With an embarrassment of riches at left-back and in central midfield, Scotland as a footballing nation finds itself in a peculiar situation: an overabundance of those technically excellent players capable of turning good squads into great sides, without necessarily having the solid foundations from which to build a successful team.
The archetypal Scottish footballer might be described as “no-nonsense” – a player in the mould of Graeme Souness or Alan Hansen, for example. Certainly, some of the country’s most significant players have been those that excelled in the more traditional duties of keeping the ball away from one net, or putting it in the other.
Combining with the aforementioned duo at Liverpool to great success was Sir Kenny Dalglish, whose ability up front saw him finish runner-up to the indomitable Michel Platini in the 1983 Ballon D’Or voting. The only Scotsman to win the award – Denis Law – also shone as a striker. With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that the two positions in which today’s Scotland is most noticeably deficient are centre-back and centre-forward.
As Liam Cooper is set to begin the 20/21 season wearing the armband for a Premier League side (under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa, no less), the assumption can be made that Steve Clarke’s role as Scotland manager will be allocating him a defensive partner. The tricky bit is finding a player capable of giving Andrew Robertson freedom to attack – quite simply, Scotland’s very own Virgil van Dijk. As if that impossible challenge wasn’t enough, Clarke will also be expected, as his predecessors were, to try to find the ultimate way of crowbarring Kieran Tierney into the same starting XI as his national team captain.
Since defensive stability isn’t necessarily on the cards, the most sensible course of action is to try to score as many goals as possible. The central issue to that plan, of course, is that Scotland’s attack hasn’t had much of a focal point recently, rather appearing as a blunt instrument of distraction, allowing the likes of James Forrest or John McGinn to maraud into the positions of maximum opportunity. Forrest near-singlehandedly dragged Alex McLeish’s side to the finals of the Nations League; under Steve Clarke, McGinn has scored 7 times – 6 in the country’s last 3 games – with recognised strikers only scoring twice in the same period. Results and performances may have improved, but evidence from these matches suggests the team needs a spearhead to their otherwise promising attack, a role for which several players may be worthy of consideration.
The last man truly to inspire Scotland from the front might still be in contention for a starting place. Leigh Griffiths provided the Tartan Army with the only 5 minutes of unbridled joy they’ve experienced in the last 10 years, striking home two free-kicks from range in the final minutes of a World Cup Qualifier to give Scotland a precious lead against the Auld Enemy. In predictable fashion, the hysterical delight was to be snatched away with the final kick of the ball, as Harry Kane cruelly levelled the score, but for those brief moments alone, Griffiths’ international career will be remembered positively.
Regrettably, Leigh’s career has taken an unfortunate nosedive over the course of the last two seasons. A break from football for reasons pertaining to his mental health saw him out of action between December 2018 and August 2019, and despite regaining a place in Neil Lennon’s setup, playing second fiddle to Odsonne Édouard, it looks once more as if Griffiths’ Celtic career is in jeopardy. His manager has recently attacked him for showing up to pre-season training “out of condition and overweight” and has criticised his “reaction on social media”. The latter complaint relates to the fact that Griffiths is now a wannabe TikTok star, uploading videos of himself dancing and lip-syncing to Terry Crews’ rendition of A Thousand Miles from the movie White Chicks – amongst other content ill befitting a 29-year-old man.
Somewhat confusingly, mere days after that blasting, Lennon lauded Griffiths’ “improved fitness”, and started him in a friendly vs Hibs in which he played well, having what would have been a brilliant goal stolen on the line by Patryk Klimala. Despite all his baggage, it needs to be remembered that Leigh Griffiths is a proven goalscorer, who has delivered in a Scotland shirt. There are few who wouldn’t agree that when he’s fit and firing he is Scotland’s best striker; the pertinent question is whether he can ever reach the standard he set for himself again. Certainly, for as long as both he and Édouard are at Parkhead, Griffiths will at best be the backup or supporting striker, far from the vanguard of any attack, and, at this moment, probably far from international selection.
