After an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan in the team’s first UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier, followed by a sheepish 2-0 away win against Group I minnows San Marino, Alex McLeish’s second spell as manager of the Scotland national team was brought to an end. Steve Clarke, fresh from guiding Kilmarnock to a sensational third-place finish in the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership, was the man charged with reuniting a squad of players whose commitment to the national team had been questioned in recent months.
Clarke’s first test was a UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus, and after the team’s miserable start, a win was a must. As this tactical analysis will illustrate, Scotland’s eventual 2-1 victory was hard-fought, with Cyprus’ defensive tactics proving difficult for Scotland to break down. Analysis will highlight that the performance was far from perfect, but Clarke will be relieved to have started his reign with a win, especially with away trips to Belgium and Russia awaiting the Tartan Army.
In his first starting eleven, Clarke made five changes from the team that defeated San Marino and opted for a 4-3-3 formation. David Marshall was a surprise inclusion in the squad, and for the first time since 2016, started in goal. The back four was made up of Stephen O’Donnell at right-back, who had played under Clarke at Kilmarnock, Charlie Mulgrew and Scott McKenna made up the centre back pairing, while captain Andy Robertson lined up in his usual left-back role. The midfield three was made up of Kenny McLean, who played a deeper role than fellow midfielders John McGinn and Callum McGregor. Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser was deployed on the left-wing, while James Forrest of Celtic started on the right side. Uncapped Kilmarnock striker Eamonn Brophy was Scotland’s lone striker.
Cyprus lined up in a 3-5-2 formation with Urko Pardo starting in goal. Antreas Makris and Renato Margaça started in the wingback positions while Ioannis Kousoulos, Kostas Laifis and Nicholas Ioannou started in central defence. The midfield three was made up of Kostakis Artymatas, Matija Špoljarić and Michalis Ioannou. Pieros Sotiriou partnered Georgios Efrem in attack.
Cyprus’ early dominance
In the early stages of the game, Cyprus enjoyed a large share of the ball and were afforded time and space to build possession. This is highlighted by the match PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) which shows below that Scotland were extremely passive in the early stages. The three Cyprus central defenders were key in controlling possession, and this structure was crucial in disrupting the Scotland block.
Throughout the game, Brophy’s press was passive, and instead of trying to win the ball, he seemed to have been tasked with preventing central penetration and forcing Cyprus into wide areas. However, this tactic had its issues and the back three structure caused the Scotland wingers, Fraser and Forrest, to press the wide centre-backs, freeing space in front of the Scotland fullbacks for Cyprus to exploit.
This first image highlights this issue and shows the right-centre-back in possession. Here, Fraser has pressed the player on the ball, which opens up space in behind him, enabling the Cyprus defender to clip the ball over Fraser’s head to the right-wing-back, who now finds himself in space with an opportunity to drive forward, as shown in the second image.
The image above again demonstrates Scotland’s pressing issues, this time down the Cyprus left. Here, Brophy’s passive press has given the Cyprus central defender enough time to pick a forward pass, this time to the left-wing-back. Forrest has been drawn out of the press by the position of the left-centre-back and as with the previous example, Cyprus can advance possession into the wide areas, where their wingbacks have time and space to go forward. At this point, it is important to highlight the positions of the three Cyprus central midfielders. Their narrow positions allow the wingbacks space and make it difficult for the three Scotland midfielders to cover the width of the pitch and apply pressure in wide areas.
The above images show the problems that Cyprus’ narrow midfield caused Scotland. The first image shows the central defender in possession, who is being pressed by Brophy. Artymatas has dropped deep, which has caused McGregor to step slightly higher, leaving McGinn with two players either side of him. The two Cyprus forwards cause McLean to screen the defence, while the position of the left-wing-back has the attention of Scotland right-back O’Donnell, leaving McGinn 2v1 in the centre of the pitch. On this occasion, the ball is played into the Cyprus midfielder and McGinn attempts to challenge, but mistimes his tackle, allowing Cyprus to bypass him and attack through the middle, which ends with a shot on target. The second image, from the second half, shows a similar situation, however, this time McGinn seems more aware of the threat in wide areas and McGregor has assisted Brophy in the press, leaving him out of position. This opens up space for Cyprus to play through the middle, where they can attack and have a shot at goal.
