After both sides secured victories in the midweek European Qualifiers, Scotland met Slovakia in a UEFA Nations League clash. Each side has an unfortunate history in international competitions. Scotland last qualified for the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championships in 1996. Slovakia qualified for its first World Cup more recently in 2010 and the European Championships in 2016. However, these are the only times they have made these international tournaments as an independent nation. This tactical analysis will explore Slovakia’s struggles in possession. This analysis will include Scotland’s offensive and defensive tactics as well.
Scott Clarke set up his side in a 3-4-1-2 with David Marshall in goal. Declan Gallagher anchored the defence with the help of Andy Considine and Man United‘s Scott McTominay. Club rival Andy Robertson of Liverpool played as the left midfielder across from Stephen O’Donnell. In between either of them, John Fleck and Kenny McLean played central roles behind John McGinn. With McGinn, Ryan Fraser and Lyndon Dykes completed the attacking trio.
Pavel Hapal opted for a 4-1-4-1 for Slovakia, choosing Dusan Kuciak in goal. Martin Valjent and Branislav Ninaj made up the centre-back pairing, flanked by Jakub Holubek at left-back and Martin Koscelnik at right-back. Jan Gregus played a defensive role in the midfield behind Matus Bero and Marek Hamsik of the Serie A. Bero left half-way through the first 45 due to injury, replaced by Ondrej Duda. Lukas Haraslin and Ivan Schranz took up wide positions on the left and right of the midfield, respectively. Robert Bozenik finished the side as the lone striker.
Slovakia in possession
Although listed in a 4-1-4-1, Slovakia maintained more of a 4-2-3-1 while in possession. Hamsik and Gregus became the pivots while first-half-substitute Duda played further up the field.
This image provides a view of Slovakia’s shape when building from the back. The movement of the pivots was vital for the team to progress the ball. Hamsik and Gregus played off each other, each adjusting their position based on the other. The pivots took up different vertical and horizontal lanes to create more potential passing options. When the ball swung to a full-back, one pivot came to the ball-side like Hamsik started to do in this image. The other upheld a central position to balance the formation.
Scotland challenged Slovakia’s buildup by occupying the two pivots with their front three. To counter this, Hapal instructed the centre-backs to take up wider positions occasionally. The full-backs pushed further up the field as the centre-backs drew the Scottish strikers away from central positions. This opened space for Gregus and Hamsik to maneuver in the midfield.
Moving further up the pitch, Slovakia’s midfield structure remained stable throughout the game. In the few extended possessions in the attacking third, Hamsik and Gregus facilitated the possession down either wing. Duda as a 10 drifted across the open space in front of the pivots. Here he finds space between the opposing midfield and forward lines on the right side. For a team that possessed 55% of the ball, they struggled to create opportunities with only .43 xG on the game.
Duda created the most dangerous opportunities for Slovakia in this match. In this image, he found space in front of Scotland’s defensive midfielders and played a deft chip over the defensive lines to Schranz. The right midfielder failed to control and score, but Duda claimed responsibility for one of the best chances for his side at this moment.
The Slovakian attacking midfielder once again occupied a pocket of space in the Scottish defence. He split the two defensive midfielders to receive the ball at the top of the box. Duda held the ball for a moment before playing a through ball to Koscelnik running at the Scottish back-line. Slovakia struggled to incorporate their wide midfielders into most possessions, so Duda had most of the creative responsibility for his side. Despite these opportunities, Slovakia lacked the aggression to get back in this game after going down.
Scotland’s defensive solution
Slovakia struggled to create chances due in large part to Scotland’s smart defensive structure. Clarke’s 3-4-1-2 had a specific goal in defence, which nullified much of Slovakia’s buildup attempts.
The front three for Scotland caused major issues for Slovakia’s back four and pivots. The Scottish side did not press often, subtracting the occasional aggression from Fraser or Dykes toward a centre-back. Instead, the three players stayed in central positions to disrupt the pivots. However, as seen in the image above, they allowed one pivot to receive throughout the game. As Gregus received here, Fraser and McGinn cut out the passing lane to Hamsik. Dykes moved to shut Gregus down and force a pass back to a centre-back. This style of defending invited errors in Slovakia’s defensive third and encouraged play down wide areas.
When the ball reached the full-backs, O’Donnell and Robertson pressed higher to prevent progression from either of Koscelnik or Holubek. As the front three managed the pivots and the Scottish full-backs matched their opposite, Slovakia played almost double the long passes as their opponent. Clarke shifted responsibility to his centre-backs and holding midfielders to either win their aerial duels or immediately win the ball back following balls over the top. This system suppressed Slovakia’s wide midfielders as they received little support from their full-backs.
