Cultivating Optimism - Scotland's future
Updated: May 30
"Looks about right..."
- Twitter, May 2020
I asked if the above was our best team, and overwhelmingly the answer was yes. In fact, so convincing was @RBFootMem's contribution that everyone else merely scroll-nodded along in silent virtual agreement (presumably); just as I used to before becoming the guy who asked the question. [A very sincere thanks to all who have silently scrolled, read or otherwise interacted in our first week!]
In this article, we're looking at Scotland's formation, the abundance of talent in central midfield and why that gives ample reason for cheer. Having already considered Gilmour, McTominay and McGinn for the starting positions, we'll see how they could relate to one another as a trio on the pitch. Inevitably, in doing so, we will stumble into other positions and players, just as roots might intersect before feeding into the trunk. We will see how this Scotland team under Steve Clarke is a very different, er, tree, to that of McLeish.
In fact, we are barely recognisable bar some older roots which are now bedding into newer soil alongside those still to sprout (Gilmour). Nevertheless, the trunk is appearing and strengthening (McTominay), and the foliage found in the individual expression of the branches has blossomed in response to some clever re-training and pruning (McGinn).
Seeking your pardon to stay with the analogy for one more... as a growing, living organism whose purpose and fruit is to win football matches and score goals; the above formation - although shown lifeless on the TV graphic before kick-off - is actually bustling with movement, which you will already know in an age of heatmaps and OptaStats. So what exactly have Steve Clarke and his team introduced?
What we're trying to do, is put [in] a structure and a way of playing, that no matter who the personnel is, they understand what is expected of them in the context of the team performance... Hopefully, you (the media) saw that in the last couple of games.
- Steve Clarke, speaking ahead of the Cyprus game, November 2019
I saw it Steve, or at least I think I did; we are trying to win back possession, and are patiently using it to play to our strengths (McGinn), scoring some very well worked goals in the process. Given that this is a fairly safe observation (McGinn scored 7 in 6), let's have a go at unpacking it.
Out of possession, Scotland have had mixed fortunes, and we'll come back to a midfield solution later via the two controllers, McTominay and Gilmour. Briefly, our difficulties in defending have been chiefly as a result of Clarke not being able to play a settled central defensive pairing, and subsequent back four. This directly affects the midfield's purpose as the spaces on the pitch in front of the back four become more open for your opponent the less you know your team's tactics and your teammates' natural inclinations.
What transpires in this context is the less than ideal situation of learning who 'sits' and who 'goes' in a competitive game in front of thousands of people. Growth is like this. It takes time, requires the long-view and is often painful, but as there really is no viable alternative, we'll see here that Steve Clarke has already begun that work. A structure and style of play is visibly forming above the surface and we can glimpse it by examining our strengths. In order to do that, however, we need to learn from a painful memory.
At the Russia home game, Liam Cooper was selected for his debut, alongside Scotland servant Charlie Mulgrew, to mark one of the most physically intimidating footballers I've seen in the flesh, the enormous Artem Dzyuba. He bullied them, and his goalscoring performances befitted his frame, both home and away. Russia are by no means my favourite team, leaving aside irregularities which may have, ahem, physically enhanced their sporting prowess over the last few years; but not everything about everyone is bad - and as focusing on the positive is what A\M does, we'll learn from that here.
In preparation for the World Cup they hosted so well, I recall listening to journalist Sasha Goryunov describe this as 'the worst Russian team in history' on the Totally Football Show. So scathing was Sasha, that I was a bit miffed at him influencing my decision to have none of his compatriots in my Fantasy XI when they were unanimously brilliant, only thwarted at the last by a superb Croatian team. So how did they get from 'the worst team ever' to within penalties of the semi-finals? To borrow a phrase from Clarke, they introduced 'a structure and a way of playing'.
'What a tall, well-built side they are... they'll be a threat from set-pieces.'
- Davie Provan, c0-commentating on Russia at Hampden, Sept 2019
It takes certain genetics and some time in the gym to become a 'tall, well-built side', however, it takes a lot longer to become a team built well. This is what Steve Clarke is doing in the unforgiving competitiveness of International football, with player withdrawals, injuries, and limited time together. In not having to qualify for the World Cup, Russia were exempt from these constraints, they had time, however, their results in the lead-up to the World Cup were, underwhelming, to say the least. I'm less mad at Sasha now.
