ANYONE thinking Gordon Strachan has spent the last four months quietly stewing over Scotland’s struggles at the start of this already forlorn World Cup qualifying campaign would be very much mistaken.
The gap between the 3-0 loss to England at Wembley in November to this week’s double-header against Canada and Slovenia has given the national team manager plenty of time for contemplation, but rather than brooding or wallowing in self-pity, Strachan has used it to cast an eye over potential additions to his squad. Call-ups for uncapped trio Stuart Armstrong, Tom Cairney and Ryan Fraser, and recalls for Matt Phillips, Jordan Rhodes and Allan McGregor, suggest it has been time well spent.
“I’ve not been too bad, to be honest with you,” he says of his general mindset. “It’s not like you sit here thinking, “we must play next week, I want to play next week”. I knew what the timescale was and I hope I’ve used it wisely.
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“Looking at the squad you can see I did use my time to find other players and to freshen it up. So I spent my time doing that, watching football. It’s not a bad hobby watching football.”
The Canada friendly on Wednesday night offers greater scope for experimentation before the competitive action returns when Slovenia come to Hampden next Sunday. None of the six Celtic players in the squad will play in midweek should they start against Dundee this afternoon, while those who have struggled for regular action at their clubs may be given the chance to stretch their legs ahead of the more meaningful match at the weekend.
“At the time we arranged the Canada game there were a few players not getting a game for their clubs and I thought they would benefit from a game one way or another,” explained Strachan. “It has been a long period since the England game and I thought it was better to have something else rather than going straight back into a very important game.
“There are a couple of players who the regulars have not played with before and it’s good to get to know their game a wee bit. Obviously, people have seen Tom Cairney and Stuart Armstrong but playing with them is a different thing. Ryan Fraser is new, too, and Jordan is back in the squad so there are a few lads who haven’t played together and it’s nice to for them to understand each other on the pitch and as people as well.
“I’ll look at the Celtic players who are playing [today] and the ones that start they will probably not play against Canada. We want to start working on the Canada game [tomorrow] and it’s very hard to ask the Celtic players to have a game and start training right away thinking they’ve got another game. Physically and mentally you just cannot do it.
“So I’ve got more than enough. That’s why I picked a larger than normal squad on the understanding I think maybe five Celtic players will start their game. So we can count them out anyway and then get on with the other 25 that I’ve got to play against Canada.”
The visitors will have motivation of their own having named a new manager on Friday in Octavio Zambrano, while Scottish-based played Fraser Aird and Luca Gasparotto and Scots-born Scott Arfield may be especially fired up.
“I’ve been looking at their last two or three friendlies,” said Strachan of Canada. “They’re dogged and they are enthusiastic, that’s for sure. They’ve got plenty of energy, which will make our players hopefully play at a high tempo and then we can get minutes into the players’ legs at a good pace. The players will appreciate that and it will get them ready for the next game.
“I know how we want to play. There are a couple of systems that Slovenia use and we will prepare for both of them. I’ve not picked a team for next Sunday - I never do that - but I’ve got an idea how we’re going to play against them. I wouldn’t want anyone to think the Canada game has got no consequences for the selection of the team - it’s got a lot, trust me.”
Rhodes’ return is an intriguing one. Hailed as the great Scottish hope six years ago following his scoring exploits with the under-21s, the striker has struggled to convert that promise on the senior front, winning just 13 full caps and scoring just three goals. Enjoying a new lease of life on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, Strachan is glad to have him back in the fold.
“It was a shame that if he was being held up as the saviour of our game after a couple of goals for the Scotland under-21s,” he added. “Nobody in the Scotland set-up thought that. But he now seems to be enjoying life at Sheffield Wednesday after very rarely getting a game with Middlesbrough. So he’s back in the reckoning. He might start [for Scotland] or he might need 20 minutes.
“Jordan is now getting more games at Wednesday and is running again without any pressure and you never know what we might need at different times of a game. You have to assess what is needed at that moment and look at the scenarios that might come up.”
Another enigma is Oliver Burke. Scottish football’s most expensive export has spoken of his happiness with RB Leipzig in Germany’s Bundesliga but Strachan would like to see him start more games.
“If you look at his performances since the England game he’s not played a full game,” said the manager. “So that tells me he is still learning his game. He’s coming on between 70 minutes and 90 minutes. So he’s still learning the game, that’s for sure. I’ve seen him come on in games and I’ve seen wee bits that he’s learning from the German side of football and that’s great.
“But again he’s a man that Leipzig like using as a substitute at this moment. Everyone would like to see him play more time but unfortunately he’s not getting that at the moment. So we have to take that into consideration when we’re picking the team.
“I think he only lasted 68 minutes in the game he started - a friendly against Rangers - so are the legs ready to play 90 minutes? You’ve got to take that into consideration. But in saying that I wouldn’t worry too much about it because James Forrest and Ryan Fraser are playing 90 minutes, they’re playing well, Matty Phillips is playing well. So it’s nice that we’ve got a kid of that pace that we could bring on.”