Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thoughts on the Israel game

Ladies and gentleman, the James Forrest Show
Few players are more frustrating to watch than nippy wingers who are playing badly. Conversely, few excite quite as much as nippy wingers who are in top form and oozing confidence. Step forward James Forrest, who has now scored five goals in two Scotland games - and 11 in 11 games for club and country. There was more than just the hat-trick to savour; his decision-making, so often erratic at best, was perfect again and again as he weaved in and out of traffic and left more than one Israeli with twisted blood. But his calm, emphatic finishing, like in Tirana, was the sort of stuff you associate with world-class centre-forwards. Even if this turns out to be temporary form rather than permanent class, it was exhilarating and the Tartan Army won't forget it for a while.

We can't play like this in every game
Whether it was the pressure of hanging onto a single goal lead, or the fact that Israel were throwing everything forward, the players looked knackered in the latter stages. That wasn't a huge surprise given that in both this week's matches Scotland pressed high up the pitch. Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Christie were both substituted mainly because they were gassed; the former in particular ran himself into the ground and the introduction of the energetic Graeme Shinnie was a sensible move in the circumstances. Obviously though a different style will have to be adopted when the opposition is stronger and more technically able than this; the trouble is that in friendlies against better teams a more passive approach has resulted in Scotland being ripped to shreds. That's something for big Eck to ponder going forward, but he has bought himself several months to find a solution to that.

Relief for the SFA
The SFA can now confidently throw their weight behind McLeish for the Euro 2020 qualifiers, which is just as well because having to dismiss him would have reflected as badly on the Hampden suits as it would have on the manager. The hope obviously is that this week has been some sort of turning point, and we now have some momentum to take forward (and an insurance policy as well in the form of the Nations League playoffs). The fear is that the efforts of Forrest and his teammates have masked the problems at the SFA for a little bit longer.

Connotations for Euro 2020
Not only did Scotland win their group, but they actually ended up ranked as the top team in League C - that thumping win over Albania helped them finish ahead of Norway on goal difference. So if it turns out that they need this fallback to try and qualify for Euro 2020, they'll have to win a home semi-final in March 2020 - against Finland, as it stands - and then another game after that - against Norway or Serbia, as it stands - to make it. Let's hope it doesn't come to that though: one of the other bonuses of winning the group is that Scotland go into pot 3 for the qualifiers draw instead of pot 4.

That said, Germany are in pot 2. If we get them, I think we can just start focussing on those March 2020 playoffs straight away...

More needs to be done to encourage fans
21000 is a dreadful attendance for such an important game. But until Saturday night there was very little reason for supporters to attend other than a sense of duty. And sadly there were plenty of reports of difficulties in buying and collecting tickets on the day. £25 a ticket for a midweek match against a middle-of-the-road opponent is foolish as well. The powers that be need to decide what national team matches are meant to achieve - is the top priority just to make as much money as possible, by milking loyal Tartan Army members for all they're worth to make money? Or should the focus be on filling Hampden at all costs, thus providing a better atmosphere and more support to the team as well as promoting them to as many fans (particularly children) as possible? Given that topping the group means another €750,000 in prize money, I do hope Ian Maxwell might be more generous in the future.

But a little success does no harm. It might only be one group in the third tier of the Nations League, but Scotland have actually won something, and the post-match lap of honour was justified in the circumstances not only to make the players feel good but the supporters as well. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of something special.

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thoughts from Tirana

Fraser was the spark
Ryan Fraser started the match like a man with something to prove - and maybe he did, given that injuries have prevented him from repeating his outstanding Bournemouth performances for the national team. Within seconds of kickoff he had nicked the ball and raced into the box; whilst that didn't lead to anything it was a taste of things to come. In addition to a fine goal he set up the fourth for James Forrest and was not so much a winger as a blur of energy throughout. And his enthusiasm, along with the quality of his play, set the tone for his teammates.

The players care
There remains a healthy dose of scepticism about many of the calloffs that have plagued the squad for this game. But those who played in Tirana very much gave the impression that they were playing for the manager and the shirt. Even when the match was over as a contest the midfield and forwards continued to press high up the pitch, not least because they could sniff a chance to fill their boots. Subs Matt Phillips and Johnny Russell continued the theme when they came on for the latter stages. After such a disjointed and lethargic effort in Israel this was very welcome.

Is this Callum McGregor's best position?
Last night I couldn't help remembering how Andrea Pirlo started his career as an attacking midfielder whose technique and ability didn't really come to the fore until he dropped into a more deeper role. Obviously Callum McGregor isn't in the same league as the great Italian, but it was striking how comfortable he looked sitting at the base of the midfield, taking the ball off his centre-backs and spraying it all over the park. Obviously he won't play many international opponents as accomodating as ten-man Albania, but in light of his outstanding showings in that position for Celtic recently is it possible that this could turn out to be his strongest position?  Regardless, you can't buy the level of versatility and reliability that he offers.

