In November 2020, Scotland ended their 23-year wait for a major tournament by pulling on every dramatic lever.
They got into Euro 2020 through the back door of the Nations League play-offs, sealed courtesy of a penalty shootout and achieved with the whole nation chained to their TV due to lockdown.
On Sunday night at Hampden, the final group game of Euro 2024 qualification was nothing more than a ceremonial party. What was pencilled in as a do-or-die contest against Norway’s Erling Halaand and Martin Odegaard turned out to be a dead rubber, a night where their two superstars were nowhere to be seen having amassed six fewer points than Steve Clarke’s side.
Scotland had completed the job last month with two games to spare, making it back-to-back appearances at the tournament. Unlike last time, the players were able to soak up the adulation of the home crowd during a full-time lap of honour, but there is a sense that this team can make a dent in Germany if they receive a favourable draw.
“We feel as if we didn’t do ourselves justice in the tournament but what we did do is create history by coming here,” said John McGinn after going out at the group stage in 2021.
“We need to learn from this experience. We need to become a nation that is used to coming to these tournaments. We need to become braver and better… This has been an experience I’ll never forget but hopefully it’s one of many in a Scotland shirt.”
The Aston Villa midfielder was true to his word. The World Cup qualifying group was disappointing but they have rebounded and this campaign has seen the biggest advance forward in a Scotland team for over two decades.
Simply making the tournament cannot constitute success for this group of players. They have the talent, the experience and a settled squad to target the knockout stages. But what do they need to do to realise that ambition?
Building possession against elite teams
With regular starters Angus Gunn, Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson, Aaron Hickey and Che Adams missing through injury, Clarke trialled a back four for the first time in years against Georgia last Thursday. It resulted in a 2-2 draw and the same formation was used in Sunday’s 3-3 draw with Norway. Both were open encounters which asked different questions of Scotland’s players.
Clarke’s 3-4-2-1 formation has been the platform to success but against better sides Scotland have to be able to play through the opposition press and not make the game attritional. That they were not more imaginative and braver on the ball was the main regret of Euro 2020.
The results in those final two group games mean it is five games without a win for Scotland but that is not a bad thing. The three games before that included losses to England, Spain and France — and Scotland should learn from those tests.
The 3-1 loss to England was a valuable reality check. Gareth Southgate’s team pressed high and Scotland could not regularly manipulate and play through. Against France, there were some positives to take in how they found space to play forward but in the other games, possession tended to be reactive.
At international level it is more difficult to devise a bespoke build-up style but Clarke and his players should have taken big lessons from the last five games.
Scotland have players used to playing in possession-based teams. Incorporating small details from club level, like the way Billy Gilmour has learned to conduct moves through the use of bounce passes under Roberto De Zerbi, can help sophisticate their play.
Growing squad depth
Gunn; Porteous, Hendry, Tierney; Hickey, Gilmour, McGregor, Robertson; McTominay, McGinn; Dykes.
Scotland’s main starting XI has been settled for a while now but below that Clarke has steadily built another layer of players.
Patterson can come in as a more attacking option at right back, Scott McKenna looks comfortable as a left centre back in a four, while Adams offers a more mobile striking option.
Elsewhere competition is slightly lacking, which is why Stoke’s Jacob Brown and Celtic’s Greg Taylor were afforded opportunities this month. Neither excelled but Lawrence Shankland served up a reminder of his goalscoring instincts against Georgia. It was a minor disappointment that neither he nor Verona left-back Josh Doig were given time to impress against Norway.
Final third mobility
There is likely to be an injury or two in the next seven months but the only real gaps in the squad for the flight to Germany remain in the final third.
Scotland lack dribblers, attacking playmakers and pace up front. Those are three missing profiles that make it difficult to score at the very top level but there are a few viable options.
Ben Doak impressed during Scotland Under-21’s 2-0 win over Belgium this week and, although only 18, has impressed Jurgen Klopp enough to make four appearances this season. If he can build up his playing minutes, even if that is out on loan after January, he could be the direct dribbler Scotland lack.
In attack, Scotland rely on McGinn and Scott McTominay’s forward runs into the box for most of their goals. They are both hugely important players but they are also not highly technical playmakers who thrive on receiving in tight spaces and threading the needle.
Ryan Gauld does. It seems unlikely that he will called upon but he was in the running for MLS MVP after registering 12 goals and 17 assists for the Vancouver Whitecaps this year.
Adams, Lyndon Dykes, Shankland and Kevin Nisbet are the four striker options at Clarke’s disposal but none of them will run away from defenders. Ryan Christie and Stuart Armstrong, often used in tandem with a traditional centre forward, are not players who run in behind either.
That is where the future of Harvey Barnes becomes interesting. The Newcastle attacker plays most of his football on the left wing but he could easily take up a free role off the striker if he commits to Scotland. The 25-year-old played one friendly for England in 2020 but his grandparents are Scottish which means he is eligible to switch allegiance.
He is seen as the most likely English-born player to be added to the ranks soon and his addition could give Scotland an extra dimension.
(Top photo: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)