After 23 years of heartache, the Scotland men’s national team have, finally, once again qualified for a major international tournament, securing the last place in Group D at the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 Championships, where they will face the Czech Republic, 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia, and England.
This historic night saw Scotland overcome a Serbia side, who despite only winning one of their last six matches, is littered with talented players, with UEFA Champions League experience, from top European teams such as Sergej Milinković-Savić of Lazio, Ajax’s Dušan Tadić and Real Madrid’s Luka Jović.
However, Steve Clarke’s men were high on confidence having not lost a match since October 2019, where they lost 4-0 away to Russia, but since then they have won seven out of eight matches, conceding only four times in the process.
This tactical analysis will explore the ways in which Scotland were able to nullify Serbia’s threats throughout the game, as well as analysing the tactics of both sides and how these played out throughout the 120 minutes. The report will also provide an analysis of how Serbia, despite their star-studded attack, were unable to break down Scotland’s inexperienced back three for much of the game.
The hosts, as predicted, set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation and started with Stade de Reims’ Pedrag Rajković in goal. Former Manchester City Aleksandar Kolarov was only fit enough to start on the bench which meant that Sevilla’s Nemanja Gudelj started on the left of a back three, which also consisted of Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenković on the right and RC Strasbourg’s Stefan Mitrović in the centre.
Additionally, Hellas Verona’s Darko Lazović and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Filip Kostić started in the wingback positions. With Gudelj forced back into a defensive position and Luka Milovojević contracting coronavirus, the Serbia midfield two picked itself with Getafe’s Nemanja Maksimović, who has started four of the last five games, and Saša Lukić, who has enjoyed an impressive start to the season at his club Torino, starting in the middle of the pitch.
There was a similar story at the top of the pitch, Sassuolo’s Filip Đuričić was ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus, meaning semi-final hero Sergej Milinković-Savić partnered Tadić in the attacking midfield area, while Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović led the line as the lone forward.
Scotland also sprung very few surprises with their 3-4-1-2 and for the eighth game in succession, Derby County’s David Marshall started between the sticks. Similarly, for the sixth match in-a-row, Manchester United’s Scott McTominay started on the right of a back three which also consisted of Declan Gallagher, preferred to Scott McKenna, and Kieran Tierney.
Stephen O’Donnell and Andy Robertson started in the wingback positions, while old firm duo Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor started in central midfield. Aston Villa’s John McGinn continued in the attacking midfield role, while Ryan Christie replaced the injured Ryan Fraser alongside the impressive Lyndon Dykes of Queens Park Rangers.
For several matches now, Scotland have relied on the physicality of striker Lyndon Dykes to enable them to establish possession in advanced areas of the pitch. His aerial presence and ability to hold the ball up and bring others such as McGinn and McGregor into play has been Scotland’s most successful route into the final third in recent games, including last night’s win.
Throughout the match, Dykes got the better of Stefan Mitrović and on numerous occasions, such as the one seen above, the QPR striker was able to drag the central defender into midfield where he consistently managed to flick the ball on for midfield runners. In this instance, Milenković is forced to cover for Stefan Mitrović which leaves space for McGinn to run into and from here, the Aston Villa midfielder carries the ball wide and links with Robertson, who finds space to cross into the box for Dykes.
Another example, which led to a great opportunity for goalscorer Christie to put Scotland two goals ahead, saw Dykes beat Stefan Mitrović in the air once more, managing to flick the ball on to Christie, who snatched at his chance and left Rajković untroubled. Dykes’ aerial dominance was key to Scotland’s ability to build possession in the middle third and enabled them, particularly in the first half to control the game in midfield.
In addition to Dykes’ ability to flick the ball on for midfield runners, he was also, throughout the match, able to hold the ball up in the final third, which attracted Serbia defenders and opened up spaces ahead of him.
In this example, which led to a great chance for captain Andy Robertson, Dykes moves into the channel and receives a through ball from deep. From here, Dykes manages to beat Mitrović and Gudelj before slipping a well-weighted pass into the path of the Liverpool left-back who lacked composure and blazed his effort over the bar.
