Scotland look more purposeful, both in attack and defence. He was the captain on Wednesday night, and he looks like he will exert a huge influence over the side for many years to come.
McGinn is, in many ways, a throwback to midfielders of the past. He cannot be easily pigeonholded as ‘holding midfielder’ or ‘attacking midfielder’. He looks more like the box-to-box midfielders of the 80s in certain ways, offering plenty at both ends of the park. His brave block of a shot from close range in the clash with the Czechs was certainly testament to that. Scotland probably haven’t such a player since the likes of John Wark graced the national side in the 1980s.
What has also been striking is that the Scots have coped with a raft of absences during their recent run of success. In days gone by, losing the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Kieren Tierney, Scott McKenna and a host of others would have torpedoed the Scots’ chances of victory.
But the players Clarke has called up, mainly from domestic SPFL clubs, have performed brilliantly. Andrew Considine is a case in point. The left sided Aberdeen defender has not put a foot wrong in his two games so far, looking steady and very solid against both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Scottish domestic game produces far more good players than it is given credit for, and the way that the likes of Considine and others like Greg Taylor have stepped up is testament to that.
This Scotland team does not concede sloppy goals anymore, and it looks like it knows how to seal tight games off in the last few minutes too. The way that the ball was kept in the corners towards the end of the game with Slovakia showed that this group of Scots are professional in their mindset and have few frailties when it comes to making sure they take the three points.
The run under Clarke has been pretty extraordinary in terms of results, even if some of the team’s performances have been decidedly ordinary. The game against Israel was agony for not just Scotland fans, but anyone in the world who happened to have been misfortunate enough to see it. It was like a game contested by two teams who were desperate not to win.
But that statement might contain a bit of a clue to how things have changed for Scotland under Clarke. The aim of the boys in dark blue seemed to be not to lose. Scotland under Clarke now have a habit of not losing games. They have also, from somewhere, acquired the ability to win while playing poorly – the hallmark of a good side.
Now attention will turn to the Nations League final, in which they face Serbia for a place in the delayed Euro 2021 tournament. If they overcome the Serbs, it will be the first time that Scotland have reached a major tournament since the World Cup in France in 1998. That is a long time to wait for Scotland fans.
The Scots can in no way be considered favourites to beat the Serbs, especially in Belgrade. But this Scotland team keeps producing surprises, so football punters may find more value in backing the Scots than they might expect. Certainly, there are a number of factors around the match that should give Scottish fans reason for optimism.
Of course, one thing in Scotland’s favour in Belgrade is that there will be no crowd. From a betting point of view, this makes the game interesting. One of the toughest things about an away trip to Serbia is the passion generated by a crowd that can be intimidating, to say the least. Not that Scottish players are unused to intimidating atmospheres, especially if they have a few Old Firm derbies under their belts, but Belgrade can be a place to make the hearts of even the bravest players quail a little.
That crowd factor has been removed entirely from the equation thanks to Covid 19. This makes the game, especially given Scotland’s recent form, a much more finely balanced affair. It will certainly take much of the edge off the game, and allow the Scots to concentrate on the football rather than having to psychologically deal with the usual crowd pressure that comes in Serbia.
There is a lot on the line for the Scots. If they win, then they will be in a group with England and Croatia at Euro 2021. They will also have home games in Glasgow to look forward to. Such pressure has often proved the downfall of many Scotland teams in the past. Under Clarke, those traditional demons that have haunted Scottish players seem to be in the process of being exorcised.
The bookies still have the Serbs as strong favourites for the tie. William Hill are offering a price of 13/20 on the 1X2 market on the home side emerging as victors from the play-off. Scotland, in contrast, are priced at 24/5. Punters may like the look of odds of 11/1 on the Scots pinching a 1-0 win, though. With Lyndon Dykes and Ryan Fraser forming a tasty looking partnership in attack, and Clarke’s 5-3-2 system making the Scots look increasingly solid at the back, who knows what might happen in Belgrade? You can find the latest Serbia vs Scotland odds at William Hill here.
And if they don’t win then maybe they can show England how to win on penalties. It is, after all, something that the Auld Enemy has often struggled with over the years. The Scots managed it at the first time of asking. Maybe that trip to Belgrade is not so daunting after all for Steve Clarke’s band of bravehearts.