This image reinforces a dynamic from earlier. As Valjent played into Gregus, Hamsik occupied a prime position in different horizontal and vertical channels to progress the ball. McGinn saw this and immediately ran to Hamsik to cut out the passing lane. As Dykes moved to Gregus, McGinn left wide open space in the centre of the field in favor of preventing Hamsik’s involvement. Scotland’s front three prioritized the pivots to limit Slovakia’s comfort in the buildup.
The culmination of these trends appears in this image. Dykes and McGinn marked either Slovakian defensive midfielder as O’Donnell sprinted towards Holubek on the ball. While Scotland did not employ a man-marking system, they maintained a clear defensive focus and system that prevented Slovakia from easily building out from the back.
On the other side of the ball, Scotland took advantage of McTominay’s midfield acumen to create interesting shapes in the buildup phase.
By default, Clarke’s side used two pivots like their opponent. Slovakia refrained from pressing high in the first half, so the back three pushed further up before playing into the pivots. McLean and Fleck faced little pressure when finding space to receive near the Scottish back three, and they facilitated possession down the wings.
McTominay is the piece in Scotland’s formation that created the nuances in the 3-2 buildup shape. As a central midfielder at club level, he pinched into the midfield on occasion to either find passing lanes directly to the front three or assist the pivots with ball movement. McTominay’s positioning in the image above exemplifies this trend. No right-sided centre-back would normally hold a central position like this. For Scotland, McTominay helped in the back line and midfield.
With McTominay’s central tendency, Scotland created some lopsided offensive positions. In this image, McTominay came level with the midfield line. Robertson dropped deeper to aid his side in possession as the other centre-backs and defensive midfielders take up their usual positions. This formation created unique passing lanes for the Scottish side as McTominay provided new, realistic diagonals to progress the ball to the front three. Because of McTominay’s position, O’Donnell had more freedom to push up in offence on the right-wing.
In the second half, Slovakia pressed higher while chasing an equalizer. In this case, Gallagher and Considine spread out wide while Fleck joins to provide his goalkeeper another option. McTominay pushed further wide out of frame as his team opted to open space in the middle of the field. This allowed for earlier participation from Scotland’s attacking trio as more direct passing lanes appeared. Scotland found success using their three centre-backs in the buildup while capitalizing on McTominay’s midfield talent.
Scotland exploiting wide areas
The wide spaces haunted Slovakia during this match. Scotland continuously found Fraser, McGinn, and their full-backs in open space in advanced, wide positions.
In this image, Fraser found space behind Holubek, who tried to resolve his positioning error by cutting off the passing lane between McGinn and the runner. Fraser often made diagonal runs off the outside shoulder of the centre-back into the space behind the full-backs. Once Fraser or McGinn received the ball in the wide areas, the ball-side full-back and defensive midfielder supported the attacker. The wide areas provided means of exploitation for their attackers in one-on-one and overload situations.
Robertson and Fraser exchanged passes down the left-wing often in the match. Each started in different vertical channels as seen above. Robertson attracted Koscelnik as Fraser entered the space the full-back left behind. Once receiving in these positions, Fraser had the option to cross into the box or dribble at an opponent. The Scotsman led his side in crosses and attempted dribbles which reflect his involvement in the team.
This image serves as another example of Scotland infiltrating wide areas through varying vertical positions. O’Donnell occupied the widest position, marked by Holubek. McTominay picked his spot in between O’Donnell and Fleck to exploit the passing line in between the defenders. Fraser fronted his marker further up the field allowing for McTominay to make a straight pass to his feet. The wealth of players Scotland used on the right-wing created passing lanes to exploit in progression.
This final image serves as a snapshot of an interchange between wide players which Scotland benefitted from during the game. Robertson started with the ball before passing to Fraser. He took one touch on to substitute Oliver McBurnie, who played a through ball back to Robertson. Scotland’s entire attacking trio moved to the left-wing in support, but Slovakia equaled their numbers defensively. Quick exchanges and movement created the advantage here. Scotland looked to attack wide areas throughout the match by leveraging the attack with their full-backs.
In a UEFA Nations League matchup between two European teams desperate for international success, Scotland outperformed Slovakia. The losing side failed to incorporate their offensive players into their buildup, relying on Duda for any creative spark. Scotland had a strong defensive setup to prevent Slovakia from comfortably building in wide areas. This analysis explored how Scotland focused on wide areas to employ their attack effectively in a well-deserved win.