Ten members picked for this month’s Scotland squad for a UEFA Nations League match against Israel and friendly against Portugal play their club football in England. A look at how they’ve played so far this season will help explain how they can help Scotland build on last month’s 2-0 victory against Albania and ease the pathway towards qualifying for the nation’s first international tournament in over twenty years.
Scotland last played in a European Championships in 1996, when the competition was hosted by England, and it has been a similar length of time since they participated in a World Cup. The 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign resulted in a third placed finish behind England and Slovakia with Scotland conceding half of their goals from headers. Then manager Gordon Strachan, somewhat comically, bemoaned the nation’s genetic failings in terms of height. The real issues were an inability to limit balls into the box to begin with, immobile midfielders failing to track runs, poor ball retention particularly out of defence and most significantly a lack of chance creation on Scotland’s part. In fact, if we exclude dead last Malta, Scotland only scored ten goals in eight matches and they really struggled to break teams down. Almost half of their goals came in the last quarter of the 90 minutes. Can this group of tartan transplants improve on that?
Andy Robertson was named as Scotland captain last month and is a certain starter on the left. Manager Alex McLeish is likely to continue with a system of three central defenders and wing backs on the flanks. Whether this is the ideal system for Robertson, or in fact Scotland, is debatable but it does mean Kieran Tierney can also be included with the young Celtic star moved infield from his club position of left back to a left sided center back role. A moment of silence for Barry Douglas who, despite his tally of fourteen assists in the English Championship last season, was jettisoned by Wolves upon their promotion to the Premier League and also can’t get a look in at international level due to Scotland’s best two players both being left backs. If it’s any comfort for Douglas his replacement at Wolves, Jonny, is keeping Jordi Alba out of the Spain squad so he’s in pretty good company. Robertson has the fourth most caps in the squad and, highlighting the team’s difficulties in front of goal, is also the fourth highest scorer among the players with just two goals.
(Editor’s Note–All stats current as of October 5th)
Despite a tough loss away to Napoli last week and a hard fought draw at Anfield against top of the table rivals, Manchester City over the weekend, City have made an incredibly good start to the season. Undefeated in the Premier League, joint top with the joint fewest goals conceded. The underlying defensive numbers are great too with Liverpool allowing the second fewest shots and the second lowest expected goals against per match. Liverpool are among the best in the league at limiting the amount of ‘clear shots’ from open play where only their goalkeeper is between the shooter and the goal. Robertson is a key part of the process which leads to this; he makes almost four interceptions and tackles every game which ranks behind only James Milner for the club and he is behind only Milner and Naby Keita for the amount of blocks he makes per shot faced. While having Virgil van Dijk operating as the left sided center back is clearly a major factor, Robertson’s scurrying, relentless nature certainly seems to help limit the amount of quality attempts on goal Liverpool face from his side of the pitch.
In addition to his defensive duties, Robertson will be expected to be an outlet in possession and a creator of chances for Scotland. In more than half of Liverpool’s matches this season Robertson has been at least their third most involved player, in terms of touches of the ball, and he makes 1.75 open play key passes every 90 minutes and assists 0.26 xG from open play every 90 minutes which is second only to facilitator-in-chief Roberto Firmino within the team. He’s currently one of the best all-around fullbacks in world football and he has a huge role to play for Scotland.
After three successful seasons at Hibernian, John McGinn seems to have transplanted his all action style well to the English Championship at Aston Villa. Despite a disappointing start to the season for the club which has led to heads rolling; both of cabbages on to the pitch and managerial ones on the block, McGinn is still weaponizing his behind as a means to shield the ball and shake off opponents. He’s harassing opposition all over the field, forcing mistakes and winning the ball back. Given their slow start to the season Celtic might just be regretting the slow negotiations with Hibs that led to McGinn, who turns 24 during this international break, heading to the West Midlands despite his family connection to the club. His grandfather Jack McGinn was chairman of the Glasgow side.
Despite being culpable for the opening goal in last month’s friendly loss to Belgium, McGinn is a likely starter for Scotland in the match against Israel and hopefully he can carry his club form onto the international stage in his twelfth cap. He is among the league leaders in terms of helping his team win the ball, with over four pressure regains per 90 minutes and leads Villa in terms of interceptions and tackles combined with 3.57 every 90 minutes. McGinn must be wary of being drawn out of position as he hunts down the ball, particularly if Scotland pair him in midfield with a less defensively minded partner like Stuart Armstrong. He should also perhaps ease up on the hopeful efforts fro distance. His recent wonder strike, an incredible volley that swerved and crashed in via the bar, for Villa against Sheffield Wednesday was not his first attempt from long range. McGinn has taken 19 shots for his club with an average xG per shot of 0.05 so his return of one goal, that wonder strike, is almost right in line with expectation and he could be accused of being a bit wasteful which Scotland, given their attacking difficulties, cannot afford to be.
Bournemouth have made a strong start to the season, defying expectations to sit seventh in the league after seven matches. They’ve changed their approach and now move the ball quicker from back to front, take among the most high press shots, attempts resulting from possession won within five seconds of a defensive action in the opponent’s half, in the division, and generate high xG shots. Ryan Fraser, a 2013 signing for £400,000 from Aberdeen, is a key part of this system. After having some dietary struggles, Eddie Howe initially weaned the youngster off pizza and ice cream before his form took a dip in 2017 which was attributed in part to struggling for energy on a no carbohydrate plan, the diminutive Scot appears to have found his fighting weight.
