“Walk or behave in a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way: “he swaggered along the corridor”.
It’s been a long time since Scotland displayed any confidence or arrogance in their play yet there were fleeting moments of such quality last night. Brief glimpses that under Gordon Strachan there is belief in both the system and the players themselves.
Scotland claimed one piece of unwelcome history during the course of this qualifying campaign – they lost more than four games during the qualification process for the first time. However, in defeating Croatia last night, they avoided the further ignominy of failing to record a home victory in a qualifying campaign for the first time since 1954; when they only played two home games and still qualified for the World Cup.
This was a game that showed the continuing tactical development of Scotland under Strachan.
There were the customary enforced changes for the Scotland manager: with Alan McGregor available again, he replaced David Marshall in goal; Steven Whittaker and Shaun Maloney were both absent, forcing the redeployment of Mulgrew at left back away from a defensive midfield position, whilst Snodgrass took up the attacking midfield position; James Morrison dropped to a deeper midfield position.
Scotland lined up as a 4-4-2
Igor Stimac refrained from making any alterations to his line up, with six Croatian players all on a yellow card and close to a one game suspension, that would force them out of the first leg of the play-off game.
Although they had nothing at stake, Croatia will now move into the play off’s on the back of successive defeats. This will hardly boost confidence amongst the squad, nor will coach Stimac offering his resignation following the game.
Croatia settled quicker and enjoyed the bulk of the possession in the opening stages with Scotland struggling to get out of their own half and sitting far too deep. The shape of Croatia was revealing with both full backs pushing very high. The pre match talk from Stimac of this being a “training” game already seemed like bluster. Modric had space in a deep position to build play with the pairing of Brown and Morrison too open and deep to influence the game. Scotland were struggling to win and retain possession.
Much of the play was coming down the Croatia right where Vida was supporting Srna, forcing Anya backwards. Allied to this was Croatia pressing Scotland very well.
After around 15minutes, Snodgrass began dropping deeper to support the midfield and allow Scotland to see more possession. This coincided with Strachan urging his team to push higher up the pitch and press Croatia. As a result, Croatia made errors when passing the ball, one of which led to the opening goal.
Srna, under pressure from Brown and Mulgrew, conceded possession cheaply on the halfway line. Naismith moved down the left and supplied the overlapping Mulgrew, who stood the cross up perfectly for Snodgrass to attack at the back post. The goal was a combination of the tenacity Scotland showed out of possession whilst attacking swiftly in possession. A few minutes later, Snodgrass and Brown created an opening for the Norwich City player, but Pletikosa made a fine save.
Scotland had gradually improved as the half progressed, creating the better opportunities and deservedly leading at half time.
The opening moments of the second half echoed the first with Croatia dominant in possession but failing to carve out any real opportunities that seriously threatened McGregor in goal. Croatia were attacking more down their left now, rectifying the imbalance of the first half.
Surprisingly, Scotland were seemingly content to open up and attack Croatia with the game being relatively open for a 15-minute spell. The problem for Scotland is in such periods, the individual components of the unit are exposed. Collectively, Scotland can conceal their weaknesses but individually the cracks appear. The young central defensive pairing of Martin and Hanley remains a partnership with potential, but one that needs support from the central midfield to pressure the opponent and fill in the spaces. Without such support, there will always be moments such as Eduardo running onto a through ball in the 64th minute. The striker took the ball too wide when evading McGregor, and the chance was lost.
Croatia began to control more possession again but still failed to really exert any pressure. Modric remained deep, unable to influence proceedings whilst Mandzukic, admittedly with little service, offered nothing in attack. As the away side threatened to make the final 20 minutes of the game more nervy, Scotland won a penalty when Vida tripped Anya. Although Pletikosa saved Bannan’s initial effort, Naismith scored the rebound.
Croatia huffed but had few genuine opportunities and Scotland remained relatively untroubled with McGregor only called into action to save a Jelavic header.
It’s been six games under Strachan with three wins and three defeats. The home loss to Wales in his opening game still rankles given the poverty of the display but since that time there have been clear steps forward in both the understanding of the system and the mentality of the players. The team are organised and move as a unit. Players know their respective roles and what is required from them. A rather basic requirement, yet one which seemed to have been forgotten for a while. The team move up and down the pitch as a unit to avoid getting stretched with players quick to recover their positions.
The discovery of Anya on the left has offered a genuine attacking threat with pace and width counterbalanced by Bannan on the right of midfield who naturally tucks into a more central position moving onto his favoured left foot. This enables Hutton to move into space on the overlap from right back.
This was seen in the 20th minute when Bannan cut inside to support the midfield, took possession and released the overlapping Hutton. The resulting cross from the full back was too deep but it’s an area Scotland have used before and will again in the future. The athleticism of Hutton is his key attribute and helps conceal his defensive fragility.
Although Strachan has highlighted his preference for a lone striker system, the use of Snodgrass and Naismith shows his flexibility and an acknowledgement of the need to open up and be more attack-minded against certain teams as and when required.
The most noticeable aspect last night was the alteration in tempo. Strachan has always favoured a slow patient build up in your own half before increasing the tempo as you approach the opposition’s penalty area. Passes become quicker, movement is sharper as you seek to open up an opponent. The shift in pace can catch an oppnent unaware which occured last night. The lack of awareness showed by Croatia at times was odd with Scotland quickly increasing the intensity of their play. Last night, Snodgrass was central to this with his movement around the penalty area. A campaign which saw him concede a penalty and get sent-off against Wales ended with a fine performance and a goal.
The Next Campaign
Scotland will remain in the 4th pot of seeds when the draw is made for the European Championships and, as such, qualification even in the extended format will be difficult. Strachan has overseen three victories in six group games. There is the inevitable “what if” following the shambolic opening to the group under Levein.
Remembering the structure and organisation in the defensive phase that helped gather victories in Croatia and Macedonia, Scotland showed a willingness to attack and open up an opposition defence.
The side are improving under Strachan and even managed to play with a degree of swagger last night. There are grounds for cautious optimism now.