Opposition Analysis - England
After our disappointing start against the Czechs, there is no better way to bounce back than with a win. And wins don’t come bigger than those against your oldest and closest rivals. After suffering a defeat in our opening fixture, Scotland need to get their EURO 2020 finals back on track. Defeat down at Wembley would mean requiring a miracle against a very good Croatian side on our final matchday, so a win or even a draw is what Steve Clarke will be hoping for on Friday night.
Long before the draw was made for the finals, Scotland knew that qualification would mean sharing group D with the English, due to London and Glasgow’s pairing as hosting venues for the group. It is a fixture steeped in history and has been known to throw up a few iconic moments and classic games.
Scotland haven’t won down at Wembley, or indeed against England at all since 1999 when Don Hutchison sealed a 1-0 win for us. This wasn’t enough to undo a 2-0 deficit sustained at Hampden a few days prior however, and saw the beginning of our years in exile from major finals after failure in the EURO 2000 playoff.
We have come close since then, thanks to a Leigh Griffiths dead ball double. However, Stuart Armstrong’s failure to empty the ball into row Z left the Tartan Army with one of their biggest ‘what if’ moments ever.
None of that will matter as the sun rises on Friday morning though, with an opportunity for our squad of 26 to become national hero’s.
England came into the EURO’s choosing the easier and more traditional route, in contrast to ourselves. Despite a loss to the Czech Republic in Prague, they won every other group fixture.
Their Nations League campaign was a bit more ropey, drawn against Iceland, Denmark, and Belgium in their A League group. With wins against Iceland home and away, they couldn’t match this outcome against the Danish, drawing at Wembley and then losing over on the continent. They did manage an impressive victory over the Belgians, with both nations trading blows and taking all three 3pts when on home turf. This saw them finish 3rd on goal difference behind 2nd place Denmark, and group winners Belgium.
With EURO 2020 creeping into view, they still had their opening qualifiers for the World Cup to navigate. San Marino were swept aside as were Albania, scoring 7 while conceding zero. Returning home to Wembley they continued their winning run, with a 2-1 victory over Poland who were missing Lewandowski.
On to their warmup friendlies, they narrowly beat both Austria and Romania 1-0, with many less than convinced by their performances. Any doubts were dismissed however when they kicked off their finals against Croatia on Sunday, with an impressive 1-0 win.
Playing at times with a very high tempo, the Croatia’s barely got a chance to breathe for the first 20 minutes with England piling on pressure. Despite later getting into the game and enjoying spells of possession and pressure, Croatia didn’t look their best throughout. Sterling’s finish was the only goal of the match and this was enough to satisfy those in the stands.
Those in the Tartan Army watching from home would certainly have been impressed by their neighbour’s performance, and one of the standouts was Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips who put in a high-quality performance. If there were any hopes that England would fail to ‘turn it on’ when the pressure of the finals became a reality, these quickly faded away. The size of the task now facing our boys down at Wembley clear for all to see.
Looking across the EURO’s, there aren’t many squads who can match the quality that Southgate has at his disposal. Apart from their two Dortmund boys and Kieran Trippier who just won La Liga with Atletico Madrid, all their squad plays domestically in England.
Captaining them is the formidable Harry Kane, who scooped the golden boot award in the Premier League this season after scoring 23 league goals, as well as the award for the most assists. This is even more impressive when considering how poor Spurs have been this season.
Harry Maguire missed the end of the season for Manchester United with injury, however he is pushing to be back involved with England as soon as possible. Having missed the opening game with Croatia, it is unclear whether he will be back fit to face Scotland or if his return might be against the Czechs.
As mentioned, Kalvin Phillips was impressive against Croatia, and he was partnered with West Ham United’s Declan Rice. Rice has enjoyed an good season with the Hammers, as was mentioned in the Czech opposition analysis. It has been hinted that Southgate will shuffle the pack for their next game however, which may see the likes of Henderson involved.
