To say Scotland’s win in Malta was fortuitous would be an overstatement; to call it dominant would be the same.
Yes, the scoreline read 1-5 at the end, and yes, the resurgent Robert Snodgrass scored a hat-trick, but the underlying cracks in the performance of both the team and the referee did little to allay the impression that this was some way short of a shellacking.
Snodgrass opened the scoring with, to give him the benefit of the doubt, a cross-come-shot, which was cancelled out by Alfred Effiong’s header.
To watch the goal is to have the distinct impression that, for a few seconds at least, Effiong and his play-making compatriot Gareth Sciberras were the only two players on the pitch: the rest could easily have been training cones as Sciberras’s half-cleared header came back to him and, given time and space, he curled a delicious ball into the path of Effiong’s well-timed run.
Sciberras knows a thing or two about wounding Scots; he had recently knocked out Hearts with his club side Birkirkara in a preliminary round of the Europa League.
There’s a school of thought that the difference between players in the top and bottom tiers of football has more to do with fitness than ability – just look at Lincoln City and Sutton United’s recent run in the English FA Cup – so it should come as no shock that, when a midfielder is untracked and a forward is unmarked, they might just conjure something, no matter who it is they play for.
The half drew to a close, 1-1, despite a few close calls for the Maltese defence. Callum Paterson delivered from the right, but Snodgrass could only head at the keeper; Matt Ritchie repeated from the left, but Grant Hanley flashed his header wide.
Early in the second half, Chris Martin converted from another pinpoint Ritchie cross. Martin had a chance to score his second, and that’s when the referee came into play.
Barry Bannan exchanged passes with Ritchie in the middle of the park before playing Andrew Robertson in on the overlap. Robertson squared the ball for Martin who overstretched, lost his bearings, and fell to floor.
Curiously, the referee pointed to the spot. Martin sat on the turf and looked toward the assistant, doing everything short of saying ummmmm…? to look just as bewildered as the protesting defence. The referee flashed a red card, believing Jonathan Caruana had clipped the heels of the striker. Video technology would have to wait for another day.
Snodgrass stepped up to score, Scotland had a two-goal lead, and Malta were dead and buried.
Steven Fletcher added the fourth with a header from a deflected Ritchie cross, and Snodgrass completed his hattrick after Fletcher’s chip fell kindly to the winger via the bar. Malta finished the game with two red cards after Luke Gambin kicked out in frustration deep into added time.
The game was taken at face value given the officiating and the apparent gulf in quality between the two sides. Bannan’s performance in midfield came with the caveat that he had time and space aplenty in which to dictate the tempo. Most post-match comments revolved around being pleased for Snodgrass on his return from over a year out with injury, and there was excitement too for Paterson and especially Burke – fresh from his £13 million move to RB Leipzig and unhelpful comparisons with Gareth Bale – as they made their first competitive starts for Scotland.
There were also question marks over the defence. Huge, blinking question marks, surrounded by fluorescent arrows, hung in a neon frame.
Central defenders used to be Scotland’s most reliable asset. Alex McLeish, Richard Gough and Colin Hendry are a few of the stalwarts from the bygone days of tournament qualification.
Even 21st century iterations of the team had Stephen McManus, Christian Dailly and Gary Caldwell, each of them respectable, solid-enough performers, capable of heading a ball away.
Those days are past now, stretching back aeons, so distant are the memories of Scotland’s reliable, dark blue heart.
Current options range from those in their thirties who have failed to excel at The Highest Level, to raw (albeit promising) youngsters not entrusted to the rigours of international football. A defender in his prime is missing from the usual pool of players.
Grant Hanley should be that defender.
He started his professional career at Blackburn Rovers after captaining their under-18 side. At youth level, he developed alongside Phil Jones before both players made the step up to the first team. Jones sealed a move to Manchester United, Hanley became a mainstay in the team, and the utter madness of the Venky’s ownership dragged Blackburn down to the Championship.
Hanley formed a solid partnership with Scott Dann at the heart of the Rovers defence, and at the age of 22, he became Blackburn’s captain after Dann’s departure to Crystal Palace.
