After four consecutive defeats home and away to Group I winners Belgium, and runners-up Russia, Scotland’s qualification for UEFA Euro 2020 was now only achievable via the play-offs. Before the focus shifts towards those crucial play-off games, the remaining matches against San Marino, Cyprus, and Kazakhstan, two of which are home fixtures, should present Scotland with a good opportunity to build confidence, as well as affording manager, Steve Clarke, the opportunity to experiment and identify the eleven players best suited to his tactics.
The first of Scotland’s remaining Group I fixtures was a home tie against bottom team San Marino, whose -50 goal difference was an indication of what lay ahead for Clarke’s men. In the end, a new-look Scotland dominated the game from start to finish, reflected in a 5-0 scoreline. This tactical analysis will demonstrate how Scotland’s tactics enabled them to dismantle a poor Sammarinese outfit, with further analysis identifying Scotland’s key players on the night.
Scotland made six changes from the side that lost 4-0 to Russia three days earlier, with Robertson, Devlin, and Palmer retaining their places in the back four as well as McGregor and McGinn in midfield. Starting in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Jon McLaughlin made his first competitive start in goal for Scotland, while Kilmarnock’s Stuart Findlay won his first cap, partnering Michael Devlin in the centre of defence. As mentioned, Robertson and Palmer started in the full-back positions, while Scott McTominay came into a three-man midfield with Callum McGregor and John McGinn. Celtic duo Ryan Christie and James Forrest played either side of a front three led by Dundee United’s Lawrence Shankland, also making his first start for his country.
San Marino lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, making four changes from the team that lost 9-0 in Belgium. Aldo Simoncini replaced Simone Bennedetinni in goal while Mirko Palazzi was replaced at left-back by Alessandro D’Addario. Luca Censoni came in at centre-back for Davide Simoncini and Alex Gasperoni replaced Enrico Golunucci in midfield.
Slow Scotland build-up
In previous games against Belgium and Russia, Scotland have spent the majority of the game defending and have had limited time on the ball. This game was very different, Scotland’s 73.47% possession was their highest amount of possession under Steve Clarke and was the first time this number had exceeded 52%. Early on, Scotland seemed to lack ideas when attempting to break down the opposition. Slow, sideways possession against a deep, passive San Marino block signified a fairly dull start to proceedings.
The images above illustrate what Scotland had to contend with during the early stages. The first image shows that San Marino had little intention of initiating any sort of press while Scotland built possession. Their average PPDA (passes per defensive action) of 160 in the first half is astonishingly high considering San Marino’s average PPDA across qualification was 26.71, which is still significantly higher than the average across every team in the qualification campaign, which was 14.14.
The second image provides a visual example of San Marino’s stubborn tactics, with their average shape emphasising their intention to stifle Scotland’s ability to penetrate central areas of the San Marino defensive half.
This example from the seventh minute highlights Scotland’s dilemma. Christie is in possession on the right and his route forward is immediately blocked by the San Marino left-back, while the narrowness of the Sammarinese midfield also restricts Christie’s ability to play inside the pitch. The Celtic man is forced to play backwards to right-back Palmer, who himself opts to roll the ball back to Devlin, who is now tasked with rebuilding possession.
Scotland were faced with a similar situation moments later, this time with McTominay in possession in the centre of the pitch. Having received from centre-back Devlin, McTominay’s route forward is immediately obstructed by a six-man San Marino block, again forcing the midfielder to play backwards to debutant Findlay.
With a combined 3 caps, it would be fair to say that Scotland’s centre-back pairing on the night were lacking in international experience. In addition to this, the clubs of Devlin and Findlay, Aberdeen, and Kilmarnock respectively, both slip below the league average in terms of possession, indicating that neither player is particularly used to dominating the ball as much as Scotland did in this game.
This image shows Devlin in possession, with space ahead of him to step into. By stepping into midfield with the ball, Devlin may draw pressure, opening up gaps in the San Marino block for the Scotland midfielders and forwards to exploit and receive in. However, on this occasion, Devlin opts to play a sideways pass to Findlay which does little to disrupt the opposition, allowing San Marino to stay compact and frustrate the home team.
Moments later, after receiving the ball, the inexperienced Findlay is faced with the same situation and again has the opportunity to disorganise the right side of the Sammarinese block. Although, like his centre-back partner, he ignores this option and instead plays sideways again to Devlin, and thus fails to advance the Scotland attack.
In previous matches, Scotland’s reliance on the long ball has somewhat stunted their attacking ability, with very few of the strikers used, such as Burke and Brophy, able to hold the ball up and bring others into play. Due to the amount of possession and the gulf in quality between the two teams, there was certainly less reliance on this tactic, however, a lack of patience early on in the match forced some players’ hands.
Here, right back Palmer is in possession and San Marino are applying no pressure on the ball, meaning he has time to either build possession with the players around him to draw out the opposition, or to advance and commit the San Marino midfield. Instead, the Sheffield Wednesday full-back opts to play long up towards McGinn and Shankland, neither of which are able to get on the end of the pass, which as shown in the second image, lands deep into the final third and rolls out of play.
