After a convincing victory in their previous outing at home to San Marino, Scotland would be keen to end their UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying campaign strongly in preparation for the playoff matches that await them in a few months. However, before the attention could shift towards the playoffs, Scotland still had to negotiate their remaining two Group I games, the first of which was an away trip to Cyprus, who in the reverse fixture at Hampden Park provided Steve Clarke’s men with a tough test, where the Scots needed an 89th minute Oliver Burke header to secure the three points.
Once again, a 2-1 victory for Scotland was enough to earn the three points in Nicosia, however, as this tactical analysis will demonstrate, it was far from plain sailing for Steve Clarke’s men. Further analysis will highlight how Cyprus’ tactics were able to limit Scotland’s attacking ability, as well as displaying how Scotland’s structure contributed to their struggles going forward.
Scotland set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and made six changes from the side that had defeated San Marino a month ago. David Marshall replaced Jon McLaughlin in goal, while Sheffield Wednesday’s Liam Palmer was the only player to retain his place in the back four. Motherwell’s Declan Gallagher replaced Michael Devlin at centre-back for his international debut alongside Scott McKenna, who replaced Stuart Findlay on the left side of the pairing. Greg Taylor made up the back four, replacing injured Liverpool man Andy Robertson at left-back. Rangers‘ Ryan Jack replaced Scott McTominay in centre midfield and was joined by Callum McGregor, who lined up on the left side of the double pivot. John McGinn retained his starting place in attacking midfield, while James Forrest and Ryan Christie were also making consecutive starts. The experienced Steven Naismith replaced Lawrence Shankland as the lone forward.
Cyprus adopted a 3-4-3 formation and made seven changes to the team that was on the end of a 5-0 defeat to Russia in October. Urko Pardo replaced Panagi in goal, while Karo came in for the suspended Lafis at centre-back alongside Merkis and Kousoulous. Kyriakou and Kosti started in the centre of a midfield four, which was flanked by Dimitriou on the right and Ioannou on the left. Efrem returned to the starting lineup on the left of a front three, with Papoulis on the right and Sotiriou starting through the middle.
Scotland’s early pressing
In the early stages, unlike the reverse fixture at Hampden, Scotland were fairly aggressive in their approach to regaining possession and were effective in pressing the Cyprus backline.
Scotland’s early pressing is evident in the image above, which shows Christie successfully forcing the Cyprus central defender to play back to his goalkeeper. From here, the goalkeeper is forced into playing the ball long and gifts possession back to Scotland.
The positions of the Scotland midfielders; McGinn, Jack and McGregor, as well as right-back Palmer, should also be highlighted here, as their ability to get tight to the Cyprus midfielders and wing-back limits the ball-carrier’s forward passing options.
The same can be seen in this image, with Christie pressuring the Cyprus centre back, who is again left with no option but to play back to Urko Pardo, whose hopeful ball towards the striker is collected by the Scotland defence.
Christie’s body position prevents the defender from playing wide, while the tight marking of the Scotland midfield once again prevents passes from being played into the Cyprus midfielders.
Christie’s effectiveness was replicated by Forrest on the Scotland left side. This time, Naismith forces the Cyprus centre-back to play sideways to the right-sided centre-back, who is immediately pressed by the Celtic winger.
Once again, the positions of McGinn, McGregor and Jack stop the Cyprus defender from playing forward into midfield.
As seen in the second image, this causes the Cyprus defender to attempt a pass wide to the right midfielder. However, left-back Taylor’s aggressive press means that Dimitriou is no longer an option for the passer, who is forced to play a longer pass, which goes out of play.
However, there were occasions when Cyprus were able to progress the ball into the central midfielders, although, as seen in the image above, their route forward was immediately blocked due to the pressure applied from behind by the Scotland midfield, in this case, Jack.
This forces the midfielder to pass back to the left centre-back and this pass becomes the trigger for Christie to aggressively press the receiver. He is able to force the defender to play wide to the left midfielder, who is immediately pressed by the Scotland right-back Palmer. This pressure forces the Cyprus midfielder to attempt a first-time forward pass, which Palmer is able to block, preventing Cyprus from advancing up the pitch.
