It has been 23 years since Scotland’s last appearance at a major tournament, so one can only imagine the pressure felt by Steve Clarke and his squad, which is now brimming with English Premier League and UEFA Champions League experience, to ease the pain that the Tartan Army have withstood since France 98’. Standing in Scotland’s way is a Serbian side who themselves have a squad peppered with talent from the various top European leagues, including a host of players from the best teams in Serie A. There is no doubt that Scotland face a tough test in Belgrade, however, their recent form is encouraging, going unbeaten in their last eight matches, while Serbia have won only once in their last six games, beating Norway in extra-time in their UEFA Euro 2020 playoff semi-final.
This tactical analysis will examine the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and how each team may be able to exploit these during the match. In addition, this analysis will discuss the tactics that each manager may use to secure their nation’s place at the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 Championships.
For their last five matches, Steve Clarke has set his side up in 3-4-1-2 formation and it is expected that he continues with this against Serbia. David Marshall has played in 12 of Steve Clarke’s 13 matches as manager, therefore it is expected that despite the form of Hearts’ Craig Gordon, Marshall will start in goal. Scott McTominay has been deployed on the right side of the back-three in each of the five matches the formation has been used, so is expected to start in this position, while Scott McKenna and Kieran Tierney return to the squad and are expected to replace Declan Gallagher and Andrew Considine in defence. Captain Andy Robertson will no doubt start at left wing-back, while it is expected that Stephen O’Donnell will be preferred to Liam Palmer at right wing-back.
Old Firm rivals Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor have formed an impressive partnership in central midfield, with neither John Fleck nor Kenny McLean able to breakthrough despite appearing in recent games. John McGinn has arguably been Scotland’s best player under Steve Clarke and will play off the front two in an advanced midfielder role. Ryan Fraser has been ruled out through injury, so it is expected that Ryan Christie who will play alongside Lyndon Dykes, who appears to have answered Scotland fans’ call for a presence at the top end of the pitch.
Similar to their opponents, Serbia are expected to set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation, which they have done so in recent matches. There has been rotation between the sticks in the last five games, with both Marko Dmitrović and Predrag Rajković playing multiple games. However, it is expected that Rajković will get the nod to start for Ljubiša Tumbaković’s side. Serbia’s back-three has been fairly constant, with Nikola Milenković and Stefan Mitrović starting the last three matches. The captain Aleksandar Kolarov is expected to start on the left of the back-three ahead of youngster Strahinja Pavlović. Darko Lazović has started each of the last five matches at right wing-back, so will no doubt lineup here against the Scots, while Filip Kostić is expected to start ahead of Mihailo Ristić at left wing-back.
Nemanja Maksimović has missed only one of the last five games so is expected to partner Saša Lukić in midfield, who has three goals and one assist in seven Serie A matches for Torino this season. With Filip Đuričić contracting Coronavirus, it is expected that semi-final hero Sergei Milinković-Savić will start alongside Ajax’s Dušan Tadić in the attacking midfielder roles, with Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović starting as the lone striker.
Serbia finding Tadić between the lines
Serbia have scored only five goals in their last five matches, and with an xG rate of 9.59 across these games, it is safe to say that their finishing has been less than desirable. Nonetheless, an xG per game of 1.9 suggests that they have been effective in creating high-quality chances, and an example of this is demonstrated above. With two attacking midfielders playing off Mitrović, Serbia are often able to position both these players between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition, as seen here against Norway.
Kolarov, who possess excellent forward passing ability is able to thread a pass through to Ajax man Tadić, who is positioned between the lines. This space is created through the position of Mitrović, who is pinning the left centre back, while the position of Serbia’s left wingback, Ristić, is occupying the Norway right-back, leaving space for Đuričić to run into. In this instance, Tadić plays a first time pass around the corner for Đuričić to run onto, and the Sassuolo winger places a shot narrowly wide of the goal.