Two-and-a-half years later, in the summer of 2016, newly relegated Newcastle United signed Hanley for £5.5 million, ending a two hundred game tenure at Ewood Park.
After Hanley’s Blackburn career took off, inevitable comparisons were made with Colin Hendry. Hendry was the dictionary definition of a stalwart, blood-and-thunder defender: a captain for both Blackburn and Scotland that dragged his teams by the scruff of the neck through muddied pitches and glorious triumphs, not least Rovers’ 1995 Premiership title and Scotland’s qualification for the World Cup in 1998.
Hanley himself showed strong captaincy credentials, proving himself a leader at various youth levels for both club and country, long before inheriting the armband from Dann.
“[Hendry is] someone I’ve tried to model my performances on,” an 18-year-old Hanley said. “He was a Braveheart, wasn’t he? He liked his tackles and all the rest of it … Like him, I see myself as a no-nonsense defender. As a player, you need to know what your strengths are.”
So why has Hanley’s injury and subsequent withdrawal from the Scotland squad prompted jubilation among much of the Tartan Army?
Lithuania visited Hampden Park in October and dealt the first blow to Scotland’s qualification hopes. The match ended 1-1, James McArthur scoring in the 88th minute after Hanley flicked on Callum Paterson’s positively Icelandic long-throw.
Scotland were a month on from the result against Malta, and they set up to attack Lithuania in a way that played to the away team’s strengths: go wide, cross, hope for the best; go wide, cross, hope for the best.
A lack of faith from Gordon Strachan in his team’s ability to play through the middle meant that chances did arrive, but not with the regularity or the clarity that might have come from a more inventive style of play. Both the method and the timing of Scotland’s equaliser tells its own desperate story.
So, too, does the method of Lithuania’s opener.
Vykintas Slivka took the ball from the halfway line and evaded Ritchie’s press with a clever turn. He fed the ball to Egidijus Vaitkunas on the overlap, who found Fedor Cernych. Cernych knocked the ball back to the untracked Slivka and spun away from the touch-tight Hanley. Slivka duly returned the ball to Cernych, who had space enough in the box to fire his shot inside David Marshall’s near post.
There’s an argument to be made that the midfield should have done a better job in tracking Slivka. If they did, Cernych wouldn’t have found the Juventus-owned playmaker, and Cernych would have no use for the space behind Hanley. Instead, one lapse lead to another, and Lithuania took the lead.
Scotland learned no lessons during the game at either end of the pitch. They still played the ball wide by default and aimed for a misfiring target-man instead of trying their own brand of clever pass-and-go movement, the former method designed to put the Lithuanian defenders under pressure rather than trying to force an error by moving the ball around them.
Lithuania had two clear chances, the second coming from a long punt from the goalkeeper that was flicked on from the halfway line, which should have prompted Hanley to drop off. Instead, he stepped up, and when Arvydas Novikovas played a clever flicked backheel, Cernych found himself in space again, bearing down on goal.
Hanley was left sprinting towards his own penalty area, and while Paterson did well to come across and force Cernych into an early shot (which whistled off target), the chance came from the kind of simple, endemic mistake that’s come to symbolise both Hanley and Scotland as a whole.
The failings of the team continued three days later in Trnava, Scotland nervous at the back and toothless in attack. Slovakia won 3-0 and their own tin-pot defence was only put under pressure once Strachan introduced real speed when the game was already over.
The third goal could be attributed to Hanley, who failed to sufficiently track his man at a corner, but the first two were yet more combinations of repeated ball-watching and lax tracking from the midfield.
The trick was repeated exactly a month later at Wembley: Scotland conceding three headers by three unmarked players on the end of three types of crosses after Scotland spurned multiple chances to take the lead.
Whether or not Scotland are any more defensively suspect than Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia or England is a moot point, as is the question of whether or not Hanley buckles under the pressure of playing for his country and the knowledge that he’s a target for derision; the point is that if Strachan couldn’t make sure the team defended as a unit and scored at the other end, he should have taken Hanley out of the firing line long ago, both for his good and for the good of the team.
