After the euphoria of last week’s UEFA Euro 2020 playoff final win over Serbia, Steve Clarke’s Scotland team were brought back down to earth on Sunday, seeing their nine-game unbeaten run end at the hands of Slovakia. A 1-0 defeat meant that Scotland had missed the opportunity to progress into Group A of the UEFA Nations League and were now left needing to beat Israel if they were to achieve promotion.
Scotland have met Israel on four occasions in the last two years, winning twice, most recently in the UEFA Euro 2020 playoff semi-final, which they edged on penalties. Despite their superiority in this fixture, no more than one goal has ever separated the teams, and with the Israelis seeking to avenge their playoff defeat, Steve Clarke’s men faced a tough test away from home.
Since their defeat at Hampden, Israel have lost two out of their last three games, with a 2-1 win away at Slovakia coming between two defeats to Scotland’s closest challengers, the Czech Republic. The home team would no doubt look to Shakhtar Donestk’s Manor Solomon and PSV Eindhoven’s Eran Zahavi to provide an attacking threat, which they have done effectively in recent encounters at Hampden Park.
Unfortunately, after their triumph last week against Serbia, Scotland were unable to achieve qualification to Group A of the UEFA Nations League, losing 1-0 in Israel. This tactical analysis will explore how Scotland were unable to break down a well-organised Israel team. This analysis will also demonstrate how Israel’s tactics enabled them to overcome Scotland’s press, which has been instrumental to Steve Clarke’s side’s success in recent months.
Steve Clarke stuck with the 3-4-2-1 formation that has brought him so much success in the last few months and reverted to the same starting lineup that had defeated Serbia a week ago, making eight changes from the defeat against Slovakia on Sunday. Penalty shootout hero David Marshall replaced Craig Gordon in goal, while Scott McTominay replaced Andrew Considine on the right side of a back three. Declan Gallagher came in for Scott McKenna in the centre back position and Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney moved to the left side of the back three to replace Leeds United’s Liam Cooper. This meant that Liverpool’s Andy Robertson could reclaim his place at left wing-back and Stephen O’Donnell replaced Liam Palmer at right wing-back.
Rangers’ Ryan Jack joined Celtic’s Callum McGregor in the centre of midfield, replacing Kenny McLean and Stuart Armstrong, while John McGinn and Ryan Christie kept their places higher up the pitch. Lyndon Dykes returned from suspension to lead the line ahead of Oli McBurnie.
The hosts set up in a 5-3-2 formation, with Hibs’ Ofir Marciano starting in goal. Eli Dasa started in the right wing-back position, while Sun Menahem started at left wing-back. Celtic’s Nir Bitton started in the right centre-back position, with Eiti Tibi starting in the centre-back position and Sheran Yeini replacing Hatem Abd Elhamed, who was suspended. Bibras Natcho started in central midfield alongside Neta Lavi and Manor Solomon, while Eran Zahavi partnered Shon Zalman Weissman in a front two.
Scotland’s successful early press
Scotland’s organisation out of possession has played a major role in their success in recent internationals, with their ability to regain possession high and launch attacks against a disorganised defence becoming one of their key threats.
As seen in this image, they continued this effectiveness in the opening stages against Israel. Here, Dykes sets the press and approaches the defender in such a way that prevents him from playing inside. This acts as a trigger for the players behind to step up to their opposite number, preventing the Israel centre-back from playing to feet, which they do successfully, forcing him long and regaining possession. As can be seen, Scotland managed to create a 5v4 situation in this part of the pitch, overloading Israel and subsequently causing them to give up possession.
A similar situation occurred minutes later, where Scotland were once again able to use their effective press to limit the progression of the Israel attack. Here, they are able to take advantage of the 5v4 overload they’ve managed to create against the home team, on this occasion, regaining possession on the halfway line.