In light of this, how much more impressive is their subsequent turn in fortunes? They realised, in hosting the World Cup, that they didn't have time to dig up and start again, again. They had to find a way of playing now, that suited their best players, and they did, they invested in painful growth to reap long-term benefits.
Both well-built and built-well elements were clearly visible at Hampden as rather than just being a threat at set-pieces, they played keep-ball around our midfield. Watching the little white thing bounce in-and-off the man-mountain upfront; with Aleksandr Golovin, the AS Monaco playmaker, orchestrating matters behind him, I recall how silent the stands became following McGinn's opener.
Alongside him that day were McGregor and McTominay, and it wasn't from a lack of effort or quality that they found it difficult to close Russia down - it was just that they were playing a team who have been playing together, the same way, for two and a half years.
The Russian team isn't filled with world-class talent, the Russian league isn't wonderful (Scottish teams earned double the coefficient points of their Russian counterparts this season), they have three players that play abroad and most of their 'stars' are 30 or thereabouts.
Golovin was actually embarking upon what would prove to be a second underwhelming club-season, yet on the international stage, he knew exactly what he was doing, and looked every bit of the player that commanded an undisclosed, record-breaking sum in order to bring him to the Principality.
Although admittedly different players, would Golovin replace McGinn at Villa? There was a reason that none of the Premier League superpowers considered his talents, but many have been linked with the Scot. Nevertheless, Russia built their team around him, with superb results; and as I already posited in the last piece, in McGinn, we have the player to do just that. This is where the 'structure and style of play' part is dependent upon one thing, where your best players are located.
You've heard this before of course in footballing rhetoric over the years, particularly with our spoilt-for-choice brethren south of the border - 'if only England had built their team around Scholes, Hoddle or Le Tissier', 'if they were Italian or French they'd have had 100 caps'.
Whilst I adored Hoddle's style of play, this may or may not have been true, we will never know... what we do know is that Scotland objectively have that group of special players now and subsequently have that chance to be brave, to grow, and what was it we said earlier? Growth takes time and often hurts. Optimism feels strange as a Scot doesn't it?
Well, to make you squirm further with some more good news, it seems as though in this group of young, talented players, Steve Clarke is similarly recognising where our strengths lie, with most of McGinn's goals coming from our left side (Robertson, Fraser, Taylor and Fleck all involved).
This is not a fluke, and is why in the above graphic, McGinn's Championship Manager running arrow (FM for the millennials) is attacking the near-post, Clarke knows this and has created space for this to happen. First step of growth? Recognise your strengths.
John's in a fantastic run of form... he's starting to bring that into his international career.
- Steve Clarke, following the Kazahkstan game where McGinn scored 2 goals, bringing his tally to 7 in 6 games, November 2019
Out of possession, McGinn works harder than anyone. He is strong, agile, athletic and combative. Yet as we learned in his A\M feature, it is in possession where he shines, and it's that which we need to tap in to. In the absence of a clinical striker, we need to free him up to play his game, score goals and keep Scotland winning. So how do we enable that to happen? This is where I believe Gilmour and McTominay provide the answer better than any other combination we have.
In Billy Gilmour's accumulated minutes in the Premier League, he maintained possession 88.9% of the time. Now, I concede he has only played 99 minutes, but to put this further into context, only Rodri, Gündoğan and Wijnaldum have played as many minutes and have a better pass completion rate in midfield. The fact that he achieved this over one full game and two brief substitute appearances, changing positions, often mid-game, at 18(!), is astonishing.
However, for those that haven't yet read his A\M feature and remain unconvinced, let's analyse a few more stats. Against Grimsby in the Carabao Cup, Gilmour had the most touches of anyone on the pitch (101), possession of the football more than any other midfielder on the pitch (9.7% of the time), played the second-most key passes (4) and had a pass completion rate of 93% with 89 successful passes.
That's crazy. Look at someone doing a passing drill 100 times across multiple distances and see how often they misplace it, you'd consider them good passers if you allow for 10 or so to go marginally astray. Now do it at pace, under the floodlights in a full stadium against experienced professionals, demanding the ball from Premier League winners, whilst playing four key passes, then consider these stats again.