Look back at Hanley’s quotes about Colin Hendry. He embraced the comparison and used them as an inspiration. There’s a case to be made that he’s trying his best, so much so that he overcompensates for a lack of organised pressure in front of him, he gets dragged out of position to do the job of the midfield, and that the team has failed Hanley as much as he’s failed them.
A lack of incision in attack and incoherent tactics has only exacerbated Scotland’s problems at the back, all of which have been coached badly, even when the time constraints of international football are noted.
So what’s best, ahead of the games against Canada and Slovenia, with the squad Strachan has selected?
Ipswich Town’s Christophe Berra looks the most likely to step in in Hanley’s absence.
After a dip around the new year, Berra has regained his form and is having as solid a season as ever under Mick McCarthy, even if Ipswich themselves are struggling in the bottom half of the Championship.
He has been involved in 344 defensive duels this season, the highest in the league, averaging just under nine a game, which is also a league high, with a success rate of 37.5%, the fifth highest of all Championship defenders.
While the stats back up what’s already evident about Berra – he’s an exceptionally solid performer in a team that often loses the possession battle – how will that translate to Scotland if the same fundamental mistakes are repeated in front of and around him?
Maybe Berra would be less eager or panicked than Hanley and would be able to interpret immediate danger a little better, but it’s already clear that removing Hanley from the equation is not the magic bullet it would seem.
A bold manager with faith in his squad’s abilities might follow what’s vogue and deploy a 3-4-3. There have been calls for Gareth Southgate to follow that trend for England given Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur’s domestic form. After all, Gary Cahill, Eric Dier, Kyle Walker, and the injured Danny Rose would retain their club positions in such a system, and it’s not hard to imagine John Stones being utilised as England’s answer to David Luiz.
A quick look at the players available to Strachan concludes that such a template might not be so outlandish.
For starters, Andrew Robertson plays in a similar system under Marco Silva at Hull City, so he’d be accustomed to playing as a left wingback.
The lack of any ‘natural’ right backs called up by Strachan following Callum Paterson’s long-term knee injury in January has raised a few eyebrows, so it seems he’ll probably deploy Ikechi Anya or Russell Martin in that position if deploying a standard back four, but Anya’s versatility, stamina, workrate and pace are well-suited to playing the right wingback role.
Charlie Mulgrew is a Strachan favourite going back to their time together at Celtic. Mulgrew joined Blackburn in the summer and has been mostly used at left fullback – a position Scotland have strength in depth – but, like Anya, his versatility makes him a useful addition to the squad, able to play as a fullback, centre back or central midfielder.
It’s not ridiculous to suggest he could play on the left or in the centre of a three-man defence and use his passing ability to spray the ball out wide, even if the completion rate of his forward passes in the league sits at a surprisingly low 58.5%, perhaps indicative of being asked to play more risky passes.
Mulgrew’s defensive stats in the Championship compared to his central defensive compatriots are skewed due to playing as a left back, but he still intercepts a shade under seven passes a game, the third highest of any fullback in the league.
Russell Martin has been a consistent pick for Scotland in recent qualifiers. A converted right back, he captains Norwich City from the centre, and his interception rate is similar to Berra’s.
His positional history suggests being adept at playing on the right of a three and being comfortable defending from a wider position than usual. He makes the fourth most forward passes of any Championship centre back with a 70.8% success rate which, like himself, is about average.
Of course, Ipswich, Blackburn and Norwich are not Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur. They’re not even Hull City. Scott Brown is not N’Golo Kante, and Jordan Rhodes is not Diego Costa. They are, quite literally, not in the same league, which could more figuratively be said for Strachan and Southgate if they try to take their lead from Antonio Conte. But something must be done if Scotland are to arrest their usual failures, otherwise they risk another wasted campaign of doing the same thing with the same players in the same ineffectual way.
The clock is ticking for Strachan to make something work.
If you were wondering, even if Hanley were fit and available, he’d only made six league appearances for Newcastle all season by time the latest squad was announced.
From those appearances, he has the second highest forward pass completion rate of any defender in the Championship at an impressive 84.7%.
Make of that what you will.
By Grant Jendo
All stats provided and collated by Stewart Brown, and correct at time of writing.