Scotland’s attacking struggles
Despite their dominant start, Cyprus were unable to create clear cut chances and often conceded possession in the middle and final thirds. These turnovers allowed Scotland to build possession or hit Cyprus on the break, however, in the early stages of the game Scotland seemed to lack ideas.
One reason for this was the narrowness of the Cyprus block. The image above shows that the Cyprus midfield three and front two were able to prevent Scotland from penetrating through the middle. The Scots lacked patience early in the game and instead of transferring possession and attempting to pull Cyprus players out of the block, they opted to play long balls forward in an attempt to use Brophy as a target man. However, this brought little success, as Brophy was unable to win aerial duels against three physical Cyprus centre-backs, which often led to possession being gifted back to the away team.
Here is another example of Scotland’s attacking difficulties in the early stages. Right-back O’Donnell is in possession and has Forrest and McGinn ahead of him. However, the positioning of the Cyprus midfield means that the pass to McGinn is not an option, while the pass to Forrest would draw immediate pressure from the Cyprus left-wing-back and left side central midfielder. With this in mind, O’Donnell opts to play long up to Brophy, who once again, is unable to get on the end of the aerial pass, resulting in a loss of possession.
A lack of composure on the ball also restricted Scotland’s ability to go forward and an example of this is provided above. Here, McKenna has received a pass from McLean, and has an option to punch a pass into McGregor or play wide to Robertson on the left side. Instead, McKenna punts the ball long up towards Brophy, who is unable to challenge the Cyprus defenders, again gifting possession back to Cyprus.
Scotland’s success on the left side
Despite Scotland’s issues playing through the middle, they were able to find a way to break down Cyprus, and this success came down the left side with Robertson, McGregor and Fraser.
The first image shows McGregor dropping into the false fullback position, which allows Andy Robertson to advance high and wide. The central position of McLean occupies the front two which results in the right-sided central midfielder, Artymatas, jumping out of the block to press McGregor and stop him from playing forward. McGregor then plays wide to Robertson and his high position causes the right-wing-back to jump, which allows Fraser to receive in space. Concurrently, McGregor has made a penetrating run beyond Artymatas into the space vacated by the Cypriot midfielder, while Fraser is now in possession of the ball.
As shown in the image above, Fraser’s position has attracted pressure from the Cyprus right-centre-back, Kousoulous, while Brophy and Forrest are occupying the other two defenders. This creates space for McGregor to continue his run into the box where he receives a through-ball from Fraser and wins a corner from a blocked cutback.
Above is another example of Scotland’s attacking success down the left side. This time, Robertson has received the ball in a wide position, which drags the Cyprus midfielder out of the block. McGregor exploits the space behind the pressing midfielder and is able to receive the ball from Robertson. The second image shows McGregor able to receive the ball on the half-turn and his position has attracted pressure from the right-wing-back. Again, this leaves Fraser in space on the left touchline and when he receives the ball, the right-centre-back is forced to move out into the wide-area to defend against him 1v1. McGregor continues his run and is able to create space to send a cross into the box, which neither Brophy nor Forrest can get on the end of.
Scotland’s success down the left continued into the second half, despite Cyprus’ best efforts to stop McGregor from receiving in the half-space. In the images above, Robertson is in possession and similarly to the first half, is pressed by the Cyprus right side central midfielder. However, on this occasion, the right-wing-back gets tight to Fraser, while the right-centre-back also steps onto McGregor and closes his space. Robertson recognises this and opts to play a ball in behind both the wing-back and the centre-back, which, as demonstrated in the second image, releases McGregor into the final third, where he can cross the ball.
Difficulties for Scotland in the final third
Although the images above demonstrate Scotland’s ability throughout the game to enter the Cyprus final third, they often struggled to create high-quality chances inside the box and were instead restricted to shots from distance.
One reason for this was Scotland’s over-reliance on crosses into the box. This tactic seems to have been implemented by Clarke, considering that in their previous five matches, Scotland have averaged 13 crosses per game, a number much lower than the 29 attempted in this match.
Above is an example of Scotland’s struggles in and around the box, which highlights Brophy and McGinn competing against five Cyprus defenders when the ball is delivered from the left side. Unsurprisingly, the cross is cleared by one of the Cyprus defenders and Scotland are forced to rebuild the attack.