Scotland’s defending in wide areas
Serbia have proven to be a threat from wide areas in recent games, with their wingbacks each possessing excellent crossing ability, especially from deep positions. In addition to this, the aerial ability of Aleksandar Mitrović and Miinković-Savić poses a massive threat to defences when the ball is delivered from these positions.
However, as seen in this image, Scotland were able to limit Serbia’s ability to cross from these positions, and despite creating a chance for Lukić in the first half from wide, Serbia found themselves unable to create good crossing opportunities. Here, Kostić receives the ball from the centre of the pitch and is immediately pressed by O’Donnell, while Christie also recovers quickly from a central position to assist the Motherwell right-back, creating a 2v1. Kositć is unable to cross early and instead attempts to drive down the line, however, O’Donnell matches this run and makes an excellent challenge to regain possession for Scotland.
This image is another example of Scotland’s ability to dominate Serbia in the wide areas, on this occasion managing to halt the progress of the Serbia attack and force them back towards their own half. Here, Jack is quick to close down Lukić whose only option is to play the ball inside to Milinković-Savić, who himself is then pressed by McGregor, causing the Lazio midfielder to dribble away from the Scotland penalty area.
A strength of Serbia’s attacking play is their ability to overload the central areas and create 1v1 situations for their wingbacks in the wide areas. However, they found themselves frustrated against Scotland, who through the work rate of their central midfielders and front two, were able to double-up alongside the wingbacks and prevent the Serbia wingbacks from creating crossing opportunities.
In this example, McGregor and Christie have moved across to assist Robertson in dealing with an attack by the dangerous Lazović, whose space quickly becomes limited due to the pressure applied by McGregor and Robertson, resulting in Scotland regaining possession.
Scotland’s pressing strategy
As well as their inability to trouble Scotland from wide positions, Serbia also found it challenging to build possession through the thirds, with the efficient Scotland press often forcing them long up towards Mitrović, who was often unable to secure possession.
This image is an example of this, with Kostić forced to play long and concede possession having been unable to pick out any of the Serbia midfielders. Here, Scotland’s press, through which they are able to cut off Serbia’s central passing lanes, limits Kostić’s short passing options and results in the away team successfully regaining possession.
The image above is another example of Scotland’s organisation without the ball and highlights the difficulty Serbia faced when attempting to play out from the back. Here, Christie presses the ball carrier, in this case, Gudelj, while wingback O’Donnell is tight to Kostić and McGinn and Jack are close to Lukić and Milinković-Savić.
The Sevilla midfielder manages to wriggle free of Christie and play forward to Kostić, however, the wingback quickly loses possession under pressure from O’Donnell and Jack and Scotland are able to regain possession and start their own attack.
Serbia’s difficulties continued into the second half, as seen in the example above. In this instance, Gudelj is pressed by Christie, forcing him to quickly play to substitute Mladenović, who upon receiving the ball, is aggressively pressed by O’Donnell, giving the Legia Warsaw player no time to control the ball. This results in Mladenović playing a long pass forward, which the Scotland defenders are able to guide back to Marshall, securing possession once again.
Scotland’s high recoveries
As well as forcing Serbia long, Scotland’s pressing strategy in this game allowed them to continuously win possession high up the pitch and attack against a disorganised Serbia defence. Here, the pressure applied by Jack on Kostić, and O’Donnell and McGinn on his short passing options, forces the wingback to attempt a long pass into a central area, which McGregor is waiting to intercept and launch another Scotland attack.
The image above shows another example of Scotland’s ability to regain possession in the final third, where despite being able to beat the first line with a pass from Gudelj, Serbia lost possession in their own defensive third. This was due to the aggressive press of Jack and O’Donnell, with the former managing to intercept Kostić’s bounce pass intended for Lukić and play forward to Dykes.
In this example, which leads to Scotland’s goal, O’Donnell loses possession in the final third, however, the high position of McGregor makes it difficult for Serbia to play forward to their midfielders. Kostić attempts a pass into this area, which is intercepted by McGregor and from here, the Celtic midfielder feeds Christie, who fires low past Rajković from the edge of the box.
In another example, which led to a shot at goal for McGregor, Scotland were once again able to win the ball in Serbia’s defensive third, thanks to their effective pressing strategy. Here, O’Donnell presses Mladenović and forces the wingback to play inside to Lukić, who is marked tightly by McGinn, who outmuscles the Torino midfielder, regaining possession. From here, McGinn feeds McGregor, whose attempt whistles narrowly wide of Rajković’s goal.
