Fearless and Focussed – Strachan’s Scots Go Down Fighting in Dortmund

Fearless and Focussed – Strachan’s Scots Go Down Fighting in Dortmund

A closer look at how Scotland fared against the World Champions

By Johnny Connelly

As Thomas Muller’s looping header sailed over the head of David Marshall and nestled into the back of the net after just 18 minutes at the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, The Tartan Army could have been forgiven for thinking a hiding was about to ensue.

What happened next was truly remarkable. A wounded Scotland side were galvanised. Facing a German World Cup-winning side who steamrollered past everything in their path in Brazil, the Scots matched their opponents, and delivered a performance that made Joachim Lowe’s side work much harder than they’d ever have anticipated. A stunning equaliser from Ikechi Anya set the cat among the pigeons, and at one point Scotland even looked as though they’d go on to win the match. The pressure finally told, with 20 minutes left on the clock, as golden boot winner Thomas Muller bundles home the winner.

There’s no disputing that collectively, the Scotland team’s effort was herculean; but where in particular did Strachan’s men shine? Where could they improve? And where were they simply not good enough? – Hitthebyline takes a closer look…

The Goalkeeper

David Marshall at full stretch, as Muller opens the scoring
David Marshall at full stretch, as Muller opens the scoring

 

With the likes of Allan McGregor, Matt Gilks, and Craig Gordon breathing down his neck, David Marshall should draw confidence from the fact that Gordon Strachan has once again handed him the no.1 jersey. Sadly for Scotland, this confidence seems in short supply. Marshall has come a long way since he was given a baptism of fire, being thrown on at half time as a young boy for Celtic against Barcelona. He’s cut his teeth for many years in the English Championship, and won many plaudits as he kept Cardiff in with a fighting chance of staving off relegation from the English Premiership last year. Despite coming such a long way, Marshall still shows a worrying lack of confidence and fails to command his area adequately.

He was always going to have a busy night against the world champions, but he did himself no favours after being beaten by a looping header early on that caught him flat-footed. A string of world-class saves followed from Marshall, in the first half, and the second. As much as this undoubtedly redeemed his early mistake, it must frustrate the manager, knowing that his goalkeeper is so close to having the whole package.

Marshall rarely looked troubled by anything the Germans had to throw at him in terms of shot stopping, and could do little to prevent their 2nd goal. However, the former Celtic ‘keeper looked shaky from cross balls, and seemed to be happiest when his defence were organising themselves, rather than when he was forced to reprimand them at any time.

Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10: Football is a cruel game. Marshall made one mistake against the world champions, but was made to pay for it. A lesser goalkeeper would have conceded 3 or 4 on the night. The only person Marshall needs to convince that he’s a world class goalkeeper is himself.
If Marshall can convince himself he’s a world class goalkeeper, he’ll be an asset to this campaign. If not, then someone else will receive the no.1 jersey, sooner rather than later.

The Defence

All Hans on deck - Grant Hanley had his work cut out for him against Germany
All Hans on deck – Grant Hanley had his work cut out for him against Germany

 

Attacking line-ups don’t come any more formidable than that of Germany. André Schürrle, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Müller tormented the Scots back 4. Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Grant Hanley and Steven Whittaker faced the most formidable of opponents, but in most respects, did as well as could be expected. Collectively, they fought hard, held shape, kept their cool, and threw themselves infront of shots and crosses from the first whistle until the last.

Strachan clearly values pace in his side, particularly on the flanks. This is probably why we’ve seen so much of Alan Hutton, and on Sunday night’s form, he looks like the correct choice. Never a player with a great deal of finesse, but Hutton’s ability to get from box to box at pace is invaluable to the team. He rarely looked out of place from start to finish.

Martin and Whittaker did well, without doing anything spectacular. A disciplined performance will be what was asked of them, and very few people would argue that they didn’t deliver that. Grant Hanley seems to be a player that divides the Tartan Army. For the most part, a hard-working, no-nonsense defender, but at times his lapses in concentration seem to lead him into trouble. Hanley’s tendency to give away needless fouls or be caught out of position has costed Scotland in the past, and continued to cause problems against Germany.

Hitthebyline Rating – 7/10: The central defensive partnership for Scotland has been a pain point for many years, and it doesn’t quite look as though it’s been cracked just yet. Strachan has his side well-drilled, but if there’s one area of the field the side could do with strengthening, it’s in the centre of defence.In terms of the performance against the Germans, there’s not much to complain about. The work rate was correct throughout, and the discipline was good for the most part.

 

The Midfield

Anya slots past Neuer
Anya slots past Neuer

 

If Scotland were going to contest the game well against Germany, a strong midfield performance was required. This was delivered overall, but the diversity in performance standard was more apparent in midfield, than in any other area of the park. Ikechi Anya, James Morrison, Charlie Mulgrew, Darren Fletcher, and Barry Bannan lined up in an unusual midfield 5.

