Scotland’s two wins in the international break has brought an odd feeling around the nation. Everyone is happy to have won the games, thus qualifying for a somewhat insurance policy of Euro 2020 access, but there is a worry that everything is still not quite right. Nonetheless, a squad will have to be picked come March next year, so today; NE98 is looking at the options.
For this squad we will pick a group of 23. Considering the shape used in the previous two games and players available the squad will break down like this, three goalkeepers, seven defenders, six central midfielders, four wingers and three strikers. We will also assume that most players are fit for selection, other than those out injured long term such as John Souttar, or those making themselves unavailable such as Matt Ritchie.
Starting with the goalkeepers, the first two are probably the easiest selection Alex McLeish will have to make. Alan McGregor has been on top form for Rangers since making his return this summer and Craig Gordon is a mainstay. The question is who joins the two experienced stoppers. The fact I’ve described them as experienced might give my line of thinking away. These two are perfectly good choices to stand in the net for the national team, but they aren’t getting any younger. We can all see the merits of having someone like David Marshall in the squad, as was suggested by some pundits in the lead up to the double header against Albania and Israel. However, Marshall will not be taking over when these two other keepers call it a day.
Someone like Liam Kelly of Livingston, or Zander Clark of St Johnstone very well could be however. Not just that, but up until this point they’ve both been in good form this season. Whichever of the two is in better form come March would be a welcome addition to Gordon and McGregor, I’m sure those two could teach either Clark or Kelly a lot. For now, we will go for Liam Kelly.
If goalkeeper is a fairly simple position to pick for, then right back is just about the opposite. The right back position isn’t the same problem Scotland have in other positions, where maybe the right players aren’t getting picked, whereas with the right fullback there just isn’t much choice. For this position we will be picking just one player, as players in other positions will be able to cover. Kieran Tierney will certainly be in the squad and there is a good chance Callum Paterson will be included too. While there are issues with either of these – Paterson played there against Israel and that was where the majority of the Israeli attacks came from as wide spaces where left open. Whereas Tierney is a left footer and not many wrong footed players succeed on the other side – but the competition isn’t strong enough not to do this.
With all respect to Ricky Foster who clearly felt he deserved a look in the previous squad, it appears most of Scotland feels more comfortable playing Tierney out of position than playing the other choices. In the future, Antony Ralston might remerge at Celtic, Chris Cadden or Richard Tait may progress to international class players at Motherwell, but for the moment, the natural right back we are including is Stephen O’Donnell. The Kilmarnock player probably has some improvement to do in order to get the full confidence of the nation for that position, but he seems to have the potential to do so.
At centre back, Scott McKenna seems guaranteed to play a major role going forward. While the Aberdeen centre-half maybe hasn’t received as much fan-fare this season, it would be difficult to argue he doesn’t deserve to be at the heart of that defence. David Bates impressed when brought into the squad, which is even better considering he played on the right side and covered the large spaces left by Paterson. Bates has also taken the bold step of moving to Germany and seems to be progressing nicely there, so he should join McKenna in the squad. For me, the other two centre backs should be split between an experienced centre back and another younger player.
In terms of the experience player, either Charlie Mulgrew or Christophe Berra can fit that role. Should Berra return to Hearts in the same form he had last season, it feels as though he would suit this squad better than Mulgrew. This especially as in the future, you’d image John Souttar would have a chance to return to the squad. March may be early for Souttar returning from injury but the fourth spot could have multiple candidates. You’ve got younger players such as Ryan Porteous and Jason Kerr, although it may be a bit soon for that. Liam Lindsay and Liam Cooper have both been suggestions by supporters but neither seems to be of interest to Alex McLeish. Of course Jack Hendry is an option, but twitter might explode should that happen. Michael Devlin looked set for a first cap against Albania before injury hit at a disastrous time for the Ex Hamilton Captain. This fourth centre back could all come down to the form that each player is in come March, but should Michael Devlin continue his start to the season, he’d seem an obvious option – especially considering his already established relationship with McKenna.
Left back is fairly obvious. Captain Andrew Robertson will be joined by Celtic’s Kieran Tierney. Tierney could find himself playing at right back, so that could cause an issue should Robertson be injured or suspended during the international fixtures. Someone like Graeme Shinnie could be included in midfield with a view to cover at left back, or Callum Paterson could be moved to right back with Tierney returning to his natural position.
The midfield three who played in the previous two games – Callum McGregor, Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Christie – will certainly remain in the squad. Armstrong struggled for game time after first moving to Southampton but two goals in his past fixture against Fulham will give hope he can build on it. Ryan Christie has come on leaps and bounds in the space of weeks and McGregor has discovered ability in a new deeper role to such an extent that many Celtic fans don’t want Scott Brown taking back that role at Celtic any time soon.
