Playoff Squad Check-In: January 2020
As the bells rang and the drams were drunk, 2020 dawned and Scotland’s Nations League Playoff in March rose over the horizon.
In fewer than 100 days, Scotland will emerge at Hampden Park to play Israel in their one-leg Nations League Playoff Semi-Final (26 March). Staggered kick off times mean that when Scotland take kick off their potential opponents in the Playoff Final will be known as Norway kick off against Serbia at 5pm. Some more risk-taking members of the Tartan Army may have already booked flights to Olso or Belgrade.
Beat Israel and the stage will be set for one away game to end Scotland’s 22-year major Finals drought.
When qualification from Scotland’s Euro 2020 group became mathematically impossible in November, we projected the eleven players who should start for Scotland in March’s Playoff.
That squad was:
With the Playoff fast approaching, let’s check-in with the squad and see if anyone else if pushing for inclusion:
In the past decade, the goalkeeper position for Scotland was arguably that of greatest strength with David Marshall, Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon sharing the gloves, all three relied upon to deliver commanding performances when called upon.
David Marshall has worn #1 for Scotland in all bar one of Steve Clarke’s games in charge (the home game against San Marino when Jon McLaughlin deputised). He was therefore duly projected to retain the position in our Playoff Squad.
However, since the win against Kazakhstan closed out Scotland’s qualifying campaign, he has found club games hard to come by. He hasn’t played in the EFL Championship since the end of November, injury forcing his absence for three games before sitting on the bench for four on his return. He did play in the FA Cup against Leicester this past weekend; Scotland fans must hope this marks his permanent return to the starting 11.
Beyond Marshall, options are less appealing. With Scott Bain and Craig Gordon not playing at Celtic and Allan McGregor excelling at Rangers but retired from international football, Steve Clarke needs to cast his net wider.
Craig MacGillivray (Portsmouth) and Jon McLaughlin (Sunderland) have made recent squads under Clarke although both operate at EFL League One level, making the step-up to international level a big one.
Casting the net even wider, former Livingston keeper Liam Kelly has yet to establish himself as number one under Mark Warburton at QPR and while Robby McCrorie has impressed at Queen of the South, he is hopefully one for the future. This article in The Athletic is an excellent read on Robby's development.
Current Projection – David Marshall – Even if he’s not playing every game, it looks like he’s the strongest available keeper for Scotland. His experience of big games alone could be key.
At the back, our projection for the defence was: Andy Robertson at LB, Scott McKenna and Liam Cooper at CB and Kieran Tierney at RB.
The obvious place to start is with the luckless Kieran Tierney who arrived at Arsenal over the summer with an injury, worked his way back to fitness only to suffer a freakishly bad shoulder dislocation at West Ham in mid-December. Surgery and a projected three-month rehabilitation will almost definitely keep him out of March’s Playoffs.
Sheffield Wednesday’s Liam Palmer has played the last four consecutive Scotland games at right back, playing well going forward and defensively and he’ll be expected to hold that position in March.
Leeds United captain Liam Cooper continues to play every game when available for Bielsa’s table toppers and looks a good bet to return for Scotland having missed the last two games with an injury.
Scott McKenna looks to be completely over his injury issues from earlier in the season, playing every game for Aberdeen since the beginning of October. Transfer rumours have begun to swirl around him again with a move to Premier League Burnley being mooted.
Other options at centre back have been through a tumultuous Festive Period with John Souttar and Stuart Findlay changing managers at club level.
At left back, Scotland captain Andy Robertson has added the Club World Cup to his personal trophy cabinet since last playing for his country. Should Andy be unavailable, Celtic’s Greg Taylor has found playing time hard to come by in his debut season at Parkhead.
Current Projection – Andy Robertson (LB), Scott McKenna (CB), Liam Cooper (CB), Liam Palmer (RB)
The central midfield three in our November projection was Scott McTominay, John McGinn and Callum McGregor.