It hasn’t taken Ikechi Anya long to establish himself as a firm fans favourite. With only a handful of caps to his name, he’s already bagged a few goals, and never fails to get the fans up off their seats. In that respect, It was business as usual for Anya against Germany. The Watford wing-back was the standout Scot on the field. He covered every blade of grass for the full 90 minutes; battling hard against the German attackers, passing & moving well, skipping past German defenders, and running more than half the length of the park to slot home a well-earned equaliser. Anya’s passion, skill, energy and pace are unparalleled in the Scotland squad. Whether Scotland qualify for Euro 2016 or not could be in no small part, down to the form of Ikechi Anya.

James Morrison spent much of the game chasing shadows. He is unquestionably a dogged, hard-working midfielder, but looked a little over-awed by the occasion at times. Instances of slack-passing and poor decision making were peppered throughout his performance, but Morrison remained resolute, and continued to work hard.

Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew looked out of sorts from the first whistle to the last. I’m not sure what’s happened to the experienced dead-ball specialist over the summer, but for whatever reason, the player’s form has dropped drastically. Mulgrew looked sluggish, and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. His distribution wasn’t up to its usual standard, and moments of frustration crept in, which ultimately led to a yellow, then red card. Not a good night for Charlie.

The return of a natural leader like Fletcher buoyed the support, and this definitely had an effect on the team. The Manchester United man looked a cut above the rest. He was composed, fearless in the challenge, and sprayed passes around with ease. Fitness still seems to be an issue for Fletcher, as he was subbed off for James McArthur in the second half, but the fans will have seen enough to unanimously agree that Fletcher will be one of the first names on the team sheet for the foreseeable future.

Busy doing nothing would be a fair summary of Barry Bannan’s evening. Always running? Yes, but never any end product. Bannan has unquestionable talent, but for some reason, the Scotland fans have yet to see the best of it. At just 24, there is hope that he’ll mature into a big game player for his country, but if his first 18 caps are anything to go by, this maturity could be some way off. The Crystal Palace midfielder succeeded in making a nuisance of himself against the Germans. An abundance of pace serves him well, but a tendency to be caught in two minds seems to crop up more often than Gordon Strachan would like. Another so-so performance by Bannan saw him hooked for Wigan’s Shaun Maloney. Strachan does seem to have faith in the player, but there will come a time when he’ll look for this faith to be repaid.

Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10: Stunning performances from Anya and Fletcher were juxtaposed with Mulgrew’s miserable showing. Bannan and Morrison had decent enough games, but could have done so much more. Scotland have plenty options in midfield, with McArthur and Maloney pushing for a starting place, as well as the likes of Scott Brown and James Forrest on the road to recovery.The players Strachan has at his disposal in this area of the field have experience at the very highest level, and could be hugely significant for the Euro 2016 campaign.

 

The Forwards

On the run - Naismith chases a wayward pass
On the run – Naismith chases a wayward pass

…or, forward, as the case was against Germany. Everton’s white-hot Steven Naismith had the unenviable task of being the lone striker against a usually water-tight Germany defence. The ex-Kilmarnock and Rangers frontman didn’t disappoint. Naismith has slotted in seamlessly to replace the tireless runner that was Kenny Miller. His work ethic was exactly what was required to cause problems against Germany, and the striker was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet in the second half after snatching at a few chances. Naismith has developed well over the past few seasons, and with a little more exposure in the English Premier League, should continue to improve. Strachan made the decision to switch Naismith for another English Premier League-based Scot, in Steven Fletcher. Fletcher lived up to his exorbitant price tag, making an immediate impact to slot a beautifully weighted pass through to Anya for the equaliser. Fletcher’s physical edge boosted Scotland’s attacking options. The big striker fought hard in the air, and held the ball up well for supporting midfielders, but could do little to reverse the fate of Strachan’s men on the night.


Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10:
Both Naismith and Fletcher were terrific. They battled hard against superior opposition, and were unlucky to come away on the losing side. With Naismith’s terrier like pressing of the ball, and Fletcher’s physical, yet intelligent play being at the disposal of Scotland, the real shame was that both players didn’t get the chance to play together against the Germans.  Scotland have very little else to call upon in the striking department beyond these two players but their commitment and ability will serve their country well on the quest towards Euro 2016 qualification, and beyond.

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Why Fletcher’s misfortune could be a wake-up call for Scottish football

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Unfortunate – Scotland Captain Darren Fletcher

By David Andrews

Are there greater powers at work in Scottish football? The recent news that Scotland’s talisman and model professional Darren Fletcher has been struck down with a serious stomach bug, forcing him to take some time out of the game, has come at a time when Scotland has already been brought to its knees and is now lying spread-eagle face down on the ground, wondering where it all went wrong.

