Gordon Strachan faces several challenges to improve Scotland

Gordon Strachan, coaching staff and players pose for a photo after the 6-0 win over Gibraltar at the end of Scotland's failed qualifying campaign for France next summer
Gordon Strachan, coaching staff and players pose for a photo after the 6-0 win over Gibraltar at the end of Scotland's failed qualifying campaign for France next summer

The decision to commit to another qualifying campaign was only the first issue for Gordon Strachan to address.

There has been little dissent to him remaining as Scotland manager, and the supporters after the final Euro 2016 tie in Gibraltar made a particularly significant impact on all of the backroom staff, but if improvement is to be achieved then problems need to be solved.

Strachan's decision-making process would have involved speaking to his coaching staff and his family.

There would also have been an element of self-examination and a rigorous enough assessment of his resources.

Progress was made in the Euro 2016 campaign, although it has to be separated into an improvement in the mood of the squad and the supporters, and an initial advancement in the performances of the team in the first half of the group, followed by disappointing periods in games in the second half and a critical defeat in Georgia.

Scotland's World Cup qualifying group contains England, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, with the country finishing top qualifying for the finals in Russia in 2018 automatically, and the second-placed nation hoping to reach the play-offs by not being the worst-placed of the group runners-up.

Strachan will seek improvements in performance levels and consistency in the hope that the gains will be enough to challenge England for qualification.

Defensive concerns

Like many international managers, Strachan can bemoan imbalances in his squad. He has a surfeit of attacking midfielders and three solid top-level goalkeepers who could all make legitimate claims to the number one jersey. In other areas of the squad, though, there is less competition and more angst about the future.

Few players are emerging to challenge Alan Hutton for his right-back berth
Few players are emerging to challenge Alan Hutton for his right-back berth

The defence appears threadbare in comparison, particularly at centre-back. Russell Martin has developed into a consistent performer at international and Barclay's Premier League level, but the positions around him are open to greater question.

Alan Hutton has regularly been selected at right-back, even when not playing for Aston Villa, but a young player has yet to emerge to challenge him and Steven Whittaker.

At left-back, there is a choice to make between Andrew Robertson of Hull City and Graeme Shinnie of Aberdeen. That conundrum at least will please Strachan, not least because Shinnie can also perform with energy and application in central midfield, but they are both relatively inexperienced.

At centre-back, Blackburn Rovers' Grant Hanley has tended to partner Martin, with Gordon Greer and Christophe Berra providing alternatives, but again there are no young players pushing for inclusion right now.

To shore up a team that conceded more goals than the three sides that finished above them in Euro 2016 qualifying, Strachan cannot count on new options coming to the fore, so will need to find a greater balance between the desire to be progressive and ambitious on the ball but tight, compact and disciplined when the opposition have possession. The tweaks need to come from strategy and mindset more than resources.

Attacking solutions

The optimism that Strachan delivered was built upon the attacking purpose he instilled in his side. The emphasis was on passing the ball with consideration and intent when Scotland were in possession, and the side was sent out with a central attacker and three busy, quick and artful attackers playing between the forward and two central midfielders.

Scotland winger Matt Ritchie
Matt Ritchie repaid Gordon Strachan's faith in him by scoring a stunning goal against Poland at Hampden

That shape and style was designed to make the most of Scotland's strength, which lay in players like Shaun Maloney, Steven Naismith, Robert Snodgrass, Ikechi Anya, James Morrison, James Forrest and Matt Ritchie. With the likes of Barry Bannan and Johnny Russell also providing options for that area of the team, there seems little worth in redrawing how Scotland line up.

The challenge becomes, though, supplying goals while Steven Fletcher plays up front on his own when his strengths are technical and based on building up passages of play rather than prolific instincts. Leigh Griffiths, Ross McCormack and Jordan Rhodes can all make claims for inclusion based on their club scoring form, but don't necessarily fit into the style of play.

Finding a way to occasionally play individuals who do not fit into the template would provide the manager with greater options.

There is a balance to be struck, and Fletcher's selection tended to divide opinion but prove to be correct on the basis of the way the games played out, but Scotland do not have a strong enough side to discount in-form players even if accommodating them is sometimes a challenge.

Mentality matters

The Scotland players were stunned by Poland's late equaliser at Hampden in Euro 2016 qualifying
The Scotland players were stunned by Poland's late equaliser at Hampden in Euro 2016 qualifying

Teams can suffer off days, and the defeat away to Georgia was a collective lapse in form. Even so, there is a sense of Scottish teams and players not being assertive enough in away games that they need to win. The double header against Georgia and Germany was a case in point, since the display against the world champions at Hampden was much better, sharper and livelier, even if it also ended in defeat.

Scottish teams in Europe have also faltered when the reasonable expectation was that they ought to have won. The Scottish football psyche has lost some of its self-assurance. There was a time when Scottish players carried a gallus mood into games, but that seems to have diminished with every failure to qualify for a major tournament.

Marginal gains have become the mantra of successful teams and sports, but a winning attitude and mentality is just as critical. The Scottish players were full of self-belief in the first half of the Euro 2016 campaign, but then faltered at the key moment. There is a psychological gap to be overcome.

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