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Looking At The Role Of Solo Striker For Scotland

Date: 10th September 2019

It’s safe to say that Scotland can’t be proud of either performance in their latest round of qualifying matches. 

Both Russia and Belgium turned up to Hamdpen and left the Tartan Army silent as they dismantled Steve Clarke’s men. 

Very few players can come out of these games with any credibility.

Our captain Andy Robertson didn’t lead by example, it could be time for us to dump Charlie Mulgrew and I’m sorry but Stephen O’Donnell isn’t of the required standard for international football. 

A lot of criticism also fell the way of Sheffield United striker Oli McBurnie. He had very little success against the Russians and was then dropped for Matt Phillips in our clash with the particularly brilliant Belgians. 

Personally, I think Oli McBurnie received too much flak and I think there’s a few reasons for this. 

Obviously his now public conversation with teammate John Fleck regarding his call-up didn’t go down well as the striker seemed unhappy that he had made the squad. 

Then there’s an ignorance when it comes to analysing a solo striker and their role within the team. 

Scotland started brightly in the first fifteen minutes as did McBurnie. We were threatening inside the opposition’s half and were doing well in possession. That led to us taking the lead in the eleventh minute through John McGinn

After that bright opening spell and our goal, Scotland inexplicably started to defend deeper and deeper and allowed Russia to take hold of the game. It’s no coincidence at the same time, Oli became pretty nonexistent. 

What looked to be a 4-3-3 formation at the start of the game for the Scots soon turned into a 4-5-1. That meant McBurnie became isolated up-top.

We became too nervous and tried to protect a fragile lead far too early. 

I’ve played as a lone striker a few times over the years (granted nowhere near that level) and there’s nothing harder or more demoralising if you don’t have any support near you. 

Russia played with a flat back four and with two holding midfielders, although because of Scotland’s tactics they could allow one or two players to push further forward at times. That still meant that whenever McBurnie did receive the ball, he had three players (two centre-halves and either a full-back or midfielder) swarming on top of him to win the ball. On the most part they were successful as they gave the Scotland striker no room at all.

People complained that McBurnie didn’t hold up the ball or play in teammates but how can you in those difficult circumstances? All that happens is that the hitman becomes more and more frustrated and uses up too much energy as they go chasing after lost causes. 

The problem with everyone constantly dropping deeper and deeper is that they then don’t create any meaningful chances and that too impacts on the forward’s morale. 

Centre-back Mulgrew did try and get McBurnie into the game but his long balls weren’t great either. If they didn’t bypass the striker completely, he would get muscled out of the way by the big Russian defenders. When he showed any aggression in the air the referee would blow up in favour of the Russians. 

If we want to play one up-top then we need to have wingers getting beyond their markers and supplying ammunition or have a number ten that plays close to the number nine. 

People will say we were better against Belgium and that Phillips was more effective than Oli. Again I think  things get a bit skewed when comparing the two. 

Phillips had a number ten in Ryan Christie and he made more of an effort to get forward, that helps the striker a lot! 

Oh and by the way I still saw Phillips struggle to hold onto the ball in meaningful areas. 

But importantly look at how easy it was for the Red Devils to pick us off and score once they won possession in their own half. We kind of played into their hands by pushing forward as it gave them more space to play into in our half of the field and Kevin De Bruyne ran riot on the counter attack. 

We actually should’ve played the reverse tactics over the two games. 

Against Russia we should’ve taken more initiative and kept attacking them. Their forward line wasn’t particularly pacy and we shouldn’t have played as deep in that tie. Then against the Belgians we should have been more defensive minded and disciplined. It should’ve been a case of Belgium having to break us down and not just steamrollering over the top of us. 

I said in the lead up to the fixtures that I would have selected Leigh Griffiths and started him ahead of McBurnie. Then fling Oli on with fifteen minutes or so to go. I think experience can be huge when playing as a lone striker on the international stage.

McBurnie is still just twenty-three and only has seven caps. He’s still learning his trade and would be better served, in my opinion, learning from the Scotland bench especially in the bigger occasions. 

Griffiths took time to get used to playing that role for Scotland, as did Steven Fletcher. Our best striker in the last decade has probably been Kenny Miller and he waited almost two years before scoring his first goal for Scotland.

With experience you start to understand more that every touch is important and how to buy throw-ins or freekicks in the enemies territory. It also takes time for you to get used to who you’re playing with and for them to get used to you. 

I don’t care that Michael Stewart seems to have thrown Oli McBurnie onto the scrap heap, the pundit likes to court controversy after all. 

We need to see why it didn’t work for the striker on Friday night and work on ways of fixing that problem. 

Before all that we have to admit that our biggest problem actually comes from our defence and our fragile mentality. Fix those things and everything else should fit into place! 


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