Finding ways through the block
Despite their difficulties in the early stages, Scotland began to find their rhythm and were soon able to find ways to play through San Marino.
One way in which they were able to do this was through the centre-backs, who despite their early reluctance, were now aware of their opportunity to step forward with the ball and find players in advanced positions. The image above shows Devlin in possession, and here he is now willing to take advantage of the space in front of him. He advances with the ball, which prompts the San Marino central midfielder and left midfielder to move towards him, creating a passing lane and space for Christie to receive between the lines.
The second image shows just how far Devlin was able to advance and sees Christie, having been able to turn, managing to drive at the San Marino defence and register an attempt at goal, winning a corner.
Findlay was also able to take advantage of the space in front of him on the left side of the Scotland attack, as seen in the example above. Here, his positive touch enables him to drive beyond the first line of pressure into the San Marino half. The second image shows that this time, the San Marino midfielders have opted to retreat deep into the half and only once Findlay has entered the final third is he pressed by the central midfielder. Shankland should be highlighted here, as his position, where he is pinning the two central defenders, creates space for Forrest to receive between the lines of the Sammarinese block and drive forward.
Findlay’s ability to break lines was evident again here, this time, from a deeper position, he is able to bypass the San Marino midfield and find Forrest in front of the back four. The second image again highlights the winger’s ability to turn and drive at the defence, advancing into the box, where he can have an attempt on goal.
Another way in which Scotland were able to progress into the central areas of the final third was through the roles played by wingers, Christie and Forrest. With both players playing on their weaker sides, it was to be assumed that this was to allow both to threaten inside. The first image above shows this tactic in action with Christie on the right side. Here, he combines with McGinn, allowing him to attack the space in front of the San Marino penalty area.
The second image now shows Christie, having come inside, able to slip a pass into McTominay, who has made an excellent run in behind San Marino left centre-back, where he is able to win a corner for his team.
Forrest was also effective when coming inside from the left-wing, as shown in the images above, the first of which shows left-back Robertson in possession. Forrest, having already moved inside, can receive inside the fullback, which allows him to draw out the right centre back. The second image shows that by drawing out the central defender, Scotland can free up space on the right-hand side for Christie to exploit. Forrest plays an excellent clipped pass into the path of his Celtic teammate, who gets into a crossing position.
San Marino’s problems in possession
Unsurprisingly, San Marino struggled to produce anything of note during the game, and this was due mainly to their lack of quality, which Scotland took full advantage of.
With a lack of height throughout their team, the visitors bravely looked to build possession from the goalkeeper, a tactic which brought them little success. Scotland’s PPDA of 4.42 was their lowest throughout the qualifying campaign and in particular, their first-half score of 3.7 reflected their aggression when out of possession.
The images above are an example of Scotland’s aggressive approach, and show Forrest forcing the San Marino right-back to pass back to the goalkeeper. The second image shows McGinn and Shankland pressuring both the keeper and the San Marino centre-back, leaving the keeper with no option but to play long, from which Scotland can win back possession.
This example also highlights the effectiveness of the Scotland press. San Marino were again forced backwards, this time to the feet of the centre back. This negative pass acts as a trigger for the Scotland front four to step up onto the back four and limit the passing options for the player on the ball. The second image shows the San Marino left-sided centre-back in possession, having received from his fellow defender. The front four, as mentioned, have pressed high, meaning that the short passing options for the San Marino defender are limited, causing him to play long, allowing Scotland to regain possession.
Here, Scotland’s pressing ability was on display again, where they managed to force San Marino to give up possession via a hopeful ball towards their front two. The first image shows McGinn pressing the left centre-back, while Shankland and Christie step up towards the players either side of him. McGinn’s angle of approach prevents a pass into the feet of a central player, so the centre-back opts to play to the left-back.
Immediately, the left-back is pressed from behind by Christie, while McGregor is now tight to the central midfielder, again preventing San Marino from passing inside. The left centre-back drops off, allowing him to receive from the left-back, however, Scotland’s press means his only option is to play long, which allows Scotland to regain possession and build their attack.
Having not registered a goal throughout the entire campaign so far, it was no surprise that San Marino were unable to score at Hampden. The images above highlight that a lack of support going forward restricted San Marino’s ability to create anything of note in the match. Having won possession high up the pitch, the San Marino forward has only one teammate in the Scotland half, resulting in a shot from the middle of the Scotland half which trickles into the hands of spectator McLaughlin.
San Marino were presented with one half-chance, which came in the second fo the forward Nanni, however as seen in the images above, poor decision-making led to another straightforward save for McLaughlin. With an overload on the right side, Nanni would have been able to slip in one of the three players advancing in front of Robertson, however, instead opted to drive inside himself and shoot from distance.
Scotland’s creativity in the final third
As mentioned, Scotland’s inverted wingers enabled them to enter central areas in the final third, however, this was not the only tactic that allowed Scotland to create chances throughout the match.
