Plenty of new faces in McLeish’s first Scotland squad

Alex McLeish’s first squad on his return to the Scotland managerial hot-seat has seen a goodbye to plenty of the old guard, writes Gregor Kerr. While Gordon Strachan received his fair share of stick for recurring names like James McArthur, Chris Martin, Alan Hutton, Steven Fletcher and the like featuring in his squads, there is no sign of those crop of players now.

With a new qualifying campaign comes fresh faces and a new lease of life. Alex McLeish has handed first call-ups to a raft of players in all areas of the pitch, ahead of March’s friendly games against Hungary and Costa Rica.

The First Timers

Scott McTominay has become a regular in the Manchester United midfield, at times, displacing Paul Pogba, and his maiden call-up reflects his form in recent months. A strong, box-to-box midfielder, he offers the strength and tenacity in midfield that Scott Brown once offered before international retirement.

He is complemented Dylan McGeouch, another debutant and midfield option, who is playing the best football of his career so far in a Hibernian jersey. A controller of games, McGeouch has the intelligence, passing ability and composure that has helped propel his club to the next level this season, and offers qualities than has often looked missing in the Scotland midfield.

Hearts’ Jon McLaughlin has been one of the standout goalkeepers in the country this season – his first season in his country of birth – and has more than played his part towards his side’s record clean-sheet run. McLaughlin offers a reliability and calming presence in goal, a quality Scotland have been lacking at times.

Aberdeen defender Scott McKenna has been one of Premiership’s breakout stars so far in defence this season, as was subject to a number of bids from Hull City in the recent transfer window. In an area of the field where Scotland have previously found consistent woes, he joins a list of promising young centre backs along with the likes of Liam Linsday, John Souttar and more who failed to make the squad. Barry Douglas also fills in the left-back department, but with Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson in his path, his chances of featuring appear slim.

Upfront, Oliver McBurnie has a great opportunity to take advantage of Leigh Griffiths’ absence through injury. Recognised for his hold-up play and ability in the air, the on-loan Barnsley striker has averaged nearly a goal per game since joining the club on loan. A regular for his country at under-17 and under-21 level, McBurnie has the experience of playing with many of his Scotland teammates at a younger level, such as Jason Cummings and Scott McKenna.

 

Who may have been called up?

Hibernian’s Paul Hanlon has done little wrong since his last call-up against the Netherlands back in November. While the manager in that game has changed, Hanlon’s form has only gone up a level, captaining his side on most occasions this season and propelling them into the race for Europe. His club manager Neil Lennon has described him as “a bit different” to other players in the nations talent pool. With a combination of pace, reading of the game and ability to play out from the back, he would add a different dimension to a Scotland team looking to build from the back.

He is one of a few center-backs who could, and possibly should have been included in McLeish’s squad. Hearts’ duo Christophe Berra and John Souttar have formed one of the most reliable centre-back combinations in Scotland this season, with the former becoming a regular in the previous qualification campaign. Barnsley’s Liam Lindsay has adjusted with ease to the English Championship following his move from Partick Thistle in the summer, but failed to also make the recent under-21 squad.

In an area where Scotland have looked bereft of solid options in the past, McLeish, and future managers should have a handful of viable options available to them in the coming years.

Aberdeen’s Graeme Shinnie and Motherwell’s Allan Campbell both would have been deserving additions to the squad, but with a plethora of options in the centre of midfield they would have been unlikely to see any minutes.

While many may have thought his international prospects had faded a number of years ago, this season has seen somewhat of a renaissance for Kilmarnock’s Kris Boyd. He might turn 35 come the summer but he leads the Premiership’s scoring charts with 14 goals this season. His last cap came in 2010, but despite notions from some that he may find a way back into international reckoning, he would be one to file away under the “old guard” folder.

 

How will McLeish set things up?

One thing that the former Aston Villa boss will benefit from is a host of different options and systems at his disposal. While Scotland have set up with a back four as far back as recent memory goes, the inclusion of Barry Douglas in the squad could see Kieran Tierney abandon his familiar left-back role and feature in the centre of defence in a back three. Along with the likes of Scott McKenna and Russell Martin who have recent experience in that format, it could be a feasible way for McLeish to fit in both Tierney and Andy Robertson; arguably the two finest players at his disposal.

A host of new names pack the midfield with the likes of Scott McTominay and Dylan McGeouch featuring in a three-man midfield at club level, while more recognised names likes Tom Cairney, Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor featuring with just the one midfield partner. He has a host of options in the wide areas with Matt Ritchie and Ryan Fraser looking in form for their respective clubs.

The Matt Phillips striker experiment failed to inspire against the Netherlands in November, and we hopefully don’t need to see it replicated once again. Upfront is where Scotland look relatively lightweight without usual talisman Leigh Griffiths. One positive aspect of McBurnie and Cummings’ inclusion together is their relationship during their time with the under 21-s. Added to the fact that Cummings has played with a striking partner for most of his career, it wouldn’t be entirely bizarre to see McLeish opt for the two of them together. Their lack of experience could be telling at international level however, with just one combined top-flight goal between the two of them.

ENRG Sport’s podcast, The Weekly Kickback, discussed the team selection on this week’s show, and together came to a conclusion on their preferred starting XI for the upcoming games.

 

3-5-1-1

GK: Jon McLaughlin

CBs: Kieran Tierney, Russell Martin, Scott McKenna

RWB: Callum Paterson

LWB: Andy Robertson

CMs: Stuart Armstrong, Scott McTominay, Dylan McGeouch

CAM: Tom Cairney

ST: Jason Cummings

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