The case for the defence
I'd rather not play stronger opposition with that back four - particularly since Neil Warnock deleted the file marked 'how to play at right-back' from Callum Paterson's database when he converted him to a forward - but if you've prevented the home side managing a shot on target, you can certainly claim to have had a good game. Scott McKenna doesn't seem to do nerves anyway - he's what you'd get if Skynet designed central defenders instead of Terminators - and whilst David Bates always looks on edge he never actually looked under pressure. I'd rather we didn't play anyone good with those two in front of Allan MacGregor in the near future, but I'd like to think I'd be up for it in two or three years. Surely it's not too much to ask that two of McKenna, Bates and John Souttar can go on to be international class?

Let's not get carried away
Albania were cack, and they played with ten men for three quarters of the game, and the referee awarded us an outrageous penalty. And if we don't beat Israel on Tuesday then it's all for nothing really. But a result and performance as good - and as enjoyable - as that doesn't come around too often for the Scotland national team and even if we shouldn't savour it too much we should give credit where it is due to the players and the manager.

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Thoughts from The Championship - 10/11/18

AJ under pressure at Dunfermline?
So many of Dunfermline's home games this season have ended with the sound of booing, so Allan Johnston may be immune to it now. But a derby defeat to Falkirk was the lowest ebb of the Pars' season so far, one in which they've managed just one win and two goals in seven league matches at East End Park. No wonder the fans are revolting (no, not in that sense).

This one might have turned out differently had Andy Ryan not missed the mother of all sitters for the home side in the first half, and what can any manager do when all his forwards seem to have suffered a collective slump in form? However, the bottom line is that Dunfermline have promotion playoff aspirations. And too often at East End Park the script has been familiar - plenty of possession but a lack of end product, a few decent chances spurned, and a sucker punch at the other end.

Whether the board feel the same way as the fans is unclear. After all, this is only the club's third year back in the second tier after AJ got them out of their League One nightmare. And in such a competitive league, it could be a lot worse - just look at Falkirk or Partick Thistle. He may not be on borrowed time yet, but with the support at least he has used up all previous goodwill.

Ross County and Dundee United are the two best teams in this league
In years to come, Dundee United fans may thank their lucky stars that Ross County thumped them 5-1 last month and brought about the end of Csaba Laszlo. The transformation under Robbie Neilson has been stark and United have four wins and a draw under his leadership, including something of a statement win in Dingwall.

That's not to say they overwhelmingly deserved the victory - far from it, in fact. But having scrambled their way in front through Paul Watson the visitors defended without panic and refused to buckle under pressure, an outcome that would have been unthinkable a short time ago.

There seems little question that United will compete strongly for that automatic promotion slot. But on the evidence of this encounter so will Ross County.  When the two sides play each other here again on 6 April 2019, it could well be something of a title decider.

Not for the first time, Mark Ridgers rescues ICT
Mark Ridgers deserves most of the plaudits for ending Caley Thistle's crazy run of seven consecutive draws; the goalkeeper's penalty save from Blair Spittal meant that Tom Walsh's goal proved decisive. It was Ridgers' second save from the spot this season, with the first coming against the same opponents in Inverness. This comes just a week after a wonder save from Billy Mckay in the Highland derby.

It was Ridgers' seventh league clean sheet of the season and his fourteenth in the twenty-four league games ICT have been unbeaten. Whilst his backline aren't too shabby either, Ridgers has been outstanding for the whole of 2018 - not bad going for a journeyman goalie who, at 28, is at his tenth club. An Inverness native, it seems that he has found that there is no place like home.

Do Alloa stick or twist in January?
As the only part-timers in this league, weren't Alloa supposed to finish bottom by some way? Clearly they didn't get the memo as they now find themselves out of the bottom two after winning at Cappielow. Far from being punchbags or even simply being overpowered by stronger opponents, they show no signs of being out of their depth at all. It is increasingly conceivable that they could survive.

That said, the sides below them - Falkirk and Partick Thistle - are certain to bring in significant reinforcements in January to save their season. Should Alloa try to do the same? Can they afford to (or not to)? And, if some of their best players keep performing like this - Iain Flannigan is the obvious standout - will they be able to keep them, or will full-time clubs sweep in?

Ach, one gets the feeling that Jim Goodwin and co aren't going to concern themselves with those sort of worries. They#re just going to enjoy this while it lasts.

Connor Murray shows up Frizzell's failings
Kudos to Connor Murray for coming off the bench at Ayr to grab a late equalizer for Queen of the South. The winger's opportunities have been few and far between but the club obviously see something in him, given that he'll be 22 in March but they've still kept him around. But a penny for the thoughts of Adam Frizzell, left sitting on the bench yet again. The little Kilmarnock loanee would seem on paper to be a better option as an impact sub and yet he's played only 85 minutes of football, all as a replacement, since moving south temporarily. That's pretty unimpressive for a guy who had 24 Premiership starts to his name when still a teenager. Frizzell also had a lousy (and injury-hit, to be fair) loan spell at Livingston last season but it looks increasingly like the 20 year old, previously considered such a prospect at Rugby Park, is stagnating.

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