Scotland’s ability to get their wingers into 1 v 1 situations gave them success in the wide areas and allowed them to create a string of chances early on in the match. In this first example, San Marino have cleared a Scotland corner as far as captain Robertson. Three players: Shankland, McGinn, and Devlin have remained on the shoulders of the back four, which causes them to narrow, creating space for Christie to receive in the wide area.
The second image shows Christie with time to drive at the San Marino left-back, while the rest of the back four remain pinned in the box by the three central Scotland players.
The final image shows that by driving into the box, Christie can commit two players. In addition to this, the positions of Shankland, McTominay, McGinn, and Devlin have pinned the back four on the edge of the six-yard box, while the midfield has also dropped into the box. This creates space for McGregor to receive on the edge of the penalty area, where his shot is deflected narrowly wide for a corner.
Here, Scotland are again able to utilise the switch of play, allowing them to take advantage of overloads created in the wide areas. This time, Christie is coming in off the right, and while the San Marino midfield has narrowed, he can switch the ball over to the left side of the pitch to Robertson.
The second image now shows Forrest, who has received from Robertson, able to drive inside, while the skipper’s overlap prevents the right-back from applying pressure. After managing to drive inside, Forrest forces the goalkeeper into a good save.
In the situation above, Robertson is in possession in the Scotland half, and once again can pick out Christie on the Scotland right side with an excellent switch of play. The Scotland wingers’ superb first touch allows him to immediately drive towards the retreating San Marino left-back and after entering the box, Christie manages to shift the ball onto his stronger left foot and plays an excellent ball across the six-yard box, which McGinn pokes into the net.
Another way in which Scotland were able to trouble the San Marino defence was through the movement of midfielders McGinn and McTominay. The forward runs of both players were key to Scotland creating opportunities in the final third.
In the example above, Forrest ‘s wide position forces the right-back to move out towards the touchline. Out of picture, Shankland’s high position is occupying the two San Marino centre-backs, which opens up the half-space for McTominay to penetrate.
The second image shows Robertson was able to find the Man United midfielder who is now isolated 1 v 1 with the recovering San Marino central midfielder. From here, McTominay manages to find room to cut the ball back into the path of McGinn, who slots home Scotland’s second goal of the game.
Another example of these midfield runs is seen above, this time from McGinn. Christie is in possession on the Scotland right side and is being pressed by the San Marino left-back. Again, Shankland’s central position has the attention of both centre-backs, allowing McGinn to take advantage of the space between the left centre back and left-back. The second image shows that by driving inside, Christie was able to find the feet of McGinn in the half-space.
The San Marino centre-back is then caught in two minds about whether to press McGinn or stop the pass into Shankland. As can be seen in the third image the centre back opted not to press McGinn, which allowed the Aston Villa midfielder to turn and slip in Shankland down the side of the San Marino centre-back. Shankland’s well-timed run in behind the San Marino defence enabled him to get into a cutback position from which he delivers a ball across the face of the goal, which is diverted out for a corner kick.
This image above highlights Scotland’s tactics of targeting the half-space, which as seen from the examples above, was key to their chance creation throughout the game.
Scotland’s lone strikers have struggled throughout this campaign. Burke, Brophy, and McBurnie have all found it difficult to hold the ball up and bring the Scotland midfielders into play. However, Shankland, who was making his first start for the National Team, did fantastically well throughout the game to link with the Scotland midfielders, enabling them to take advantage of an often unbalanced San Marino defence.
The first of the three images above shows centre-back Devlin winning an aerial challenge and sending his header forward towards Shankland. The second image highlights Shankland using his chest to set the ball for McGinn who is able to switch the play to Robertson. As seen from the third image, this enables Scotland to exploit the weak side of the San Marino defence and bypass the midfield.
An almost identical situation also appears in the images above. Devlin is again able to rise higher than the San Marino forward and direct his header towards Shankland. The Dundee United striker cleverly flicks the ball into the path of McTominay, who as shown in the third image, is now able to drive towards the San Marino defence and plays in Forrest, who can attack 1 v 1 against the San Marino right-back.
The previous images have highlighted Shankland’s ability to manipulate aerial balls, while the images above display his competence in dealing with passes played into his feet. In the first image, Forrest plays a pass forward to Shankland, who moves towards the ball and while using his strength to hold off the defender, he manages to lay the ball off to McTominay, who can advance.
Shankland’s excellent link-up play is demonstrated again here. On this occasion, McTominay fizzes a pass into the feet of the young striker, who once again manages to pin the San Marino centre back and is able to lay the ball off to Christie, who plays in the overlapping Robertson to cross into the box.
This match’s result was never in doubt, as Scotland were expected to dominate this game and they did not disappoint. A 5-0 victory, as well as some impressive performances by newly capped players such as Michael Devlin, Stuart Findlay, and Lawrence Shankland, would certainly have encouraged Steve Clarke, who will no doubt be using these remaining Group I games to identify the best eleven players suited to start the upcoming playoff game.