Saturday, September 2, 2017

Talking points from Vilnius

Pace to burn
During the home draw with Lithuania last year, Scotland's play was so pedestrian it could have been in slow motion.  That was because Chris Martin was up front and, Oliver Burke (who didn't seem to know what position he was playing) aside, there was no threat of anyone getting in behind or stretching play.  So the visitors pressed high up the pitch and the Scots couldn't get anything going.

Contrast that with last night, when Gordon Strachan fielded a front three of James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths and Matt Phillips.  It could be argued that none of them were outstanding; Griffiths did have two assists but looked increasingly frustrated as the match went on and his linkup play dipped in quality as a result, while Phillips went on some great dribbles but didn't offer that much of an end product.  Meanwhile, I have a theory that the 'threat' of James Forrest is often worth far more than the player himself - the Lithuanian left-back stayed deep throughout because of the constant worry that Forrest would fly into the space behind him and do some damage, even though we all suspect that all he'd do is run the ball over the byline and fall over.

In fact the best work the trio did was without the ball.  Their pressing play on the Lithuanian defence and goalkeeper in the first half was outstanding and frequently allowed possession to be won back easily.  But their presence - and Griffiths' ability to hold the ball up against bigger defenders - was crucial to the gameplan.

Outstanding Armstrong
Of course, everyone else put in a shift too.  And the epitomy of the 'energy' that Gordon Strachan raved about was, of course, Stuart Armstrong.  The Celtic midfielder even risked messing up his immaculate hair to head in the opener; not a hair was put out of place, of course.  Heck, if Armstrong was stuck outside in the midst of Tropical Storm Harvey for three days, I bet it would still look great.

The man himself contributed far more than the goal.  His relentless running provides an invaluable link between midfield and attack and his willingness to get on the ball and drive at the back four was a delight.  To be honest, it's got to the point that, if a Scotland fan came home to find his wife cheating on him with Stuart Armstrong, he'd probably consider it a privilege.

Centre-back still a concern
The Lithuanians did have a handful of decent chances, with the one that Arvydas Novikovas spurned at 0-0 particularly crucial.  Novikovas turned his ex-Hearts teammate Christophe Berra inside out on the way, just one of a few times that Berra's limitations were exposed.  There was another moment in the second half where he made a mess of shielding a ball out of play and got caught out.  Charlie Mulgrew hardly breezed through the game either.  It doesn't help that the gallivanting full-backs can leave the centre-backs exposed, but there's no question that this position is the achilles heel.  As ever, there is reason for significant concern when we play a team that can press us the way we pressed Lithuania.

As for the future, I can't help feeling that Kieran Tierney's long-term role for the national team will be in central defence, especially if as expected his club team-mate Tony Ralston emerges as a quality right-back.  Tierney's height isn't ideal for the position - though he is marginally taller than Fabio Cannavaro was (no, I'm not comparing Tierney and Fabio Cannavaro).  But it is astonishing that a lad of 20 can look so comfortable playing out of his best position at this level.  His last three caps have come as a right-back, a right sided centre-back and as a right-back again.  This boy is something special...and therefore I'm continually filled with dread that someone is going to injure him badly and stop him becoming the world class player he seems destined to be.

No problems on plastic
The players were right to largely shrug their shoulders about the playing surface pre-match, and the fact that it had been heavily watered clearly benefitted the Scots' passing and made conditions far more similar to grass (Kilmarnock and Hamilton take note please!!!).  But it was amusing to watch players from both sides frequently checking their thighs for rug burn after various slips and slides.  Not so to see Matt Ritchie lose his footing as he tried to round the keeper for a late fourth goal.  Ritchie had admitted a few days ago that he had never played a competitive game on such a surface; if he had, then maybe he'd have worn the correct studs.

What next?
Malta at home on Monday should be a banker - anything other than three points and the country should just give up football and replace all the stadia with tennis courts instead.  The bottom line is that we're going to have to win the two other games (Slovakia at home then Slovenia away) to get a playoff.  So if Gordon uses the term 'not a must-win' again, we are all entitled to hit him very hard with sticks.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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