Credit has to go to Scotland for their performance against England in last Friday's 0-0 draw. Most notably for their defensive organisation. Their discipline, structure, and intensity was very good. They also posed some problems for England in an attacking sense and visibly grew in confidence as the game progressed. The Scottish defensive structure was the controlling factor for large spells, having a big impact on the tempo and flow of the match.
Scotland defensive structure and pressing
Scotland initially set up with their two forwards Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes trying to slow England’s build-up play with narrow positions that looked to screen passes that could be played centrally. John McGinn would push in and apply pressure to Declan Rice, ensuring he couldn’t receive simple passes from John Stones and Tyrone Mings played between Dykes and Adams. This often resulted in passes from England’s centre backs being played to Reece James and Luke Shaw who would generally receive quite deep allowing Scotland to remain very compact.
Rather than attempting to release their wing-backs Andy Robertson and Stephen O’Donnell to England’s full-backs, Scotland preferred to release either Callum McGregor or Billy Gilmour from central midfield. Both of these players showed great intelligence in screening lines of passes inside and encouraged passes outside into the feet of Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling. This tactical approach worked very well for Scotland and allowed Robertson and O’Donnell to be very committed and focused when pressing Foden and Sterling.
The outside centre backs Kieran Tierney and Scott McTominay were then key. When the attack was down their side of the pitch McTominay and Tierney took responsibility for the England midfielders Mason Mount and Kalvin Phillips. When either of the England pair looked to run forwards into the space vacated by Robertson and O’Donnell pressing, as they did so often against Croatia, Tierney and McTominay were there waiting. However, just as importantly both Tierney and McTominay were very comfortable stepping in if Mount or Phillips held a deeper position between the Scottish defensive and midfield lines. This was the huge positive of playing a natural left-back in Tierney and a central midfield player in McTominay in those positions, for which Steve Clarke deserves great credit.
On the occasions where McGregor or Gilmour were not able to press due to not being in position or if Foden or Sterling had dropped deep and inside, then either one of the forwards would quickly recover to apply pressure or the wing-back would release to press with cover being provided on their inside. The principles remained the same but the adaptability and collective understanding of the tactics was excellent on Scotland’s part.
Switching the play and advancing full backs
When England did commit to pushing their full-backs higher and moved the ball with greater speed, especially when switching across the pitch, they had success. Due to the nature of Scotland’s press it was difficult for them to get across to apply good pressure when the ball was switched quickly. In fact, a number of England’s best positions came through the involvement of Reece James and Luke Shaw – there just wasn’t a high number of these instances.
The corner in the 10th minute that saw John Stones head against the post resulted from a well constructed England attack. As they progressed down the left, Scotland pressed as highlighted already. A quick turn inside, acceleration, and pass across the pitch from Raheem Sterling allowed Reece James to advance into the final third, combine with Phil Foden, and release him to come inside and set up the opportunity for Mason Mount which won the corner.
In the 16th minute, Kalvin Phillips pulled wide into the full-back area, Reece James pushed higher, and Foden was again given the opportunity to come inside where he ran beyond the Scottish defence and narrowly missed the target before being flagged offside. James again advanced in the 28th minute, delivering an outstanding cross to the far post which Harry Kane could not convert on the stretch, plus it was his shot that went narrowly over from the edge of the box in the 54th minute at the end of England’s best period of attacking play in the game.
Down England’s left side another effective switch of play and an injection of pace into the attack from Luke Shaw in the 18th minute caused problems for Scotland. A sharp one-two with Raheem Sterling and quick acceleration beyond Billy Gilmour put Scotland on the back foot with a slipped pass outside McTominay for Mason Mount winning England another corner. The rotation of Mount pulling into the full-back area and Shaw pushing high allowed Raheem Sterling to get in behind the Scottish defence in the 24th minute.
At the start of the second half Shaw immediately penetrated the defensive line with another one-two and minutes later pushed on again creating the opportunity for Sterling to come inside, and finished with a good effort at goal from Mason Mount. With a touch more composure in the 73rd minute, Shaw could have punished Scotland when he again got behind the Scottish defence following good combination play with Jack Grealish and Mason Mount.
Tactically, England could have benefited from having another creative player in central areas either by pushing a full back very high on one side and allowing Phil Foden to come inside as Italy have done so effectively with Lorenzo Insigne, or by selecting only one of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in order to accommodate Jack Grealish, who alongside Foden is England’s most effective player in tight spaces and under increased pressure. However, Scotland played very well and deserve great recognition for their performance tactically.
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