After gaining promotion from Group C in last season’s edition of the UEFA Nations League, Steve Clarke’s Scotland side were drawn in Group B2 alongside Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Israel. Their first match of the new campaign was a home tie against Israel, who also happen to be the team that awaits them in their Euro 2021 play-off semi-final next month.
After ending the Euro 2021 qualifying campaign with three consecutive wins, albeit against much weaker opposition, there was a good feeling about this young Scotland squad which was now packed with players with Premier League and UEFA Champions League experience. However, the majority of these players are midfielders, with a lack of depth in some positions appearing to be the team’s only concern coming into this double-header. Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney made his long-awaited international return two years after his last appearance, in which he netted an own goal in a 2-1 defeat against the Israelis. However, this left Steve Clarke contemplating how he could fit both Tierney and captain Andy Robertson into the starting eleven.
Despite their promotion into the UEFA Nations League Group B, Israel were coming off the back of a poor Euro 2021 qualifying campaign and would no doubt be looking to take advantage of an empty Hampden Park.
The game finished in a 1-1 draw, with a 73rd-minute equaliser earning a point for the visiting team and ending Scotland’s three-match winning run. This tactical analysis will identify Scotland’s struggles going forward and in addition, will provide an analysis of Scotland’s new-look shape, which appeared to be an attempt to accommodate Tierney and Robertson, as well as mirror the away team’s tactics.
Scotland lined up in 3-4-2-1 formation as opposed to a 4-2-3-1, a shape which the team seemed to have become accustomed to during Euro 2021 qualifying. Derby County’s David Marshall started in goal and the back-three in front of him sprung a surprise as Manchester United’s Scott McTominay started on the right of the three alongside Scott McKenna in the centre and Kieran Tierney on the left of the three. Celtic’s James Forrest and Premier League winner Andy Robertson started in the wing-back positions, while Rangers’ Ryan Jack and long-serving Celtic man Callum McGregor looked to build on their so-far solid central midfield partnership. Ryan Christie and John McGinn lined up either side of debutant striker Lyndon Dykes, who would be no doubt be high in confidence after his £2million move to QPR.
Scotland’s shape seemed to be an attempt to match Israel’s 3-5-2 formation in which Hibernian’s Ofir Marciano started in goal. Celtic’s Nir Bitton started on the right of a back three alongside Tibi and fellow Celtic defender Hatem Abd Elhamed. Dasa and Tawatha started in the wing-back positions, while Peretz, Natcho, and Solomon made up the midfield three. Hoffenheim’s Moanes Dabbur started in a front two alongside Eran Zahavi, who netted an impressive 12 goals in Euro 2021 qualifying, finishing the campaign as the fifth-highest scorer.
Scotland struggling to break Israel down
As has been a recurring issue throughout Steve Clarke’s reign, Scotland struggled throughout the game to play through a stubborn Israel side, who unsurprisingly, were happy to sit and let Scotland move the ball from side to side in front of them.
In what appeared to be a formation that would feature two attacking midfielders in Christie and McGinn, Scotland may have used a box midfield to overload the three Israel midfielders. However, as seen from the graphic above, Christie and McGinn are in an almost flat front three alongside Dykes, who himself was often forced to drop extremely deep to create a passing lane through the midfield.
An example of this is seen in the image above, where Dykes has dropped to receive a pass from Tierney, playing on the left of a back three. As shown, Dykes attracts two Israel centre-backs towards the ball, creating space in behind for either Christie, McGinn, or even Robertson to move into. However, there is no movement beyond the Scotland debutant until McGregor, the deepest of the five players highlighted, makes a run beyond Dykes, although, by this time, Bitton has recovered back into position leaving the Scots with no option but to play backwards.
In this next example, Tierney is once again in possession of the ball, however, his forward passing options are limited, with neither Christie nor McGregor taking up positions to disturb the Israel block. Christie is blocked by the pressing shadow of the Israel midfielder which limits his ability to receive between the lines, leaving Tierney with no option but to exchange passes with Robertson and move the ball back along the back three.
A similar problem is seen on this occasion, with McTominay this time in possession of the ball. Here, both McGregor and Jack are positioned behind the ball, which should prompt McGinn and/or Christie to drop into positions around the Israel midfield to allow Scotland to play through. Instead, as seen at the top of the image, Christie remained wider, while McGinn, out of the picture, remained higher up the pitch attempting to occupy an Israel central defender. With limited options to play forward, McTominay attempted a long switch of play that Robertson challenged for, conceding a throw-in.
This image once again demonstrates Scotland’s structural issues, with the highlighted area indicating how the home team made it difficult for themselves when attempting to breach the Israel block. Here, if McGregor moved beyond the Israel front two he may have been able to either allow Tierney to step out with the ball and commit the Israel midfielder, or he could have played a bounce pass with the Arsenal left-back, which would have attracted pressure from the deepest Israel midfielder and may have created a passing lane up to Dykes. However, the Celtic midfielder’s position means that the block remains undisturbed, causing Tierney once again to play backwards to McKenna.
Failing to find Robertson in attacking positions
Another way in which Scotland’s shape hindered them going forward, was that Christie’s desire to receive and create from the wide areas prevented Robertson from influencing the Scotland attacks, which he normally does so well for his club.
This image shows McGregor in possession on the edge of the final third, with Robertson hugging the left touchline. However, as seen, Christie opts to drift wide and receives the pass from McGregor, a position from which he then drives inside and concedes possession. Had Christie moved into the highlighted area, this may have given Scotland a better opportunity to trouble the Israeli defence. Firstly, it would have created a 1 v 1 situation for Robertson against the Israel right wing-back, thus creating a possible crossing opportunity. Also, Christie would be in a position from which he can make a run in behind the right-back to receive or open up a passing lane into the feet of Dykes.