Cyprus finding ways through Scotland
The image above shows Cyprus’ average shape throughout the match, and as can be seen, they were intent on overloading the middle of the pitch. After being forced into an early change, Cyprus shifted to a 4-4-2, and the introduction of number 20, Kastanos, enabled them to dominate Scotland in the centre of the pitch.
However, even before this change in personnel, Scotland’s numerical inferiority in the middle of the pitch was exploited. In the situation above, Papoulis is able to combine with his midfield partner, enabling them to bypass McGinn and attack the space behind him.
Meanwhile, the positions of the narrow Cyprus forwards mean that Jack and McGregor remain pinned, preventing them from pressing Papoulis.
Papoulis is able to advance, and Jack is eventually forced to press the Cyprus midfielder which opens up space in between the lines for Sotiriou to receive in. This causes centre-back Gallagher to step and apply pressure, leaving Efrem 1v1 against McKenna.
Efrem is then able to receive and manages to beat McKenna and shoot at goal. His shot struck the crossbar and came down over the line, which fortunately for Scotland was missed by the officials.
On this occasion, Cyprus were able to beat the Scotland press and get the ball into midfield. Once again, the Cyprus front three have narrowed, meaning that Jack is again outnumbered.
Jack is unable to press the player in possession due to the positioning of the Cyprus players between the lines, which leads to Cyprus breaking the Scotland midfield line.
With McGregor out of position, McKenna has stepped up causing him to become disconnected to Gallagher, who is pinned back by the forward run of Sotiriou.
With McGregor and McGinn both caught high up the pitch, Christie has been forced narrow, leaving the Cyprus wide man in acres of space to receive the ball.
Efrem plays the ball wide, however, a poor cross ends up in the hands of Marshall, preventing Cyprus from taking advantage of Scotland’s disorganisation.
These issues continued into the second half, and in the example above, Cyprus were once again able to take advantage of Scotland’s unbalanced midfield. On this occasion, Papoulis is found in the centre of the pitch and due to the positions of McGregor and Jack, can turn and drive at the Scotland defence.
The second image once again highlights how the narrow positions of the Cyprus forwards can create space in the wide areas. On this occasion, Papoulis combines with Efrem to play wide to Dimitriou whose cross is met by a Cyprus header that is glanced narrowly wide.
Scotland’s difficulty playing through Cyprus
Similarly to the reverse fixture, Cyprus made it very difficult for Scotland to play through the middle of them due to their block. However, for both goals, Scotland were able to penetrate the Cyprus midfield to find players between the lines.
Here, Jack is able to find McGregor behind the first line of the Cyprus block, and the Celtic midfielder’s position engages the second line of the press, which then creates a passing lane for McGinn to receive.
McGregor is able to pick out McGinn, who’s excellent first touch takes the ball away from the Cyprus centre-back. The third image then shows that Christie can receive with space to drive inside, which he does so and manages to curl a fantastic strike past Urko Pardo.
In this second example, leading to Scotland’s winning goal, Scotland are able to exploit the space between the Cyprus lines from the wide area. Taylor has taken up a position between the lines, while McGregor plays a pass wide to Forrest.
As can be seen in the second image, Forrest has managed to draw Papoulis out of the midfield, which creates space inside for Taylor to receive. From here, the Celtic left-back swings in a cross which McGinn can divert passed the Cyprus goalkeeper.
Despite this success, Scotland struggled throughout the game to play through Cyprus, which in part was down to the position of McGinn, who operated almost as a second striker, as well as McGregor and Jack, who both spent much of the match operating in front of the Cyprus block.
The image above shows Scotland’s average shape throughout the match, and highlighted is the central area of the pitch where there appears to be a disconnect between the midfield and attacking units.
Above is an example of this disconnect, where Jack is in possession and has very few passing options ahead of the ball. Palmer has advanced down the right side, however, as highlighted, nobody is operating between the first two lines of the opposition, which makes it difficult for Scotland to play through midfield.
In addition to this, McGregor is also playing in front of the press despite there being an opportunity to move between the lines.
As shown in the second image, Jack is forced to play sideways to McKenna due to a lack of support ahead of the ball. Christie has dropped deep to show for the ball, but the passing lane is immediately blocked by Efrem’s pressing shadow.