It would seem that the powers that be in that great boardroom in the sky have it in for this founding nation of the “beautiful game”. From fines to unpaid tax bills and wages and bullets to corrupt disciplinary procedures, the visible signs of a downward trend are obvious. Ex-politicians have been brought in to advise, wicket keepers appointed to keep the peace, all to no avail. Now it seems even our captain is the target of some misfortune from on high.

But who can blame the footballing gods for striking us down? If football was a religion and not just a direct substitution for one, as some would have us believe, there would be an inquisition and not just another investigation or review. A group of Europeans from Zürich would have landed on our shores, dressed in black robes with the FIFA logos emblazoned on their galeros, marching on all the shrines of football. Promptly they would round up the key instigators within the established rungs of Scottish football and subject them to all manner of interrogation before replacing them with their own cronies. After successive torture methods and years of imprisonment, the inquisitors would gather the followers of football together and proclaim “you are all guilty”. The criminals responsible for perpetrating all of the vile acts against Scottish football in recent times are the collective institution itself.

It is clear to see from the issues, controversy and debacle after debacle that all of Scottish football’s problems are self-inflicted. All stakeholders in the Scottish game have a joint responsibly to a greater or lesser degree. The alleged corruption within refereeing was a product of a flawed disciplinary procedure and complacent practices from an old guard of referees and an association unwilling to update its practices. The Rangers vs. Inland Revenue bout stemmed from mismanagement and a belief that Rangers Football Club was an untouchable icon of Scottish society. The actions of a mindless few, who tarnished the game throughout the 2010/11 season, were also a product of the society in which we live, operating at the extreme end of a sliding scale from 90-minute bigotry to serious offences that go far beyond rivalry and banter.

In more general terms, the falling attendances and revenues have long been an indicator of an overpriced and unsound product. Countless people speak about how the Old Firm can “charge whatever they like” for a derby ticket. However, surely the converse is true? Supply and demand? Scottish football is currently damaged goods and requires some significant price restructuring to encourage interest. Perhaps there should be a sign outside all stadiums: “broken, in need of repair –entrance half price”.

The SFA seem to be powerless to deal with issues in the game and have been overlooked by UEFA in imposing fines on both sides of the Old Firm. These teams play in a league governed by the SFA and should be disciplined for breaches in its code of conduct by the SFA. Instead, the SFA ignore it and UEFA have to intervene, undermining the strength and independence of Scottish football and its governing association.

Within the national team there have been several key events. Former captain Barry Ferguson and current favoured goalkeeper Alan McGregor both disgraced themselves with an all-night drinking session at the Cameron House Hotel and subsequently did themselves no favours by reacting and gesturing to the media and, by proxy, the fans. Aiden McGeady was also snatched from beneath the nose of the Scotland youth system.

Almost all up and coming Scotland players seem to be destined to veer off of the straight and narrow at some point in their careers. McFadden, O’Conner, Riordan and now Bannan – at what point will young players realise that the reason they are no longer reaching the height of previous Scots is that there are players out there who will outstrip them on every level both personally and professionally. They will train harder, get up earlier, study more, sacrifice more, drink less, cause less trouble and keep constraints on their ego. The players currently waiting in the wings have to realise that this is the “modern game” and success is rewarded only after large amounts of sacrifice.

As an all-round product, a day out at the football should inspire us and coax us out of our comfortable living rooms into a passionate theatre of entertainment. The Scottish game has much to offer, but is sadly marred in so many areas that no single change or revamp would yield any significant outcome.

The ‘unlucky’ footballing nation of European and indeed International football tag is an unenviable one to bequeath Scotland. From numerous national teams throughout the years being glorious failures in qualifying and at major finals, to Celtic’s hard-fought but ultimately worthless point away to Udinese last night, a common theme is apparent. Perhaps it could be suggested that the rectification of the aforementioned root-cause problems of Scottish football could potentially alleviate the ‘unlucky’ tag in years to come.

The only way forward is for the individuals who have watched over Scottish football as it staggered towards its current lowly state to take account of their actions, stand up and move aside for transition to a more modern and fresh thinking approach.

The loss of Darren Fletcher does not affect the Scottish the domestic game; it is just another injury to add to insult on the downturn of Scottish football. It is not only a loss for a match squad; it is a loss for the game. Darren Fletcher is a model professional and a teetotaller for a start. He’s a player who young footballers should be inspired by and someone who, if all else fails, Scotland can look to for confidence that one day we will become a strong footballing nation again.

We can but hope, on a personal and sporting level, that Darren makes a speedy recovery to regain his position as a leading light in Scottish football at a time of such unmitigated darkness.