Here we see an almost identical situation, this time with a cross from the right side delivered by Forrest. Again, Brophy and McGinn are outnumbered by four Cyprus defenders, one of which is able to attack the cross and clear the ball away from the danger.
The two images above further demonstrate Scotland’s lack of creativity and poor decision making in the final third. The first image shows McGinn in possession on the left side and despite Brophy having seven Cyprus players around him, McGinn opts to cross the ball in, which again, unsurprisingly, is cleared easily by a Cyprus head.
The second image shows a similar situation in the second half, Brophy is again tightly marked by three Cyprus defenders, leaving him no chance of getting on the end of what turned out to be a poor cross from the Scotland skipper Robertson.
As mentioned previously, a lack of penetration caused by Cyprus’ compact shape prevented Scotland from entering key areas of the final third, such as zone 14. Here, Mulgrew is in possession and plays the ball wide to right-back O’Donnell. Once in possession, the Scotland right-back has only one forward passing option in right-winger Forrest, who is wide on the touchline. The space highlighted in front of the Cyprus central defence was vacant here, and on many other occasions throughout the match. This made it difficult for Scotland to enter the penalty box and restricted them to shots from distance and crosses into a crowded area.
However, in the second half, Scotland were able to get players into these dangerous areas and on this particular occasion, the positions of McGinn and McGregor between the lines led to their first goal. McLean’s penetrative pass found the feet of McGinn, which caused the Cyprus midfield to narrow in an attempt to avoid a further breach. The second image highlights the positions the front four, who can pin the five Cyprus defenders, leaving space for Robertson on the left side of the Cypriot’s midfield unit, where he strikes a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Urko Pardo.
Cyprus’ threat on the counterattack
Despite their lack of clear-cut chances, particularly in the second half, Cyprus were still able to cause problems for Scotland on the counterattack.
Specifically, Cyprus were able to take advantage of Scotland’s poor corner kick deliveries, and on several occasions, Urko Pardo’s excellent distribution was able to release a forward player. The first image above, shows the goalkeeper claiming a cross and also highlights Efrem, whose direct forward run prompts Pardo to launch the ball into his path. The second image demonstrates the effectiveness of Pardo’s distribution in starting the counterattack, and from here Efrem is able to drive into the final third and win his team a corner kick.
The images above are an example of another Cyprus counterattack, again from a corner kick, where this time, a clearance to the edge of the box prompts forward runs from three Cyprus players. The player in possession drives forward, which attracts pressure, opening up a gap for him to play through to centre forward Sotiriou, who wins the foot race with McLean and registers an attempt on goal.
This counterattack was the most damaging, with the resulting corner leading to the Cyprus equaliser. Once again, Pardo claims the corner with ease and immediately sends the ball long to Georgiou, who manages to drive into the box and win the corner.
Oliver Burke’s impact
In the end, Scotland’s super-sub was Oliver Burke; however, his impact went beyond scoring the winning goal. He was able to provide Scotland with the physical presence in the final third that they had been lacking throughout the match.
The example above shows that unlike Brophy, Burke was able to challenge for aerial balls and bring players into play. This allowed Scotland to not only disrupt the Cyprus defence, but also allowed them to establish possession between the lines of the opposition higher up the pitch. The second image highlights this disruption, where Burke, after knocking the ball down, can spin in behind the defence and advance down the right flank.
The same can be seen from this example, where again, Burke manages to knock the ball down to McGregor and bring the Scotland midfielders into play. The second image demonstrates that this allowed Scotland to unbalance the Cyprus defence and switch play to Fraser, who manages to beat the Cyprus defender and have a shot at goal.
Burke left his mark on the game with an 88th minute headed goal, which considering Scotland’s wastefulness from crossing positions throughout the game, was surprising, to say the least. However, as the image illustrates, Scotland’s ability to get more players in the box on this occasion enabled Burke to be left 1v1 with a defender in the middle of the box. From here, he was able to rise higher and directed his header onto the post, after which he slotted home the rebound to give Clarke his first win as Scotland manager.
An injury-time winner was enough to secure Steve Clarke’s first win as Scotland manager, as well as a much needed three points. The performance was far from perfect, but Clarke will be encouraged by some impressive individual performances from players such as Andy Robertson, Callum McGregor and eventual match-winner Oliver Burke, who may be the man tasked with leading the line in upcoming group matches against Belgium and Russia.
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