What we learned about Scotland against Northern Ireland

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Christophe Berra's late goal gave Scotland a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland
Christophe Berra's late goal gave Scotland a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland

Scotland's victory over Northern Ireland was low-key, but still valuable. Confidence and momentum remained intact, after all, but there were also elements of the occasion for Gordon Strachan to ponder.

The Scotland manager is now preparing his squad for the qualifying match against Gibraltar at Hampden on Sunday. The expectation is of a comprehensive victory, since the visitors essentially draw upon a pool of semi-professional players, so what did Strachan learn from the display against Northern Ireland?

Steven Fletcher is valuable to the side

The tendency is to focus on the poor goal scoring return from the Sunderland striker. Fletcher has only struck four times in 32 appearances for his club this season, and only has one international goal to his credit.

Yet his contribution to the team reaches beyond his finishing, which can be indecisive.

As the lone striker, Fletcher plays a crucial role in building passages of play. His technique, ability in the air and strength allow him to be a central figure that moves pivot around, and he is capable of incisive passes that cut though defences to release teammates.

It is frustrating when he scorns chances, but Scotland are at their most fluid when Fletcher is playing up front, because he dovetails so well with the attacking midfielders.

Shaun Maloney prefers to flit around he edge of the penalty area, and so on occasion against Northern Ireland the Scots lacked numbers in the penalty area, but Steven Naismith provided more attacking thrust when he came on.

Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher has returned to the Scotland set-up under Gordon Strachan
Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher has returned to the Scotland set-up under Gordon Strachan

Popular opinion focuses on the free-scoring spells that Jordan Rhodes has enjoyed at domestic level, but his all-round game is less extensive. The ideal balance might be Maloney out wide with Naismith supporting Fletcher from deep.

Ikechi Anya's pace is fearsome

The Watford winger's main attribute had already been demonstrated in a Scotland jersey, but his bursts beyond Paddy McNair, the Manchester United defender, were a stark reminder of how he can disarm opponents.

Anya was unplayable for a 15-minute spell, and much of Scotland's best attacking work in the opening half hinged on Anya's involvement.

He tailed off in the second half, but he has the speed and directness to spread disorder to even the most well-organised defence. With the right support from midfield and full-back, Anya can be a vivid presence for Scotland.

His finishing and deliveries are not wholly reliable, but Gibraltar will try to limit Scotland and trying to combat Anya's pace could unbalance their defence and provide openings elsewhere.

Ikechi Anya (right) takes on Kilmarnock and Northern Ireland striker Josh Magennis
Ikechi Anya (right) takes on Kilmarnock and Northern Ireland striker Josh Magennis

Full-backs matter

Craig Forsyth made a solid impression on his first start for Scotland, and some of his crossing from the left was effective. Steven Whittaker was also dependable enough at right-back, but replacements can bring an added dimension to Scotland's play.

Alan Hutton and Andrew Robertson are currently considered the first-choice full-backs, and both are adept at working on the overlap and assisting attacks. Against a packed defence, the extra width and running from deep can be an important ingredient.

If Maloney plays on the right, then his natural inclination to drift infield to become involved will be effectively balanced by Hutton's willingness to surge towards the byline. Robertson has also scored for Scotland, so his attacking instincts have already provided sound on the international stage.

Scott Brown matters

James McArthur worked well alongside Darren Fletcher in midfield, even though he was shot-shy in the final third and passed the ball when he might have struck an effort on goal himself. Fletcher, too, was typically industrious, but the drive and purpose of Scott Brown was notably absent.

The Celtic midfielder brings a dynamism and bite to the side that can set the tone for some games. The assumption is that Gibraltar will sit deep and try to deny Scotland the space and time in which to attack the final third, and Brown's support from a withdrawn role will potentially be significant.

His partnership with Fletcher, in all likelihood, or McArthur, if it came to it, would be a broader mix of attributes, as well as providing Scotland's midfield with greater urgency.

Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie made his debut against Northern Ireland

Matt Ritchie has promise

The Bournemouth midfielder was competent in possession and showed in patches that he is technically capable. The Northern Ireland game passed him by at times, but during the first half that was mostly because Anya was playing so vibrantly on the opposite flank.

Ritchie has provided the most assists in the Championship this season, and clearly has the potential to be an asset for Scotland. Confidence and self-possession on the international stage will come in time. There are more established players for the flanks in Anya and Maloney, while Naismith, Johnny Russell, James Forrest and, when fit, Robert Snodgrass can also play there.

For now, Ritchie is a good addition to the squad, but he will need to play his way into a regular starting place.

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