Scotland kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 5-1 victory over group minnows Malta. It may have been a resounding win come full time, but there was a real risk of Scotland slipping up.
Malta stubbornly held firm in the first half and equalised quickly after Scotland took the lead through a Snodgrass goal. But in the second, Malta provided very little in the way of a threat as they were reduced to ten men and subsequently nine-man late on.
Despite all the positives going forward through the likes of Matt Ritchie, Robert Snodgrass, Andy Robertson and even Oliver Burke – there are grave concerns over Scotland’s central defensive pairing. Russell Martin and Grant Hanley while good Championship defenders don’t seem to cut it at international level.
In Scotland’s footballing history, we have had top class defenders from the likes of Alan Hansen, Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Billy McNeill and John Greig – but while our game and coaching has focused on attacking football it seems that the defensive side has been neglected and the development of our defenders has stalled.
While we have a number of defenders coming through the ranks at under-21 level, the failure of Strachan to blood them in friendlies has left us with a plethora of average and ageing defenders at the heart of our backline. They struggled to deal with Malta in the first half and against better opponents and strikers, Scotland could find themselves in trouble.
Scotland play Lithuania at Hampden next and that game should guarantee us another three points in the bag, before facing Slovakia and England away from home.
In previous campaigns, Scotland’s biggest failure was not taking maximum points from fixtures against the lower ranked sides and if we are to have any hope of qualifying for Russia in 2018, we must take maximum points against Malta and Lithuania for starters.
With James McFadden no longer on the scene and Strachan seemingly fixated on having our own Gareth Bale, it is refreshing to see Robert Snodgrass return from long-term injury and grab the game by the horns – it’s a far cry from his Livingston days.
Bagging a hat trick personally is a great achievement for Snodgrass, but the morale boost it would give him after such a long lay-off would serve him well going into the Lithuania game and beyond.
Keeping him fit is the ultimate goal for Scotland.
While the central defensive pairing of Hanley and Martin is suspect, another one was paying off brilliantly as Andrew Robertson at left back and Matt Ritchie ahead of him caused Malta a multitude of problems throughout the game.
Their overlapping play heralded back to the days of great Scottish full backs and wingers marauding down the wings. Strachan and the management team need to work on the right side with Callum Paterson looking assured throughout the match – apart from the blip which allowed Malta to score their equaliser.
Chris Martin was given his chance and despite scoring, he provided little up front and more often than not lost the ball. Can he really cut it at international level as the sole striker up front? It doesn’t look like it. Steven Fletcher was also given a run-out and did well when he came on, I suspect against the likes of England, the Sheffield Wednesday striker will be given the nod ahead of Martin and in my opinion the best striker we have at our disposal – Leigh Griffiths.
Playing as a sole striker under Ronny Deila developed Griffiths’ game significantly and he has now morphed into a player who owns that role. He will be given his shot at the Champions League group stage and should be handed the role against Slovakia, Slovenia and especially Lithuania when he is fit. Backed up with the attacking threat of Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass – Griffiths would be deadly in front of goal.
Scotland need to sort out their defensive frailties, while we do not have a plethora of experienced defenders at the highest level, Hanley and Martin need to be reminded that their places are at risk if they don’t pull their finger out.
I am still of the opinion that this qualifying campaign should be used to blood new talent in time for the European Championships in 2020 and the World Cup in 2022. The likes of Kingsley, Souttar, Paterson, Burke, McKay and McGinn should be given more chances than those who have failed us before like Hutton, Fletcher & co.
But we have kicked off our campaign in fine fashion and hopefully Lithuania will be put to the sword giving us a great platform to tackle our away games against Slovakia and England. Where we should be aiming to pick up some valuable points also.