If Grimsby doesn't do it for you, then he was at it again against Liverpool, the best team in the world. Gilmour won POTM with the second-most tackles won (Andy Robertson was first), he had the second-most touches of all midfielders (behind an overly-conservative Fabinho, whom, playing on the counter, Chelsea let have the ball), played a key pass after a lovely nutmeg on the Brazilian, and even won 2 aerial challenges, proving he can recover as well as retain possession. Against an in-form Everton, his stats are ridiculous; gaining possession back 5 times and dictating play with the most amount of touches on the pitch (91) and a pass completion rate of 92.5%.
In short, he is very good at retrieving, keeping and using the ball, and rather than just playing it sideways, he is adept at playing it 'round the corner' and 'breaking the lines', as his manager Frank Lampard put it. The benefit of this is that he often plays, or attempts, the key pass (Grimsby/Liverpool) or the pass before the assist, as seen in Pedro's goal against Everton.
It's mindblowing just how good Gilmour already is and could be, and he should be the fulcrum of our National Team for the next decade starting now... but how does it compliment McGinn?
If this is naturally Gilmour's game, and McGinn's natural position for Scotland is the unnatural 'not-quite-9' we credited Steve Clarke in creating previously, then you can see why a prospective partnership between them is exciting. Actually, I challenge you to watch how often the combination Gilmour to McGinn, through the lines, occurs, when they are eventually on the same pitch together.
I for one can't wait. Before we go for some socially-distanced-skipping into the sunset however, one addend is missing from our equation, we need someone to recover possession alongside them. Enter Scott McTominay.
All our objectives are in front of us now
- Scott McTominay, September 2019
It is very hard to criticise this player's mentality. It is ironclad in the mould of some old Masters, and seems to have fuelled his dramatic improvement as a footballer over the last two seasons. It is in this observable improvement, rather than in the accumulation of statistics (which are also very impressive), where you can see most clearly how he has become such an imposing figure on the football pitch, and that's what we'll look at here.
‘I think this kid [McTominay] has a great desire to recover the ball when the team is not in possession... He’s a kid that chases the ball, that tries to recover high up the pitch and when he has the ball it is always simple... the simplicity sometimes is genius.’
- José Mourinho, Feb 2018
gifs courtesy of Pauly Kwestel @pkewstel McTominay loves to break up play and he is very good at it. These are four examples against the teams in the top four positions of the Premier League, but you can easily see more by seeing the multiple examples on YouTube. From the clips above, I'd like to pick out Liverpool and Chelsea for examples of how crucial his game is in releasing attacking players quickly at speed. In both instances, possession is turned over by him stepping in and being in the right place at the right time, a football intelligence Gilmour also possesses, and each time, he releases Daniel James immediately.
They seem like such simple interceptions, and in a way they are, but let's look at their impact. McTominay often does this, as Mourinho says, as high up the pitch as possible, and in doing so his first thought is 'can I play a forward pass?', this quick turnover allows the speedy Welshman to provide two assists as a result, one by winning a penalty, and the other as you see here.
It is this aspect, the oft-missed 'genius simplicity' Mourinho referred to, that when watching you need to be disciplined enough in your mind to see and hold onto it as the play progresses, otherwise you can easily forget he was involved in the goal. It looks very simple, but then again as we discovered with Gilmour, genius always does. Simple is good.
When considering McTominay and Gilmour's tenacious dedication to ball-winning, it seems only time is the crucial ingredient needed for them to bed in together as a successful partnership in defensive midfield, and as they are both young enough to be considered for a decade or more, now is the time to do it.
What however of the notable omissions? Let's start with one of Clarke's favourites.
I am a huge fan of Callum McGregor, massive. He's a wonderful player. However, as our formation involves freeing McGinn by winning the ball back and controlling possession, does he displace Gilmour or McTominay? His biggest strengths are the creativity, flair and precision with which he moves the ball through the lines, which is needed in a team like Celtic who dominate the ball domestically.