What a difference a month makes. Christmas brought two unwanted gifts for Scotland fans as on 21 December Aston Villa’s John McGinn suffered a fractured ankle seven minutes into their loss to Southampton before Scott McTominay was forced off for Manchester United on Boxing Day with what would later be confirmed as a knee ligament injury.
Both players are facing layoffs of multiple months and even if they are back in training before Scotland’s Playoff matches, they will be woefully short of match sharpness.
Callum McGregor has remained ever-present for Celtic in pursuit of their ninth consecutive Scottish title and fitness permitting will retain his position in the centre of Scotland’s midfield.
Rangers Ryan Jack was chosen by Steve Clarke to replace McTominay at the base of Scotland’s midfield in the final two Euro 2020 qualifiers against Cyprus and Kazakhstan. His form at club level domestically and in Europe has been excellent and one should assume he’s first in line to take McTominay’s place in the starting 11.
Alternatively, John Fleck has been enjoying the season of his life with Sheffield United in the English Premier League, scoring four goals and setting up another in the EPL’s surprise package of the season.
A prime candidate to replace John McGinn in the central attacking hub of Scotland’s midfield could be Southampton's Stuart Armstrong. He hasn’t played a lot this season although his addition to the side (three starts in their last 4 EPL games) has coincided with an upturn in form – the Saints have won the last three games Armstrong has started including a trip to Stamford Bridge and the visit of Tottenham Hotspur. Should he keep his place for Southampton in the next couple of months it’ll be hard to argue against his inclusion for Scotland.
Another option could be a blast from the past – Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan. He’s not represented his country since he earned his 27th cap in Gordon Strachan’s last game in charge – the 2-2 draw in Slovenia in October 2017 that ended Scotland’s World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
He’s played 188 games for Wednesday since joining in 2015, scoring 10 goals and setting up 32. This season he has 1 goal and 7 assists from midfield in the Championship and his 2.6 key passes per game are only bettered by Reading’s John Swift and Luton’s Isaiah Brown in the league.
Current Projection – Ryan Jack (DCM), Callum McGregor (CM), Stuart Armstrong (CM)
Leading the line for Scotland in our November projection was James Forrest on the left wing, Ryan Christie on the right wing and Steven Fletcher in the central striker position.
Ryan Fraser’s indifferent form for Bournemouth this season means the left-wing position will almost definitely be James Forrest’s. Forrest has already his double digits of goals and assists for Celtic (14 goals and 16 assists at time of writing) while Fraser has struggled to replicate last season’s spectacular form.
Fraser is out of contract at the end of the season meaning a move in January could be on the cards. Should that revitalise him then Forrest will face a fight for that position.
On the other flank, Ryan Christie has been one of Scotland’s best performers in recent games. His driving runs from midfield and his ability to cut-in off the right wing were typified in his excellent goal against Cyprus. Christie is another with injury concerns, having recently undergone surgery on a groin complaint with a return expected in “a matter of weeks” according to Celtic.
Finally, the central striker position. In November, having assessed all available (and potentially available) options, the shirt was awarded to Steven Fletcher. However, it is unclear whether he would consider a return to international duty. He was also stretchered off at the weekend and faces an anxious wait to determine the length of any lay-off. His 12 goals for Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship have been invaluable to the club.
Steven Naismith played centrally and captained Scotland in their last two games, in doing so earning his 50th and 51st caps. He brought experience, drive and no lack of quality to the side. The style of forward Steven Naismith is really suits playing as a pivot for our attacking midfielders to play off / around. He also added his ninth goal for Scotland, putting the team ahead against Kazakhstan.
There’s a good chance Steve Clarke will consider sticking with the former Everton star. However (and this has been a trend throughout this piece), Naismith is currently injured. He came off at half-time against Hamilton on 21 December and when he’ll return to action is unclear.
Current Projection – James Forrest (LW), Steven Naismith (CF), Ryan Christie (RW)
Projected Scotland Starting XI – Nations League Playoffs
Do you agree with our Projection? Who should be in the starting line-up over this 11? Let us know in the comments below or get in touch via @TheTartanScarf on Twitter.