On this occasion, a similar problem occurs, this time, when centre-back Gallagher is in possession. Jack and McGregor are again operating outside the block, which makes it difficult for Scotland to penetrate through the middle.
In addition, Scotland’s attacking midfielder McGinn, is out of view alongside Naismith up front, making it difficult for him to link the play from back to front.
McGinn’s position causes further issues on this occasion, where once again he is playing on the shoulder of the Cyprus centre-back. Palmer is in possession and has very few forward passing options due to the deep positions of Jack and McGregor, as well as the high position of McGinn.
Yet again, a lack of support between the lines forces a negative pass from the Scotland defender back to centre-back Gallagher.
Scotland’s issues in the final third
Despite these difficulties, Scotland posed a threat on the counter-attack throughout the game as seen in the image above. Here, Scotland are able to clear a cross to the feet of McGinn on the edge of the box.
From here, the Aston Villa midfielder is able to turn and ride the challenges of two recovering Cyprus midfielders. The second image also shows Forrest and Naismith advancing down the Scotland left side.
McGinn is then able to slip a pass through to Forrest who is now 1v1 with the Cyprus centre-back, while Naismith continues his run into the final third.
The Cyprus centre-back does well to delay Forrest, which allows the rest of the defence to recover, however, as seen in the image above, Christie is still able to get a shot away and test Urko Pardo.
A similar situation is shown above, this time in the second half. Jack has managed to regain possession in the middle of the Scotland half, while Cyprus, who are pushing for a winner, are caught with players high up the pitch. Jack plays in substitute McBurnie, who is able to get on the end of the pass deep into the Cyprus half.
McBurnie has support to his left from McGregor and fellow substitute Burke, however, as shown, the Sheffield United man delivers a poor cross behind Burke, bringing an end to this promising Scotland counter-attack.
This was one of the various occasions where Scotland were unable to convert promising situations into chances, with their inability to create limited due to a combination of a lack of quality as well as some solid defending.
In this example, Forrest finds himself driving towards the Cyprus defence, with McGinn making a forward run in the middle of the pitch. As seen in the image above, Forrest has been unable to get past the two Cyprus defenders and has been forced wide onto his weaker left foot.
In addition to this, the recovering Cyprus midfielders are preventing Forrest from playing the ball inside to skipper Naismith.
The third image shows Forrest having been forced wide, left of the penalty box, where his only option is to cross with his weaker left foot. The cross comes off the Cyprus defender and deflects to the feet of the recovering midfielder, halting the Scotland attack.
On this occasion, in the second half, Christie finds himself with space to run into on the Scotland right side. McBurnie moves towards the box, taking the two centre-backs away, thus creating more room for Christie to exploit.
However, as seen in the second image, Cyprus are able to quickly recover back into shape and prevent Scotland from entering the box. Palmer has made an overlapping run, which Christie chooses to ignore, instead playing inside to McGinn.
After receiving the pass, McGinn is immediately pressed by two Cyprus players and attempts to play to Palmer, however, Cyprus’ ability to overload the wide-area enables them to intercept the pass and stop the danger.
Cyprus attacking down the right
As well as effectively playing through Scotland, Cyprus also had a lot of joy down the right side of the attack, often managing to deliver dangerous crosses into the box. Their ability to switch the play to right midfielder Dimitriou caused problems for Scotland throughout the match.
Here, Dimitriou’s wide position enables Cyprus to switch the play and attack down the right flank. The right midfielder is then able to drive into the space in front of him and deliver a cross from deep.
Cyprus’ four forward runners make it difficult for Gallagher and McKenna to attack the ball, and Efrem’s untracked run across the face of Gallagher enables him to get on the end of the cross and direct his header narrowly wide.
A similar situation is seen in this example, where after some clever combination play, Cyprus are once again able to switch the play out towards Dimitriou. The second image again shows Dimitriou able to deliver a cross into the box towards the four Cyprus runners, which McGregor is able to poke wide for a Cyprus corner.
After another narrow 2-1 victory against Cyprus, Scotland were able to secure consecutive wins for only the second time during the entire campaign. Despite the three points, Scotland were fairly unremarkable throughout and should count themselves lucky that Cyprus were unable to turn their numerous chances into goals. Steve Clarke will be looking for a more dominant performance in the Scots’ last Group I game at home to Kazakhstan in three days.