Simmo looks ahead to the England vs Scotland game, and discusses why Scotland could cause a huge upset.
England versus Scotland. It’s the oldest fixture in international football. Ever since its first contest way back in 1872, the two Auld Enemies have faced each other with unprecedented passion and pride.
Tonight’s encounter will be the 113th contest between these two great footballing nations. England lead the head-to-head 47-24 and are expected to increase their lead. Yet whilst England go into the game as overwhelming favourites, the Tartan Army travel south with great hope and anticipation. It could be argued that this confidence is somewhat misplaced.
The importance of tonight’s fixture is further exacerbated by the fact that neither team can really afford to lose. Scotland know that this game is crucial if they are going to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Both teams are in the middle of poor runs of form. Scotland arrive at Wembley on the back of a terrible 3-0 loss in Slovakia, a result that left them three points behind England in Group F. England did not fare too much better last time out either, escaping with a point during a dour 0-0 draw away in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana.
Prior to that, England had claimed two underwhelming victories away to Slovakia and at home to Malta, results that hardly washed away the pain of the dismal Euro 2016 campaign. Scotland on the other hand won convincingly in Malta but then suffered disappointment as they could only muster a 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania.
These recent results have left both teams in difficult situations. Internal investigations have yielded more questions than answers. Neither team has been able to find a remedy to the problems they currently face.
However, the problems facing Scotland are certainly of a different nature to those that England face. A quick examination of both squads would lead most footballing ‘experts’ to conclude that there can only be one winner. England’s squad beats Scotland comfortably, on paper at least. However, football matches aren’t decided on paper – if they were then England would have comfortably defeated Iceland back in June.
For Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan, the dearth of talent available will be a real concern. Indeed this has been an inherent problem for Scotland managers for the last 10 to 15 years. There probably has not been a single Scotland player, barring Darren Fletcher in his Manchester United heyday, who would have got anywhere near the England team since the turn of the century. The chasm in quality between the two teams has never been wider.
The reasons behind this are perhaps not as simple as one might think. The difference between the players is certainly not down to England’s exceptional pool of talent; no, it is more a result of Scotland’s extraordinary lack of.
A quick glance through the Scotland squad reveals a stark reality. Just over half of those selected by Strachan ply their trade in one of Europe’s top tiers. Six play in England’s Premier division, but none for a team in the top half of the table. A further seven play in Scotland, of which four play for reigning champions and runaway leaders, Celtic.
Of those four only two can be considered first team regulars, one being Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, whose retirement from international football lasted only marginally longer than Sam Allardyce’s reign as England boss. Ollie Burke, the only player to play outside of the British Isles, features for RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga, but even he has only started one match since his big money move from Nottingham Forest. Of the remaining twelve, eleven play for clubs in England’s second tier, and one, John McGinn plays for Hibernian, in Scotland’s second division.
That compared to the group of players which England’s interim manager Gareth Southgate has been able to call upon. His squad of 25 consists of 24 players in England’s top flight, with Joe Hart, on loan at Torino in Italian’s Serie A, the only exception to the rule.
Certainly the two squads differ in quality. There can be no doubting that England have a very good group of players available, yet they seem completely incapable of gelling as a team.
This lack of unity and cohesion has never been more apparent than when England have played at Wembley. Indeed, the last time that Scotland visited the self-proclaimed ‘home of football‘ they led twice before eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat. That night, like many others at Wembley, England players seemed incapable of dealing with the pressure of playing there.
There could be no serious suggestion that the players felt intimidated by the raucous crowd. Since reopening, Wembley has become notorious for its mellow and subdued atmosphere. It has even been argued that this may well have an adverse affect on those playing there. In other words there are those who believe that the tame atmosphere transmits itself onto the pitch affecting the players, the intensity of their game and vice versa. Yet to believe that would be an implying that correlation equals causation. Footballers are professionals, and they ought to be able to adapt to the the situations in which they find themselves in.
A stronger argument would perhaps be England’s inability to deal with situations in which they are the overwhelming favourites, as evidenced by the Iceland game. Whilst the following statement might sound clichéd, England players must endeavour to play the opposition rather than the occasion. They have to show bravery, strength, and most crucially, not wilt under pressure.
Too often England players seem unable to transfer their often excellent club form onto the international stage. This ultimately leads to accusations that England players are simply not good enough, or that they are overhyped – neither statement has any foundation at all.
If the pressure and expectation inhibits England, then the lack of certainly prohibits Scotland. The mantra ‘nothing to lose’ has never been more apt. A draw would be considered a highly successful result – a win would immortalise this group of players.
For this reason it is perhaps fair to assume that it is Strachan’s ideal fixture. If he could have picked any team to face it probably would have been England. He knows that he will not have to give a team talk. He knows that he will not have to rile his team up. His only job on the night will be to make sure that his players keep their emotions in check when the game inevitably begins to boil over.
If England allow that to happen then they will have really played into Scotland’s hands. Scotland will want a scrappy, fast, and aggressive game. They know that if they go nose to nose with England they will likely end up on the losing side. They will want the match to descend into a feisty and bad-tempered affair. If that happens then Strachan and his Scotland players will know that they have rattled their opponents.
The game will probably lack in quality but definitely not in intrigue. Both teams will approach this game with a certain level of trepidation, not wanting to take unnecessary risks; both know exactly what is at stake.
Defeat for England would lead to an internal inquisition perhaps even more severe than the one that followed the Iceland result. Defeat for Scotland would almost certainly signal the end of another qualifying campaign.
The winner really will take it all; the lose will be left standing small. Having said all that, it will most probably end up being a draw!