An almost identical situation appears here, with Kolarov again threading a pass through the Norway midfield to find Tadić between the lines. The Ajax midfielder again plays a first-time pass to Đuričić, who cuts the ball back for Mitrović, who is somehow unable to convert from close range.
Scotland’s central midfielders, McGregor and Jack, must work hard to ensure these spaces are not left between them, while McTominay, McKenna and Tierney must be brave in stepping in to deny Tadić the opportunity to create from these positions.
Serbia’s threat from wide
This image shows Serbia’s successful crosses from the last five matches, with a larger number of crosses being performed on their right flank. In addition, a considerable number of the successful crosses come from Lazović (17) in deeper positions, making this another strength of the Serbian attack.
In this example, Lazović’s route down the line is shut off by the Turkish defender, however, the Hellas Verona midfielder is instead able to shift the ball onto his left foot and deliver a dangerous cross to the back post, which Ristić is unable to convert.
This image is another example of Lazović’s threat from deep positions, this time against Norway. On this occasion, he delivers an excellent cross to the edge of the six-yard box, however, the Norway centre back does just enough to put Mitrović off, and the Fulham striker’s header doesn’t trouble the goalkeeper.
Mitrović and Lazović seem to share an understanding in situations such as these, as seen in this example. Once again, Lazović was able to pick Mitrović out with an excellent cross and the Fulham striker beat the Norway defender in the air, only to flick his header wide of the goal.
This strength of Serbia could allow them to cause Scotland problems in the final third, who as seen in the examples to follow, afford the opposition opportunities to play into the box from these positions.
The image above was taken from Scotland’s most recent match, against the Czech Republic. In this example, Robertson and McGregor are applying passive pressure up against the Czech right-back, Coufal. However, the pair allow the West Ham full-back to play forward into the box, where Vydra runs onto the pass and wins his team a corner kick.
A similar situation occurred on the opposite side, this time with right wing-back O’Donnell unable to prevent a cross, which finds Tomáš Souček in the Scotland penalty area. The West Ham midfielder rises higher than Gallagher and is able to knock the ball down for Vydra to attempt from the edge of the box and his shot flashed narrowly wide of Marshall’s goal.
This theme has been present throughout Scotland’s recent games as seen here in their Euro 2020 playoff semi-final against Israel. On this occasion, Israel danger man Zahavi is afforded space in the wide area to have a shot from distance, which requires a smart save from Marshall.
With these examples in mind, Scotland must ensure that they are aggressive in the wide areas, as both Kostić and especially Lazović possess the ability to send early crosses into the box. Additionally, Mitrović is extremely effective in the air and if he finds himself 1v1 against either McTominay or Tierney, there is a large chance he will register an attempt on goal.
Playing through Serbia’s midfield
As mentioned, Serbia have won only one of their last six matches, keeping only one clean sheet during this time, which suggests that they themselves have some defensive frailties that Scotland may be able to exploit.
One weakness that has been identified is the spaces they leave between the lines during the opposition’s build-up, as seen in this example, against Turkey. Here, the first two lines of the Serbia press is beaten with one pass with allows danger man, Calhonoglu to get on the ball between the lines, with both Lukić and Maksimović’s positions ineffective in preventing central penetration.
The same problems were present against Hungary, this time with Milovojević and Gudelj unable to prevent passes from reaching players operating behind them. Notably, neither Jović nor Mitrović are effective from pressing from the front, which often leaves the opposition’s deepest midfielder free to dictate from deep, as seen here. This draws the press from the Serbia midfielders, leaving space behind them. This space is often free, with none of the three central defenders able to step out and press, due to the positions of the opposition’s attackers.
This image will encourage Scotland, as if, as Hungary do, they are able to pin the Serbia defence, with O’Donnell and Robertson occupying the wing-backs and Dykes and Christie pinning the back-three, space will appear between the lines for John McGinn to get on the ball and carry it into the final third.
This was a major problem for the Serbians against Turkey, with Hungary’s Kalmar constantly finding pockets between the midfield and defence. In this example, he receives on the half-turn and plays a pass down the side of the Serbia back-three, sending the Hungary forward into a dangerous cut-back position.