The Scotland wing-backs, O’Donnell and Robertson, play a key role in Scotland’s press, as seen in the image above. Here, McGinn’s press and angle of approach prompts a pass to the Israel left wing-back, which acts as a trigger for O’Donnell to press him aggressively, preventing him from turning.
What is also crucial here is the willingness of the ball-side central midfielder, in this case, Ryan Jack, to abandon the space behind him and press any midfielder that drops towards the ball in an attempt to connect the play and move the attack away from pressure, which Solomon attempts to do here. This organisation and risk-and-reward approach allows Scotland once again to regain possession high up the pitch.
Scotland’s forwards’ movement
A feature of Scotland’s play throughout the match was their ability to create passing lanes that enabled their defenders to successfully play forward. In this example, Dykes’ movement towards the ball, coupled with O’Donnell’s positioning on the touchline, opens a passing lane from McTominay to play forward to the QPR striker, which he plays through effectively. Dykes is then able to wriggle free of two Israel players, while O’Donnell has made a move beyond the Israel left wing-back and is found by the striker, sending Scotland into the final third.
Dykes’ movement towards the ball continued through the half, and, as seen on this occasion, constantly disrupted the organisation of the Israel back five. Here, the striker’s movement towards Robertson causes Bitton, the Israeli right-sided centre-back, to step into midfield, which creates space for McGinn to make a run from deep in behind the Celtic defender. Robertson finds the Aston Villa midfielder, who is able to cut the ball back to Jack on the edge of the box, from where he plays to O’Donnell, setting the Motherwell full-back up for one of Scotland’s best chances of the first half.
The advantage of McTominay playing in a defensive role is that he is constantly left with time on the ball to play forward passes, such as the one seen in the image above. Here, the Manchester United man is able to break the first two lines of the Israel press, finding Christie. Dykes has peeled wide, and from here he makes a run inside, which is tracked by his current marker, causing the two centre-backs to cross over. This creates space for Christie to dribble into, which he does, advancing Scotland into the final third.
McTominay’s impressive passing continued into the second half and it was key to Scotland’s ability to enter the final third. Here, Dykes again found himself wide, occupying the wing-back and left-sided central defender, while O’Donnell was in the half-space. McTominay expertly picks out the Motherwell right-back, who, as seen, attracts pressure from the Israel central defender.
Meanwhile, Christie and McGinn have outnumbered Bitton, and the former is able to run into the space created by the pressing defender. O’Donnell slips a pass through to Christie, who cuts the ball back to McGinn on the edge of the box, whose shot is deflected over the crossbar.
This example shows McTominay finding substitute Griffiths from a deep position, who combines with McBurnie, whose deflected pass finds McGregor on the edge of the Israel box. However, at this point in the match, Israel were gradually reducing the space between their second and third lines, which made it increasingly difficult for Scotland to operate and play forward from these areas.
Israel beating the press
Despite the apparent success of Scotland’s press in the early stages of the match, Israel were effective in finding ways to play through and around the press for large parts of the game, an example of which is seen here. In this example, Natcho is able to take advantage of Dykes’ inability to block the passing lane between the Israel captain and the ball far-side central defender.
Furthermore, the positions of Israel left wing-back Menahem, midfielder Solomon and forward Weissman are pinning O’Donnell, Jack and McTominay, giving Yeini the freedom to venture forward with the ball, which he does so effectively, allowing Israel to establish possession higher up the pitch.
In this instance, the spaces between the Scotland players are too large, which leads to space being created for Lavi to drop into and receive. Again, Dykes was slow to cover the central passing lane, while McGinn’s position in front of Natcho came from not passing the Israel captain on to McGregor seconds earlier.
Similar to the example shown above, this move again allowed Israel to transfer possession to the other side of the pitch, where Yeini had the freedom to move forward with the ball, made easier by the position of Scotland’s three midfielders and Israel’s high left wing-back and striker pinning O’Donnell and McTominay.