A similar situation occurs here, with Tierney in possession in a deeper position. Again, Christie looks to come towards the ball and moves towards the left touchline, a movement which prompts Robertson to make a forward run in behind the Israeli right-back. The issue here is that once again, Christie is attracting pressure towards the Scotland left side and thus reducing the space that both he and Robertson have to operate in, making it difficult for Tierney to play a forward pass.
Had Christie remained in a narrower position, or dropped nearer the referee, Robertson could have received the ball and would have undoubtedly been able to set himself up to play forward to either Dykes or McGinn.
Moments later, the same pattern of movement appeared, with this rotation now appearing to be a tactic employed by Steve Clarke. However, unsurprisingly, Tierney was again forced to play backwards, as Robertson’s forward run put him in an offside position, while Christie was being closely monitored by his Celtic teammate Nir Bitton.
This image sums up the issue, with both Robertson and Christie taking up an almost identical position of the pitch, attracting two Israel defenders towards them in the process. Tierney once again exchanges passes with Robertson before finding McGregor with a forward pass. However, after playing to Christie the ball quickly makes its way back to the Scotland left-sided centre-back.
Uninspiring in the final third
Scotland managed only one attempt on target from open play during the entire game, which in addition to their struggles getting into the final third, suggests that creating chances was just as challenging. However, especially in the first half, the decision-making in the final third was questionable, with several audacious long-range attempts at goal being taken instead of attempting to combine and create opportunities from crosses or from close range.
This image shows the positions from which Scotland opted to shoot from, with seven of the 11 shots taken coming from outside the box. The same number of attempts were blocked, which in itself indicates that many of the shots taken could be considered as low-value shots. This is supported by the fact that of all those taken outside the box, Ryan Jack’s attempt (shot number 10) carried the highest xG value of 0.04.
This image shows an attempt from Christie, which he blazes over the crossbar. The blue arrow indicates a movement that Robertson was in a position to make, had the Celtic midfielder shifted the ball away from the Israel player pressuring from behind. However, Christie took little time to decide he was shooting, which upon reflection, was unlikely to trouble Marciano in the Israel goal.
Pictured above is Tierney, who is in possession around 35 yards away from the Israel goal. With Christie, McGinn, Dykes, and Forrest all lurking in and around the penalty area, this moment presented Scotland with a useful opportunity to take advantage of Robertson’s excellent delivery from the left side. However, despite the space Robertson has to deliver from, Tierney instead opts to take on a shot which is blocked by the Israel midfielder and sent looping into the path of the away side’s right-back. This is another example of Scotland’s poor decision-making in the final third, which prevented them from creating quality chances throughout the entire game.
An almost identical situation presents itself here, this time on the edge of the Israel box. Again, Robertson finds himself in acres of space on the left but is ignored by McGregor, who instead attempts to shoot through the bodies, dragging a tame effort wide of Marciano’s goal. This signified another wasted opportunity, that could have really troubled the Israeli back-line.
Dykes became the sixth striker in nine games to lead the line for Steve Clarke, with Steven Naismith, Oli McBurnie, Lawrence Shankland, Oliver Burke, and Eamonn Brophy each tasked with the role previously in the Euro 2021 qualifiers. Injuries to McBurnie and Shankland meant that Dykes was the common-sense choice to start up front and the QPR man gave a good account of himself in what has become a thankless task for the national team.
Scotland’s forwards have struggled to compete at times against strong, physical defences which in reality, characterise many of the teams that they have come up against during Clarke’s time in charge. With this in mind, Scotland’s lone striker must be able to hold the ball up and bring midfielders into play, and this is something Dykes did well throughout the match, as seen in the example above. Here, the QPR man was able to outjump the Israeli defenders and nod the ball down to McGinn, who then managed to switch play to Christie on the far side.
A similar situation occurred here, with the Aussie-born forward demonstrating his strength by holding off the Israel centre-back and again combining with McGinn, who is able to find Jack in a central area.
Dykes saw very little of the ball in attacking areas, reasons for which have been touched upon above. However, Scotland fans will be eager to see Dykes again, with the game against a depleted Czech Republic side presenting him with an excellent opportunity to stake a claim for the number nine jersey.
Israel taking advantage on the Scotland right side
One of the game’s major talking points was the inclusion of McTominay as a make-shift right-sided centre-back, a position which he had appeared to be shoehorned into in order to accommodate other players on the pitch. The Manchester United midfielder far from disgraced himself, though his lack of experience did shine through at times, with Israel managing to take advantage of his poor positioning and lack of awareness on numerous occasions throughout the match.
This situation led to the Israel equalising goal and came from a throw-in on the left side. Here, McTominay is slow to react to the ball going into Dabbur, which is subsequently flicked into the path of Zahavi, who finishes expertly. Had McTominay recovered to the other side of his defensive partner, McKenna, after the throw was taken, he would have been in a better position to defend the flick-on, thus possibly being able to prevent the goal.
On this occasion, the Scotland back three have been dragged out of position, with all three players defending on the right side of the pitch. Between them, Tierney and McTominay are unable to regain possession from Zahavi, who plays a reverse pass into Dabbur, who manages to switch the play. The second image shows the cross played after Dabbur switched the play, with neither McTominay nor Tierney appearing to be aware of the two players behind them. Dabbur met the cross and had his header saved by Marshall in the Scotland goal, sparing the blushes of Tierney and in particular McTominay, who moments before had misjudged a header when attempting to clear the cross.
Overall, this was a poor Scotland performance, in which many players struggled to adapt to the new 3-4-2-1 system. With a lack of creativity in central areas and poor decision-making in the final third, Scotland fans will be hoping to see a more convincing performance on Monday evening, when Scotland take on a COVID-19-hit Czech Republic side.