CHARGE! Scotland: from a Serbian perspective
This is a tongue-in-cheek response to the BBC Sport article; Euro 2020: Scotland one game from history - but what stands in their path? which we found to be pretty... well, bleak. Admittedly, some of us are dour, but mindsets can grow and even change from black to grey with hints of white breaking through, much like the October sunshine we're currently basking in but might fail to recognise ever existed when the winter draws in. As I look out at the Wallace Monument, crowned atop the ochre-swept drumlin in front of the Ochils, it looks pretty special, breathtaking in fact - like something out of Lord of the Rings. As others from all over the world never fail to recognise about our country, there are not many places like Scotland, and we have much to be proud of and hopeful in. This is true even, or rather; especially, with regards to our men's football team at the moment. Pride is an option.
Whilst we acknowledge that the BBC article 'spoke truth', see for yourself how it makes you feel. Think about being a player and reading that truth. We're not saying some of it isn't true, but what we are mindful of is the fact that words impact upon mindset, and mindset has huge implications in performance. It is not madness to speak truth from another angle and embrace a more positive alternative. It is not madness because it is how every single positive thing that ever happened began. Wonderfully, we can choose what we believe in and choose what we focus our minds upon. We can choose to embrace light and life, or murk about in the darkness with that as our reality, bemoaning our 'small' heritage, and I write that very sincerely as someone who will battle lifelong with depression. Although we joke about 'being dour', too much of this and we end up like Renton in Trainspotting, blind to the beauty around us and shouting despairingly into the wilderness. You might not feel it yet, and the performances might not lead you to believe it possible, but Scotland can beat Serbia. Scotland have really, really, really good footballers. We can do this, together, and what you and I think about it, what we all think about it, really, really matters - even in isolation.
"To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, An' foolish notion.”
- Rabbie Burns
Let's not make the blunder of looking at Serbia with a fixed mindset, like some big scary obstacle we can't possibly overcome. Let's not fall into the 'usual fatalism' the BBC referred to; what a foolish notion! Instead, let's spin this and ask a different question, in keeping with bard who asked it far better than we can. Let's ask; how do Serbia see us?
Let's see oursels as others see us.
Euro 2020: Serbia one game from history - but what stands in their path?
Scotland; the beautiful land of Braveheart, warriors, kilts, the Loch Ness Monster, and Whisky... oh, and football, don't forget football. Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic are the 'Old Firm', formerly huge European forces, who despite having a resurgence in recent years, have more in common with our very own Partizan and Red Star - capable of the odd huge result, but their best players move on. For Serbian fans, worryingly, most of them move onto the Premier League, and some of them play for the best teams.
Under head coach, Steve Clarke, Scotland are unbeaten in 6 games. They are hard to beat. A self-styled pragmatist, Clarke learned his trade under Jose Mourinho and led West Bromich Albion to their highest-ever PL finish, achieving the same with Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premiership just over a decade later. His experience was chosen to forge a winning team around the undoubted talent Scotland has at their disposal. Finding a formula that gets the best out of this young team is an ongoing process, but one that has shown growth - with the end goal of achieving qualification for their first major tournament since 1998. They are a wounded animal. They are a bear in a trap. They are hungry, starving in fact, for success. To quote Braveheart, 'Starving, hungry and outnumbered, they charged the fields of Hampden Park.' If you thought this was going to be a walk in our park at the National Stadium in November, think again, otherwise, as the Scots' National Anthem proclaims, we might be sent homeward and forced to.