This is no doubt a weakness of Serbia without the ball, therefore it will be interesting to see if Scotland are able to exploit it on Thursday night in Belgrade.
Scotland’s high recoveries
The image above illustrates Scotland’s recoveries in the final third across their last five matches. As is shown, the Scots are effective in regaining possession high up the pitch, particularly through midfielders Jack and McGregor, and wing-backs, Robertson and O’Donnell.
The diagram also demonstrates, through the white dots, that Scotland are effective from turning these regains into shooting opportunities, which Serbia must guard against.
An example of this ability to recover the ball high up the pitch is seen here against the Czech Republic. In this instance, which led to Scotland’s match-winning goal, O’Donnell and Jack press aggressively in the wide area, with McTominay also squeezing up to limit the space for the Czech Republic.
O’Donnell manages to block the pass, which ricochets into the path of Dykes, who is able to thread a pass through for Fraser to slot past the goalkeeper.
In this image, against Slovakia, O’Donnell again is able to win possession high up the pitch, intercepting a pass to play in Dykes. The QPR striker turns quickly and finds McGinn, who despite attempting a shot from distance, had Fraser unmarked to his right and had the Villa man seen him, Scotland could have taken the lead.
These examples will be of note to Serbia, who will be wary of conceding possession in these areas of the pitch, given Scotland’s ability to turn these regains into goal-scoring opportunities.
Scotland’s effectiveness breaking from central positions
In addition to Scotland’s ability to regain possession high up the pitch, they are also extremely effective in counter-attacking from central areas, something that Serbia must be wary of.
In this example against the Czech Republic, Gallagher regains possession in the middle of the Scotland half and immediately plays forward to McGinn, who is operating between the lines of the Czech Republic defence and midfield.
As soon as the Villa midfielder receives the ball, both Fraser and Dykes look to stretch the defence and run in behind. From here, McGinn threads an excellently weighted pass through to Fraser, who lacked composure and blazed his shot over the crossbar.
This image demonstrates a similar situation, where Scotland are able to regain possession in their own half, through Fleck, with the Sheffield United man then immediately playing forward to McGinn. Again, Dykes and Fraser are making forward runs into the spaces left in the Slovakian defence and McGinn is this time able to pick out Dykes, whose run takes him into the box where his shot is deflected out for a corner.
Scotland will have opportunities to employ this tactic, as the following examples demonstrate that Serbia struggle to deal with opposition counter-attacks from central areas.
In this example, against Turkey, Maksimović concedes possession in the build-up, and from here, Turkey are able to break and slip a ball down the side for Under to run onto. The Leicester winger takes advantage of the space between Kolarov and Ristić and is able to carry the ball into the box and have a shot at goal, which goes out for a corner after being saved by Dmitrović.
In this example from the play-off semi-final, the Norwegians are able to regain possession deep in their own half. From here, Normann threads a pass through to Sorloth, between Kolarov and Ristić, and the RB Leipzig forward is able to carry the ball to the edge of the box. Meanwhile, Normann has continued his run and finds himself with space on the edge of the box, from where he receives back from Sorloth and fires low past Rajković and equalises for Norway.
Serbia’s frailties when dealing with counter-attacks from central areas will encourage the Scots, who will no doubt be looking to press aggressively in these areas, and get their forwards running into the channels.
Despite Serbia’s form, they still look like favourites in Belgrade- However, Scotland’s form will also mean that they come into this game full of confidence, and of course the extra incentive of making history will no doubt boost the players even more.
Serbia’s ability to create chances from central areas through Tadić, and from wide through Kostić and Lazović gives them versatility in the final third and may allow them to take advantage of Scotland’s apparent lack of pressure in the wide areas that has been demonstrated in recent games.
The Scots, however, carry their own threats, especially in transition, and with Serbia’s struggles during these moments in recent games, they may find themselves able to cause problems for the Serbian back-three.