On the face of it, today’s front-runner for the number 9 shirt should be Sheffield United’s Oli McBurnie. Being a starting striker for a top-half Premier League team begs only one question: what’s not to like? But, from the point of view of many Scotland fans, the answer is ‘quite a lot’. McBurnie is probably the least popular figure in the current national team setup. His failure to score in any of his 9 international appearances marries poorly with off-pitch antics of varying degrees of offensiveness.
Filmed suggesting to club teammate and compatriot John Fleck that he didn’t want to be called-up, McBurnie inspires the familiar sense of dread felt when any player born and raised in England opts to represent Scotland. Combine that with a dubious injury-induced withdrawal from one of Steve Clarke’s Euro Qualifying squads, a recent drink-driving charge, and the fact he wears his socks too low, you’re left with a player with a lot to do in order to endear himself to the home support.
There is seldom a transgression that won’t be forgiven by football fans if it comes off the back of strong performances, though. If Oli McBurnie can channel the player who scored 22 times in a single league campaign for Swansea, it won’t be long before Hampden is singing his praises. In the interest of fairness to his character, it’s worth mentioning he has explicitly stated that he ‘feels Scottish’, and was quick to declare himself as such when English scouts will have surely been interested in his performances. He’s a staunch Rangers fan, to boot.
Like Griffiths, McBurnie is currently playing most of his football in a 3-5-2. Since their playstyles and physical statures logically complement one another, it’s sensible to consider whether adopting this formation could be to Scotland’s benefit. A five-person midfield ought to play to Scotland’s strengths, with space for any combination of McGregor, Fleck, McGinn or McTominay to play behind Stuart Armstrong or Ryan Christie in the middle of the park. The notion of playing a 3-5-2 has also grown in popularity as it offers a way of starting both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, with one occupying the wide-left role as the other plays as the leftmost centre-back.
The 3-5-2 does offer a tempting structure into which you can place some of the national side’s best players, but its appeal may be short lived in practice. Whilst the country’s two brightest stars may occupy the same position, playing both out of position for the sake of getting them on the same team sheet isn’t a convincing solution. Captain Robertson has communicated that he prefers playing with a man on the wing in front of him, meaning he isn’t suited to form part of a ‘5’, and his attacking prowess would be squandered were he to play in the ‘3’.
A switch to a 3-4-3 might solve that particular issue, but at the cost of a central midfielder, with the striker problem persisting. In an ideal world, Scotland should be able to rely on the wide presences of Ryan Fraser and James Forrest; and while the latter of the two might play with a back 3 from time-to-time with Celtic, both are better suited as attack-minded wingers. Finally, when your two problem positions are striker and centre-back, it makes little sense to have half your outfield players occupying these roles. Variations on a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 are much more adequately suited to Scotland’s strengths, and since McBurnie’s highest scoring season was at the head of a 4-2-3-1 in any case, the system really need not be changed to accommodate him.
There is another Scotsman playing up front in Europe’s “Top 5” leagues, and he’s also named Oli. Oliver Burke was thought to be Scotland’s answer to Gareth Bale when he burst onto the scene at Nottingham Forest (under a former Scotland striker, Dougie Freedman.) At 23, he is yet to score a Champions League hattrick, destroying the reputation of a revered full-back in the process, but he has experienced somewhat of a rejuvenation while on loan at Deportivo Alavés.
Burke wasn’t hugely well-rated in his time at Celtic the year before, his performances mirroring the trajectory of his career thus far – a very promising start that progressed underwhelmingly. Last season, however, saw him start in all positions across the front 3 for a team in perhaps the best league in the world. Admittedly, he has been far from prolific, but playing centre-forward under interim manager Juan Ramón López Muñiz, he scored away to Betis in a 2-1 win that may have proved invaluable as Alavés avoided relegation.