Two of the three central midfielders joining these three in the squad also seem fairly obvious. John McGinn has been a part of the squad for a long time and Aston Villa supporters certainly seem happy to have him at Villa Park – despite a difficult start to the season for Villa. Aberdeen captain Graeme Shinnie will probably never start for Scotland but he has been a favourite of Alex McLeish due to his energy and aggression coming off of the bench, leadership ability and of course versatility.
The sixth player could be one of many, with not much to separate these players. We won’t include Callum Paterson in this section, he really could be selected as part of the strikers, wingers, central midfielders or right backs – but will we select him in any of these sections? So the options here could include, Tom Cairney, Scott McTominay, John Fleck, Ryan Jack and Kevin McDonald who have all been called up in the past year. Fleck was pretty much the final option after what seemed 100 pull outs, so it seems unlikely he’d be part of the squad. Cairney, McTominay and Ryan Jack could all end up there but Cairney pulled out due to fitness concerns last time, so that might leave doubts in Alex Mcleish’s mind, Scott McTominay isn’t getting game time at Manchester United and Ryan Jack has played brilliantly at times but has struggled for both consistency and fitness.
Lewis Ferguson and Liam Henderson could be slightly outside shouts. Ferguson has emerged as a regular for Aberdeen and appears to be developing as a somewhat “big game player”. Henderson, similarly to David Bates made the bold move to switch to a foreign league. Henderson has found himself in Italy and after a successful spell with Bari is now playing with Hellas Verona in Serie B. The former Celtic man has rotated in and out of the side and has scored twice and made two assists. Henderson maybe seems unlikely at this point, but if Ferguson continues to play week in week out and also showing a trait of standing out in big games, he could very easily find himself in the squad and for our Scotland we are using him as a bit of a wildcard as I’m not all that convinced by some of the other options.
In terms of wingers, James Forrest and Ryan Fraser are without a doubt the first two choices. Forrest’s goal scoring form in the past two internationals and performances for Celtic makes him one of Scotland’s key players. Fraser’s excellent performances may have gone slightly under the radar last month due to Forrest’s displays – he certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed for his club side Bournemouth.
Callum Paterson is scoring in the Premiership for Cardiff and is incredibly versatile so I’d want him in this squad. I doubt with some of the other strikers available that Paterson would start up top for his nation but he could certainly play off the side of someone like Steven Naismith as an inside forward.
I see there being two other realistic options for the other winger spot. Johnny Russell narrowly missed out on a MLS Cup Final this season and did okay the international break before last. However, due to the MLS season dates, the former Dundee United player will just be coming back into competing competitively as the MLS season starts in March.
The other option is West Ham regular Robert Snodgrass, however, while Snodgrass has played plenty minutes for West Ham this season, he hasn’t scored, nor produced an assist. So for this squad, hoping that he will come back fresh from his off season, we are going for Johnny Russell. Gary Mackay-Steven is an option also and has been included recently, although with the limits we’ve imposed here, he just misses out – partly down to the fact GMS doesn’t quite maintain form in a predictable cycle.
Finally, the strikers. The first two options, providing their fitness, should be fairly obvious. Leigh Griffiths despite his injury struggles will likely manage to cause issues if he plays. Meanwhile, when he returns to fitness, Steven Naismith was in goal scoring form for both club and country before he was injured. Not only does Naismith also have form on his side, he provides a different style of play to Griffiths. The final option probably comes down to either Oliver McBurnie or Steven Fletcher. McBurnie has been in decent form for Swansea this term, scoring seven times, but he is yet to replicate that for his country. Steven Fletcher took advantage of this to start both the previous two games and the nation was (probably surprisingly) impressed with what Fletcher offered. Looking at the ideology of rewarding success, Fletcher should have a spot in this squad over McBurnie, at least for now.
Goalkeepers – Alan McGregor, Craig Gordon & Liam Kelly
Right Back – Stephen O’Donnell
Centre Back – Scott McKenna, David Bates, Christophe Berra & Michael Devlin
Left Back – Andrew Robertson & Kieran Tierney
Central Midfield – John McGinn, Ryan Christie, Stuart Armstrong, Callum McGregor, Graeme Shinnie & Lewis Ferguson
Wingers – James Forrest, Ryan Fraser, Johnny Russell & Callum Paterson
Strikers – Leigh Griffiths, Steven Naismith & Steven Fletcher.