He is making 2.5 pressure regains every 90 minutes for the Cherries and makes the most open play Key Passes in the team which is leading to an excellent 0.24 xG assisted per 90 minutes. Against Belgium he played as a right wing back and, while he is versatile and has helped to contribute to Bournemouth’s decline in xG conceded since the tail end of last season, Stephen O’Donnell seems likely to start in that position and Fraser may be better used higher up the pitch by Scotland as the left sided attacker in a 3-4-2-1 ahead and slightly inside of Robertson. In a more advanced role he can use the skills he has developed at Bournemouth to help win the ball back quickly and create high quality chances for Scotland.
Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith are set to duke it out for the starting center forward position but, waiting in the wings, is Oli McBurnie. Given Naismith’s age and Griffiths’ tendency to pick up injuries it seems likely that the twenty-two year old will get the opportunity to add to his three Scotland caps soon. Despite McBurnie’s height, accentuated by his short socked leggy style, Scotland should not really expect him to operate as a target man or penalty box goalscorer – they might need to wait for Everton’s Fraser Hornby to graduate from the under 21s for that.
A Swansea player since the summer of 2015, McBurnie made a bit of a breakthrough on loan to Barnsley in the English Championship during the second half of the 2017/18 season. While at Barnsley, he tended to operate as the left sided forward in a 4-3-3 and he still does most of his defensive work in that area of the pitch, leading the Swans in aggressive actions per 90 minutes. The immediate red flag on those radars is of course the low number of shots he is taking. Despite sitting tenth in a twenty-four team league Swansea take the fewest shots in the division and McBurnie is taking less than 1.5 every 90 minutes. Given that his output at Barnsley was so similar, except for an interchange between dribbles and headers probably affected by position played, it seems likely this is a reliable indicator of what to expect from McBurnie throughout his career and unless he moves the needle significantly on his shot volume Scotland should view him more as a link up man, capable presser and facilitator of others. All valuable qualities, of course, but basic stats like the number of goals he has scored in minutes played may set false expectations for Scotland fans.
Robert Snodgrass is back in the squad after missing the September fixtures. While he did score seven goals and contribute fourteen assists on loan at Aston Villa in the English Championship in 2017/18 he has not started a match since the first day of September for West Ham. New signing Andriy Yarmolenko seems certain to keep Snodgrass from enjoying regular minutes as the right sided attacker and the Scot may not even be the deputy given competition from the likes of Michail Antonio. In Snodgrass’ favor is the fact that he makes the second most presses of opponents per 90 minutes for the Hammers but at just 0.87 open play Key Passes per 90 minutes he is not contributing enough offensively. With seven international goals he is the second top scorer in Scotland’s squad and indeed six of those were in competitive matches but a major caveat is that three of those were against Malta.
There’s a hole in Scotland’s defensive midfield due to the international retirement of Scott Brown. McGinn can, to an extent, pick up the slack in terms of ball winning but in terms of replacing the physical presence and high level footballing nous at the 6 position, the options are limited. Kevin McDonald of Fulham and Scott McTominay of Manchester United appear to be the options under consideration. While McTominay has the greater physical presence he has played limited minutes this season and in fact there could be concerns over his development and mental state given Jose Mourinho has chosen, in the apparent death throes of his third season at Manchester United, to deploy him at center back and shower him with confusing praise in high contrast to how he has tended to speak about his other players. McDonald has played the seventh most league minutes of any Fulham player so far this season but it hasn’t really gone well. Fulham are in 17th position, are allowing the opposition the second most shots per match and have the worst xG difference in the league.
Perhaps not the start envisaged for them given the summer transfer market moves they made and it could be that McDonald is one of the remaining old guard who will be phased out in the very near future. Judging by how he played for Marseille last season Andre Zambo Anguissa can do all McDonald does and then some (although against Arsenal this weekend it was Anguissa who struggled mightily as Fulham conceded a miserable five times).
Conversely, over at Southampton, Stuart Armstrong is a new signing who can’t get in the team ahead of Mario Lemina and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The lusciously haired Scot isn’t really suited to playing in a double pivot so may continue to find club minutes hard to come by but does offer the ball progression and creativity from midfield that Scotland, and indeed former club Celtic, currently lack.
Clearly there are some concerns over the playing time the latter quartet are getting. There could be some valid regrets over the fact that Tom Cairney appears disinclined to accept future call ups and that Matt Phillips, despite recording the second most open play Key Passes every 90 minutes for a West Bromwich Albion side sitting atop the English Championship has been overlooked in favor of Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell, overall this is a fine Scotland squad. <any of the selections from the English leagues are developing at a very high level. Robertson and McGinn are key players, Fraser deserves a greater opportunity to show what he can do for Scotland and McBurnie adds excellent depth upfront. Together they can help Scotland win their UEFA Nations League group and take a step closer to qualifying for an international tournament for the first time in over two decades.