Scotland’s centre-backs stepping out
The tactical preview of this game identified Serbia’s ability to feed Tadić between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition as a key strength of their attack. As such, it would be imperative that centre-backs McTominay and Tierney would be prepared to step into these areas to prevent the Ajax midfielder, and of course Milinković-Savić, from getting turned or having time to play forward.
Both Tierney and McTominay managed to stop these players throughout the match, an example of which is seen above. Here, the Scotland press is beaten, with Mitrović able to find Milinković-Savić between the lines. In reaction to this, McTominay steps out of the defensive line to press the Lazio midfielder, forcing him to play backwards and allowing the midfield to recover back into their defensive shape.
Moments later, the same was demanded of Tierney, with Tadić this time able to receive between the second and third line of the Scotland defensive shape. The Arsenal defender rapidly steps out from his position, applying pressure behind and forcing Tadić to play backwards.
McTominay and Tierney’s ability to be aggressive in these areas was aided by the fact that Mitrović is poor at running into the channels, meaning that he was rarely if at all, going to threaten the space in behind the pressing central defender.
Gallagher keeping Mitrović quiet
Steve Clarke rewarded Gallagher with a start against Serbia, after a trio of impressive performances in the previous international break, where he replaced the injured Scott McKenna at the heart of the Scotland defence. The Motherwell skipper had a tough job on his hands up against Mitrović, who is a prolific goalscorer for his national team.
However, having said this, Gallagher put in an exceptional defensive performance in Belgrade and dominated Mitrović throughout the game. As shown in this example, where Gallagher tracks Mitrović wide and times an interception well, allowing him to regain possession and play back to Marshall.
Mitrović is usually incredibly effective in the box, however, as shown in the image above, Gallagher was also effective in dominating Mitrović in the air, with the Serbian forward winning very few aerial duels in the box against the Scotland centre-back. In this situation, Kostić managed to play a dangerous cross into the box, which Gallagher was able to get his head to and clear away from danger.
Gallagher’s aggression and the lack of time and space he afforded Mitrović was crucial to keeping the forward quiet. In this example, which was one of the few occasions where Tadić was able to receive between the lines and play into the Scotland penalty area, Gallagher excellently challenges Mitrović, ensuring that the forward is unable to control the ball in a position from which he can test Marshall in the Scotland goal.
Serbia’s success from wide in a 4-4-2
Despite controlling much of the game, as evidenced in the analysis above, Scotland struggled in the latter stages of the game, and throughout extra-time, after Serbia switched to a 4-4-2 formation. This meant that there were no longer 1v1 matchups across the pitch and instead allowed Serbia to dominate the wide areas as seen in the following examples.
In this example, substitutes Mladenović and Katai combine to create a crossing opportunity from which the left-back crosses for fellow substitute Jović, whose header flashes narrowly wide. Here, Scotland midfielder, McLean, is forced to assist O’Donnell in the wide area, where he struggles to track the run of the Serbia left-back.
These struggles continued in the closing stages of the game, with Serbia again able to create from wide as shown in the two examples above. In the first image, Serbia left midfielder, Katai, along with left-back Mladenović and central midfielder Lukić, are able to draw pressure to the wide area, forcing McTominay and Jack to leave their central positions and assist McLean and O’Donnell.
This then creates a gap between both central midfielder and disconnected McTominay from Gallagher, leaving space for Jović to receive, unmarked, in the penalty area. From here, the Real Madrid forward cuts the ball back and it is deflected out for the corner kick that led to the equaliser.
The second image shows Lazović in possession on the right flank, and also shows Tadić making a run ahead of the ball, taking McGregor with him. This then opened up space centrally for Lazović to move into, which he did so before attempting to slip a pass through to Jović, which was cleared for a corner kick by Robertson.
Despite ending the game nervously, and limping through extra-time, five perfect penalties and a heroic moment from David Marshall ensured that Scotland will be present at the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 Championships next summer. Now full of confidence, Steve Clarke’s exciting and energetic Scotland side will be tough to beat in their upcoming UEFA Nations League matches against Slovakia and Israel.