As a winger-cum-striker, Oli Burke does offer something unique to the Scotland centre-forward position: bags of pace. He might not have been blessed with an elite first touch (as is often the case with players low on confidence) but he is certainly an option to terrorise tired legs in the closing stages of any game – as proven when he scored the late winner against Cyprus in Steve Clarke’s first game in charge. What remains to be seen is whether he will remain at the Premier League’s latest arrivals, West Bromwich Albion, or leave to La Liga or elsewhere.
By no means should it be a prerequisite that the starting striker for Scotland is playing their domestic football elsewhere. In fact, options from the SPFL not playing for the Old Firm too often go overlooked. Fortunately, in Steve Clarke, the SFA have hired a coach who is very familiar with the Scottish Premiership, guiding Kilmarnock in 2018/19 to their highest finish in 53 years.
Eamonn Brophy was his top scorer then, and has remained at Killie, scoring 9 times in 28 appearances in last season’s curtailed Premiership. His old manager has rewarded him with a call-up, but his only cap was the game against Cyprus, where he failed to score before being subbed off for the match-winning Oli Burke. Not many seriously consider Brophy the answer to Scotland’s woes, but his familiarity with the way Steve Clarke likes to set-up a team could yet prove valuable. All the same, he’s unlikely to be in genuine contention for a starting place. Of his 9 goals last season, 6 came between 1st February and 4th March. He is yet to demonstrate that kind of goalscoring prowess consistently.
A more popular option has been Livingston’s Lyndon Dykes, who also scored 9 goals last season, including in a 2-0 home win against 9-in-a-row champions Celtic, and a hattrick versus Ross County. Dykes is a well-honed example of a striker that might be described as a “disruptive presence” or “an absolute handful”, and in that sense he fits in with the ethos of playing strikers who are most definitely “there” if nothing else.
One minor issue: Dykes is very obviously an Australian man, who, despite his parentage, clearly wants to represent his country of birth. Call-ups for players not born in Scotland aren’t always doomed to fail, Scott McTominay serving as a recent positive example, but the apathy surrounding the national team does not need fuelled by yet another player who would rather be elsewhere.
As with Brophy, Lawrence Shankland was handed his senior international debut by Steve Clarke, becoming the first Scottish Championship player to be capped since John McGinn back in 2016. Few would say it wasn’t deserved – 116 goal involvements in 106 appearances for Ayr and Dundee United meant calls for his involvement grew too loud to be ignored. Finding the net with outrageous frequency for last season’s Championship winners, Shankland’s international career now begins in earnest, as the form he shows following promotion to the Premiership will be a litmus test of his credentials to be Scotland’s number 9.
In the same breath as Lawrence Shankland, we need to talk about Kevin Nisbet. Hibs’ latest acquisition scored just the 18 goals to Shankland’s 24 in last season’s shortened Championship – but for a far inferior Dunfermline team. Following a 29-goal campaign for Raith Rovers in the division below, Nisbet has made a significant step up by joining Jack Ross’ side, whilst Shankland has remained at Tannadice.
The pair may feature in two-striker formations next season, but both have unquestionably been the focus of their teams’ attacks, and shouldn’t be out of their depth as lone target men. The Premiership is a different beast to the Scottish Championship, but should either produce even half the output they’ve managed in the last two seasons, they’ll find themselves welcome in the international setup.
Going the other way, relegated Heart of Midlothian captain Steven Naismith has over 50 caps, and has offered experience, Premier League Proven™ pedigree, and leadership from the front in some of the more cohesive Scotland attacks. It’s endlessly frustrating that a player of his quality finds himself playing for a dysfunctional Hearts side, one of the casualties of the pandemic-induced winding-up of the 19/20 season. Steve Clarke is now in an unenviable position if he wishes to lean on Naismith as a dependable option. Regardless, at almost 34 years of age, the former Evertonian is no long-term solution.
The Scotland striker dilemma remains a massive headache, so why not embrace Craig Levein’s fever dream, and go without? Stick Ryan Christie up there as a false 9, and be done with it. If that doesn’t appeal, the 2020/21 season offers many of the above the opportunity to influence Steve Clarke’s international selection, and, hopefully, become talismanic figures for the Scotland National Team.