Mason Mount, Phill Foden and Jack Grealish are all players who have had notable seasons at club level. These three provide significant depth and quality in attacking midfield for England, the only positive for Scotland possibly that Southgate is unlikely to pick all three.
One of the strange things about the Croatian match was that despite the options at left back for England, Southgate opted for Trippier who is by trade a right back or at least a right sided defender, allowing him to also play Manchester City’s Kyle Walker who was on the right.
Scotland’s attack will likely be facing up against Everton’s Jordan Pickford. Having been labelled erratic in the past and suspect for making rash decisions, he has managed to hold onto the no. 1 jersey. Competition for his starting places has only been weakened with Dean Henderson’s withdrawal from the squad midweek due to injury.
For all that can be said about the England squad, there are still weaknesses Scotland can look to which could help them to a positive result down in London. With or without Maguire, centre back is definitely a position of weakness for England, especially when looking at the quality they have elsewhere. John Stones and Tyrone Mings made up the back two in their opening fixture and didn’t look too troubled throughout, and behind them ready to step up is Conor Coady of Wolves and Ben White of Brighton. Admittedly any of these options would be one of the first names on the team sheet for Steve Clarke, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Clarke’s plan involved targeting their back line and deploying Dykes and Adams to given them something to think about here.
Depending on who they pick to face us, players such as Maguire and Henderson may be weak links if chosen by Southgate to start. Despite being first choice centre back for England when fit, Maguire hasn’t played since early May and will likely lack match sharpness. Henderson’s injury situation was even worse, and until he featured in the Romania friendly he had not played at club level since February. These two will definitely lack match sharpness, but Southgate will likely want to get them involved in the tournament at some stage as they could be important players for England should they advance to the later stages of the finals. Will he use Friday as an opportunity to give them their EURO 2020 debuts? We’ll have to wait and see.
Finally, one of England’s greatest weaknesses is one which lies off the pitch, and away from the dugout. It’s in the stands. English fans are notorious for their high expectations of their national team, and how in the past they have turned against their players when the pressure mounts and the going gets tough. It can often be toxic and unenjoyable for the players, and with the Tartan Army also travelling in numbers to Wembley the atmosphere could well play its part.
Clarke will know that the longer Scotland hold England at bay, the harder it will get for the home side, with the impatience of their fans likely to build. It may be clutching at straws in claiming this could be a big factor, but it is essential Scotland stay in the game for as long as possible and remain disciplined. The opportunities will come.
Friday will be a challenging night for Scotland, and the stakes are high. Matches against pot 1 teams on paper are usually the hardest of the group, but the derby element of this match gives it an entirely different feel when compared with what it would be like to play other pot 1 teams like Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain. This definitely brings down our opponents closer to our level as anything can happen in a derby match, hunger and desire could be what gets the eventual winner over the finish line.
Whether Kieran Tierney is fit will also be another big factor as his importance to Scotland and Steve Clarke’s plans cannot be understated. At centre back he gives our back three a totally different dynamic and brings more strength to our left flank. His ability to play dangerous balls long and short into feet, his quick bursts forward and his over and under lapping of Robertson bring a lot to the table, and even as a goal threat he gives our opponents another problem to think about.
As the Tartan Army start to travel south our players will be keen to give those in the stands something to cheer about, an aspect of what was missing on Monday. Now that the first match is out the way, at least we won’t have to play our first game back on the big stage in 23yrs again, even if a crunch match with England brings its own different type of nerves.
The disappointment of our opening day defeat will be a distant memory should Clarke’s men snatch a famous victory and take all 3pts back to Hampden for our final group match. Even a draw would still give us all to play for in our match with Croatia.
As mentioned, the last time Scotland travelled to Wembley in dire need of a result after a 2-0 skelp, the boys delivered a win. Not enough back in 1999, but it would do this time around. I’ll take a case of history repeating itself.