Scotland: Gordon Strachan faces familiar dilemmas in squad choices
A new campaign is unfolding for Gordon Strachan, but the same old issues remain. Even if his Scotland squad is evolving, so there is at least a sense of progress happening, radical change is not within the manager's reach.
He joked about being able to field an entire team of left-backs, but there can only be grim humour when the squad is so strong in one area yet lacks depth in others. Strachan must be resourceful, since the selections have to be made on the basis of his judgement rather than public opinion.
The first squad of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign was a reminder of nagging doubts, as well as an act of faith by the manager; he is trusting again in a core of players.
Strachan has selected the same four centre-backs who provided his options in the last campaign. Russell Martin, 30, and Grant Hanley, 24, are likely to be the starting pairing. Christophe Berra, 31, and Gordon Greer provide back-up, but Greer will be 37 when the World Cup finals are played.
There is a shortage of options at centre-back, with John Souttar of Hearts and Danny Wilson of Rangers the only likely candidates from the Scottish Premiership.
Strachan, though, has not seen persuasive enough displays to change from his four regulars.
"Hanley's a young fella," Strachan said. "I've not got a problem with the age, it's the quality. There are young ones in [the squad]. It's the quality; are you playing regularly, are you feeling good about yourself?"
Hearts right-back Callum Paterson provides competition for Alan Hutton, but also a sense of the squad being rejuvenated. Along with Celtic's Kieran Tierney, Hibs' John McGinn and Rangers' Barrie McKay, he has one cap, while Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton and Fulham midfielder Kevin McDonald are in the squad but yet to make their international debuts.
"I've got five youngsters there who have broken through in the last six to nine months," Strachan said.
"It could have been easy for us to have easy friendly games, that would have been good for our standings, good for our status as coaches, but we decided to be braver and take on four big nations. [1-0 wins v Czech Republic and Denmark, defeats by Italy (1-0) and France (3-0).]
"From that, we've got some great information, which we'll need for the upcoming campaign, but the bonus is that we've got these guys who came through. We've worked with them closely - it's not just working with them on the football field, but off the pitch - getting to know them, their attitude, and that's why they're in the squad.
"We can rely upon them, trust them. We hope over the next year or so that they'll progress at their clubs, and that will help us out."
Striking a balance
Shaun Maloney may yet return to the squad, but there is less certainty for Ross McCormack. The striker moved from Fulham - where he scored 23 goals last season - to Aston Villa for £12m in the summer, but continues to be peripheral in Strachan's thoughts.
"There could be about 10, 12 players you would think [could be selected], but you have to have a variation of players when you pick the squad, so you can change the game, the way you want to play," Strachan said.
"With the strikers, everybody is different. I wish there was one who had everything, but guys have got their different strengths. I saw Ross on Saturday, but I've got to think what is best for the whole group."
McCormack is technically adept, strong enough to thrive in the Championship and quick-witted. International centre-backs will tower over him, and other players are more pacy, but McCormack has a predatory instinct that allows him to come alive inside the penalty area.
Strachan has been consistent in his variety of strikers, since Jordan Rhodes - another whose effectiveness comes in the final third - has never been a regular. Instead, Steven Fletcher, for his technique and ability with his back to goal, Chris Martin, for his stature and strength, and Steven Naismith, for his versatility and work-rate, are all established.
Leigh Griffiths is, too, but must now be pushing for a starting place. The issue for Strachan is that Scotland often don't enjoy long periods of possession and have to sit deeper than the striker is used to at Celtic. Yet he has developed into a more rounded forward than the one who liked to play off the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind.
"He was terrific last week," Strachan said of Griffiths' display against Hapoel Beer Sheva at Celtic Park. "Not only did he score two, but he was involved in two goals. His movement in the box is getting better. He's in a good place at the moment."