Without the ball, however, I just don't think McGregor has that ball-winning side to his game because it isn't natural for him, he needs a Scott Brown next to him. I'd actually love to see him as direct competition for McGinn in the attacking role, why? Well, his inclinations, or as he puts it 'biggest things', are primarily attacking, and you wouldn't want to diminish this by asking him to become a ball-winner, it's just not his game - leave it to McTominay who has a 'great desire' to do so. This isn't just my opinion however, I've tried to listen really hard to how McGregor himself describes the things most important to him.
The biggest thing for me, is you have to try and provoke the single-pivot or the two controllers... I think that process, when you receive the ball, is... can I move him out of position to penetrate forward or run forward, or my second action is going in for a set-back from the striker... or combine with your winger, and then play striker.
- Callum McGregor, Dec 2019
McGregor is positive in his approach and speaks with intelligence and intriguing detail about his game. His eyes light up when he describes attacking phases of play, and this is where he is at his best, his happiest, however; is that what Scotland needs?
I would dearly love to squeeze McGregor into this starting XI but I simply don't know how... yet. Maybe Steve Clarke will unlock this for him the same way he has with McGinn, and what a sight that would be. Until then, in this fictional formation which has never yet been played, we'll need to reluctantly accept that McGregor pushes McGinn hard for a place but shouldn't be starting.
That said, it is with a generous measure of relief that I'm aware Steve Clarke is the manager, that McGregor probably will start, and I'm more than happy with that. We really are spoilt for choice at the moment. We haven't even mentioned John Fleck, Ryan Jack, Stuart Armstrong or Kenny McLean.
Remember, the main thing is that we have 'a structure and a way of playing, that no matter who the personnel is, they understand what is expected of them in the context of the team performance'.
If our game plan is to recover possession, control it and play in the attacking 'not-quite-9' midfielder, as with the 7 goals McGinn scored. Then McGregor/Armstrong can swap in for McGinn in that role. Fleck has shown this season that he can win the ball and play through the lines often as well as Gilmour, albeit in a counter-attacking team, and Jack and McLean relish being positionally consistent and winning the ball back before releasing forward running players, like McTominay.
Crucially, it doesn't matter what I think, it matters how the squad are buying into what Clarke and his team are introducing. With so much criticism around our team, it's difficult to remember that we actually ended the qualification campaign with our most convincing half of football yet (3 second-half goals against Kazahkstan).
3 points, 3 wins in a row... the boys in the dressing room are feeling good about themselves.
- Steve Clarke, speaking after the qualification campaign, Nov 2019
And now we get down to it, what this piece is all based upon; feeling good; optimism; the belief that things can get better. It takes a huge amount of belief, and optimism in taking a largely inherited Kilmarnock squad into Europe, beating the Old Firm along the way, and recording their highest ever points tally. This is why Steve Clarke is the Scotland Manager, it is an excellent appointment.
So why is optimism so important?
Well, part of this is shaped by my firm belief (backed by theory if you're interested) that the brain is malleable, even as an adult, and can grow to learn new things. This may appear obvious to you, but then all good theories and philosophies should be. In merely exposing what is already true about human nature, this theory, Growth Mindset, is what Gregor Townsend used with his players to turn a parochial Glasgow Warriors into Champions. I lived in and around the West End in the years leading up to their first title in 2015 and you could feel the swell of excitement and buzz around as the crowds grew.
It's not just aimless positivity, it's listening intently and thinking creatively to put into action what you could do to make something better. This is what we must do as a National Team, there really is no alternative. This positive message, grounded firmly by theory, is the whole point of A\M.
Let's end on the safest ground; McGinn. Russia built their team around their particular strengths and unique talents and John McGinn is ours, so we need to play him. We need to feed him. To do this we need to recover the ball and our best shot of that is McTominay; his 6' 4" frame combined with exceptional athleticism, tactical intelligence (see the Sterling example above) and speed of thought in moving the ball, is remarkably unique. When we win it, we then need the best player at keeping it to dictate play, and as young as he is, it seems we need to play Billy Gilmour - he really is that good and will be there for years to come.
We're cultivating optimism. No one said it was going to be easy, but when adopting a Growth Mindset, one of the central tenets is looking towards a destination and moving forward from where you are.
We are doing that under Clarke.
We are growing, and, given time, that can look quite something.
The football was already there I promise ;-)