Scotland are... pretty good
Israel are no pushovers. Despite their low FIFA ranking, they boast an attacking triumvirate of players from PSV Eindhoven, Hoffenheim, and Shakhtar Donetsk. Although suffering five withdrawals, due to COVID-19 and injuries, the day before the semi-final, the wily Clarke ensured Scotland restricted Israel to 1 shot on target in 120 minutes of football, and that without Arsenal's best defender and probable future-captain, Kieran Tierney. Next to Tierney in a back three, is the Leeds United captain, Marcelo Bielsa's lieutenant, Liam Cooper. As two ball-playing central defenders, they are also uncompromising in the tackle and are used to dealing with players of Mitrovic's talent weekly, if not with Mitrovic directly. Tierney is so highly rated at left-back that it is a genuine question as to which Scottish full-back is the world's best. It is a testament to his ability that at both club and country, he has been selected at the left of a back three, but with plenty of liberty to roam as an attacking outlet. Next to them is Manchester United's Scott McTominay, another player whose talent and physique is unquestionable. If ever in doubt about McTominay's ability this season, listen to our own Nemanja Matic describe the player Mourinho and Ferguson both so admire.
"He is amazing. He is 21 and to play like that [against Chelsea] and control the game like that is impressive... He will be a big player for Manchester United... I like him because he is a very nice guy and he doesn't have a problem to ask something before the game. I am always there to help him. When I came to Manchester, I saw within a few days he would become a top player... He is working very hard, but I don't want to say too many things about him because he is still very young. But he deserves all the good things."
- Nemanja Matić, April 2020
An excellent passer of the ball, McTominay was seen to zip balls accurately into the midfield between the lines against Israel, just as Cooper and Tierney do. That is to say, this Scotland defence are not only physically intimidating, they can also play, and are gelling together game-by-game.
We haven't yet spoken of the Captain who needs no introduction, Liverpool's Andy Robertson. Whilst we are no stranger to a decent left-back, Kolarov has been playing at the top level for a long time, Robertson's statistics over the last couple of seasons are frightening. Remarkably, the assist-king has improved his delivery from dead-balls, with all of Scotland's chances against Israel coming from set-pieces delivered by his left foot. They are a nightmare to defend. He even came close to scoring from a direct free-kick, with the ball only narrowly missing the frame of the goal.
How then do you defend against such a player? Israel's Eli Dasa held his own for much of the evening against Robertson, having an impeccable game, but even he could not contend with the skipper's industry for the whole 120 minutes, conceding possession in a dangerous area when Robertson broke inside him, again. Incredibly, our best weapon of stifling Robertson may come from within, as some elements of the Scottish fans and media give the European cup-winner a very hard time, such is the expectation on 'Robbo' to reproduce his Anfield-form for Scotland, every match. This would be particularly helpful as our problem area is well-documented, with the prospect of now-30-year-old winger-come-right-back, Darko Lazovic, facing Tierney and Robertson less than ideal.
The right-side of defence seems less stable, thankfully, with the lesser-known Stephen O'Donnell filling in for the injured Liam Palmer against Israel. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, Bologna's 18-year-old, Aaron Hickey, has already made his Serie A debut with rave reviews and may soon be called into the senior squad. Clarke has already spoken of his admiration of Hickey, who, despite also wielding an incisive left-foot, can switch effortlessly to playing with his right, and as his debut in the Scottish Cup Final proved, he's not intimidated by the big occasion. So, there's that. Additionally, Newcastle United's adaptable winger Ryan Fraser and Celtic's equally industrious James Forrest could also be used in this wing-back role to good effect.
A solid back 5 then. Surely midfield, our strength, can only be good news? Again, it's not that straight-forward. During Aston Villa's recent 7-2 hammering of Liverpool, who were the two best players that ran all over the Merseysiders' midfield, scoring and/or assisting all but one of the goals? One of them is England's Jack Grealish, the other? John McGinn.
McGinn won man of the match, again, against Israel. His strength in turning his man is almost impossible to stop, with the opposition almost always conceding a free-kick if they are not taken out the play completely. Bookings then, become a very real risk to opposing players in halting his progress, with Israeli captain, Natcho, being substituted after collecting a caution. Make no mistake, to beat Scotland, we must stop John McGinn - as his 7 goals in his last 7 starts testify.