In addition to their ability to switch play quickly in the build-up, Israel, on occasion, were able to play through Scotland’s press in the wide areas of the pitch. In this example, Israel were able to switch the ball across the back five, hence Dykes being unable to press the left centre-back Yeini.
To apply pressure on the ball, Jack steps out to close down the Israeli defender, however, McGinn is slow to cover for the Rangers midfielder, which leaves Solomon in space to receive. This leaves McTominay caught in two minds over whether to press Solomon or track Zahavi, who is operating in the space behind him. Yeini’s body position causes the Manchester United man to drop, thus creating space for Solomon to receive from Menahem, and, from this position, the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder is then able to carry the ball forward into the Scotland half.
This success continued into the second half, as seen in the image above. On this occasion, Bitton regains possession from Christie and immediately passes inside to Dasa. This causes McGinn to close the wing-back down, however, the Scotland midfielder angles his run in such a way that invites Dasa to play forward to Lavi, which he does, allowing Israel to play out of pressure and launch an attack down the Scotland right side.
Israel getting between the lines
As well as their ability to overcome the Scotland press, Israel were also effective in playing into spaces between Scotland’s midfield and defensive lines, as seen in the image above. Here, having evaded the Scotland press, Yeini is able to advance into the attacking half, drawing pressure from Jack. McGregor is slow to cover the central area, leaving a passing lane open into Solomon and Zahavi.
This space is also afforded due to the position and movement of the left wing-back, Menahem, who is making a run in behind, thus pinning O’Donnell and McTominay, while Weissman is occupying Tierney, meaning neither centre-back is able to step into midfield to apply pressure, allowing Solomon to receive and drive into the final third.
A similar situation arose here on the opposite side of the pitch, where Solomon is able to breach the Scotland midfield. On this occasion, the midfield three are caught in a flat line, which opens up space for Weissman to drop into. However, McGinn’s focus on the ball also means that he is slow to react to Lavi’s run, allowing him to move beyond the Scotland midfielder and receive behind the midfield.
As is clear from the example above, this was a common theme in the first half, partly due to Israel’s ability to switch the play during the build-up phase, which is mentioned above. This often saw the Scotland midfield three having to recover from the left side of the pitch, which, as seen here, causes McTominay to step out, while Zahavi and Weissman pin Gallagher and Tierney, opening space between the lines. From his position, Solomon is able to thread a pass through to Zahavi, who lays the ball off for Natcho, who himself then plays wide to Dasa, giving him time and space to cross.
Scotland’s poor decision making in the final third
Scotland’s superior expected goals rate of 1.83 in this match hints that poor finishing was partly to blame for this disappointing defeat. However, as demonstrated above, Scotland, on numerous occasions, were able to advance the ball into dangerous areas of the final third. This, therefore, implies that, in addition to their missed chances, decisions in the final third, an area into which they successfully passed 61 times, compared to Israel’s 21, were also to blame for their lack of goals.
In this example, Robertson finds himself beyond the Israel midfield in the wide area, with Jack making a run ahead of him. As the yellow line indicates, Robertson also has a passing lane into a central position, where Griffiths and Christie are outnumbering Tibi, the Israel central defender. Despite this opportunity to play inside, Robertson attempts a cross from this position, which Dasa blocks, forcing Scotland backwards and allowing Israel to recover goal-side.
A similar situation arises minutes later, this time with Jack in possession on the Scotland right, having received from McTominay. As the image shows, Griffiths has dropped into a dangerous position between the lines, however, Jack opts to play wide to Oliver Burke, who does well to fashion a cross, which is easily defended by the Israeli backline.
After a historic victory last week, Scotland will be disappointed with their last two performances, during which they were unable to register a goal. This was despite an expected goals rate of 3.19 across both games, which implies that Scotland’s forwards were simply missing their shooting boots. These defeats, although disappointing, will not be successful in taking the shine off Scotland’s Euro 2020 qualification, which they will be eagerly looking towards now the UEFA Nations League group stages have come to an end.