Scotland’s 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Friday night was hardly an inspiring start to life as Scotland manager for Alex McLeish. And for the most part it was a result that he and his side could have avoided.
Against the backdrop of boos and a collective sigh from the once-optimistic Tartan Army, McLeish’s team spent a large chunk of the game playing far too defensively and, in many ways, offering Oscar Ramírez’s side far too much respect.
This was most notable in defence. Much of the build-up to the game revolved around the young central defenders McLeish had called up to his squad. But the former Rangers and Birmingham City manager opted for 32-year-old Charlie Mulgrew as his captain at the heart of defence, alongside Grant Hanley – a player who has long since been the bane of many Scotland fans’ sporting life – and in front of the tried-and-somewhat-failed expertise of 36-year-old Allan McGregor.
After opting for a back three, with Aberdeen’s young, physical Scott McKenna, there was still reason to be hopeful ahead of the match. Yet, after the initial whistle it became clear that McLeish’s side started the game playing far too deep – a feature that proved to be the fundamental fault in Costa Rica’s goal in the 14th minute.
Although Callum Patterson could have done better to thwart the initial cut-back from left-back Bryan Oviedo, it was the unmarked Marcos Ureña who underlined the failed marking in Scotland’s box. Replays showed Mulgrew watching Ureña’s late run and then failing to act upon it because he was five yards deeper than he and his back line probably ought to have been.
This was largely down to the fact that Mulgrew and Hanley are hardly the quickest of players. The latter never has been quick and if the former ever had pace it has certainly deserted him in his golden years. However, there’s a pretty simple solution to this problem for McLeish ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Hungary: play a younger defender.
Within his squad the Scotland manager can call upon the talents of Jack Hendry to replace either of the aforementioned troubled central defenders. The recently acquired Celtic defender has slotted in quite well in Brendan Rodgers’ side, and not only offers a degree of defensive fortitude that can surely match that of Hanley or Mulgrew but is also far quicker and would, crucially, allow Scotland to move their back line up the park by 20 yards.
This reluctance to offer anything resembling offensive tactics also thwarted Scotland’s best intentions in the middle of the park. Although the inclusion of Manchester United youngster Scott McTominay was applauded as a forward step, slotting him in alongside Fulham defensive midfielder Kevin McDonald seemed a little cynical for what was a friendly that Scotland should have dominated from the very first whistle.
Despite the best efforts of Tom Cairney and Matt Ritchie, the first half of Friday’s match was dogged by Scotland’s complete ambivalence to attacking football in the middle of the park. Sure, they could hold on to the ball with little trouble but, in McDonald and McTominay as a midfield duo, McLeish’s team seemed to have accidentally erected their own barrier to goal.
This was later illustrated by the significant difference made by the introduction of Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor 15 minutes into the second half.
Armstrong, who came on for McTominay, quickly reverted back to his usual game at Celtic by darting, dribbling and wandering across the pitch in search of spaces behind Costa Rica’s backline, while McGregor did what he does best: play perfectly waited through-balls to on-running midfielders and strikers.
And to a certain extent it worked. Although Scotland never got their equalising goal, they did improve on the first half’s solitary shot on target and three total attempts with a further two on target and eight in total, as well as a swing in possession, from 43-57 per cent in favour of Costa Rica to 59-41 per cent to the home side.
John McGinn’s introduction just eight minutes from time was far too short-lived, but he too offered an impetus and drive that had been lacking throughout much of the match. If McLeish hopes to make a quick departure from the tepid, cynical performance on show in Friday’s match, he’d do well to start the Hibernian youngster alongside Celtic’s own midfield duo.
One area of the pitch that McLeish probably got spot on was the inclusion of Barnsley goalscorer Oliver McBurnie. The young striker, on loan at Oakwell from Swansea City, did all he could as a mobile target man in the first half, but notably came to life when Scotland changed tactics and began to support him further up the field.
Although McLeish will most likely be looking to keep the No.9 position free for Leigh Griffiths, McBurnie’s physicality in the air and ability to header, dribble and score as well as any other Scotland forward makes him a perfect asset for the new manager – just as long as he opts for slightly more attacking tactics on Tuesday night.