Next to McGinn, Scotland can choose from no less than 5-6 top-class footballers. Despite helping Sheffield United to a top-half finish in the PL last year, John Fleck cannot get in the starting eleven. Instead, Celtic's highly-rated playmaker, Callum McGregor seems preferred, with assured performances in the Europa League in each of the last seasons (including bossing it against Milinkovic-Savic as Celtic beat Lazio home and away) an indication of his talents. If Rangers' equally tidy Ryan Jack is not chosen, then Southampton's Stuart Armstrong might provide a more attacking outlet from right central midfield. Or Ryan Christie, another of Lazio's foes, providing the same from either flank. McTominay, of course, can always move into midfield, where he has strode all over PSG and Barcelona in the Champions League. This might be an area we can edge it, but it won't come easily. It really is 50:50. Before you sit too comfortably, let's hope that Golden Boy nominee, Toulon Tournament's 'breakout star' and Chelsea wonderkid, Billy Gilmour, isn't back to full fitness. He really does offer something different entirely, with an innate ability to control football matches with exceptional ability. Speaking of wonderkids, Ryan Gauld is far more than a cheatcode in FM2014-16. The 25-year-old has started the season in good form for Farense, where he won the league's player of the year last year as his side were promoted. Notching an assist against Benfica this month, expect him to give Clarke a headache come selection time for the November play-off.
Liga Pro Player of the Year, Ryan Gauld, is yet to make his National Team debut
Up top, Scotland may have less household names, but they possess athleticism and desire in abundance. Oli McBurnie is perhaps the best known, with his performances next to Fleck earning him the hearts of all inside Bramall Lane, if not yet Hampden, which we can again be thankful for. He ran his shin-high socks off against Israel and showed some neat touches with first-time link play. He is a threat, but only one of two in this 3-5-2 formation we also employ. Whether it be the indefatigable Landon Dykes, now at QPR, the irrepressible Lawrence Shankland (a little-known domestic goalscoring 'machine') or the unpredictable couplet of Oliver Burke (over £30m in transfer fees) and Leigh Griffiths (set-piece specialist and most natural finisher in the squad), Scotland have options here.
Lawrence Shankland is a natural goalscorer with excellent technique.
As referred to earlier, Clarke may opt to play Ryan Fraser in a role just behind the front two. He deployed this tactic against Israel, and it was a returning-from-injury Fraser who looked the main threat from whatever area he drifted into. For those of us who play Fantasy Premier League, we will need no introduction to his assist-making potential; a player who remarkably, is still 5th in overall PL assists over the last two seasons, despite being out of most of 19/20 as AFC Bournemouth were relegated. Fraser is lightning quick, can play on either flank, and has a very good understanding with Robertson. Eek. If not Fraser, then again, Celtic's James Forrest is equally pacey, with good technique and an increasing end product, not to mention a hat-trick against Israel a couple of years ago. Ryan Christie, however, is the one we need to pinpoint here. The classy left-footer has been in scintillating form for both Celtic and Scotland over the last year. He has a style reminiscent of Robin Van Persie in the way he drifts past players and glides across the turf - frustratingly, he also possesses that ability some left-footers have of striking the ball cleaner than a whistle. One to watch.
What of the goalkeeper? Well, I'm afraid it's not great news here either. Both David Marshall and Jon McLaughlin are solid shot-stoppers who command their box with strength and experience, comfortable with crosses, and able to distribute accurately with both feet. Expect Marshall to start, but it really isn't a loss for Scotland if McLaughlin needs to step in. Marshall also has a track record of saving penalties and performing heroics in big games.
In closing, we might go into this one thinking we have the talent to beat Scotland handsomely, and who knows, that might be the case. I, for one, am a bit warier of the 'Warrior Poets' - they are not the type of animal you want to face in a one-off game to which they have been building for twenty years.
You might now know a bit more about Scotland than just the fiction of Braveheart, however, if you are familiar with the film, we'll end as we began, only with some non-fictional history. On the fields of Bannockburn and Stirling, Scotland were underestimated to their opponent's peril, but as the English commander's face dropped when he saw them charge the field so I hope no Serbian will be surprised by the charging foe in November. They had a point to prove that day, and they have a point to prove now. Underestimate at your peril.