Scotland: Clarke has a winning start, but more is needed to derail the new-look team. Spain

John McGinn is an admirable character not only for his ability to score goals for Scotland, but also for his candour in cutting through the PR and calling it as he sees it.

His assessment of the performance against Cyprus was straightforward. Not for him a celebration of a 16th goal for his country and a place among Scotland’s top seven all-time scorers. Nobody would have mistaken him for a cheerleader after a stodgy but ultimately satisfying 3-0 win.

He listed several things that could and should have been done better before checking himself and admitting that he was “a little moany.”

That was actually to his credit. He expected more from this team because they are capable of more. When you can find fault with a 3-0 victory, you’re doing well. A 3-0 home win against anyone a few years ago, maybe even a year ago or less, would have been hailed as an unqualified triumph, but Scotland’s standards have risen.

Scotland and Spain both start with 3-0 victories.
Shankland is called up by Scotland after Adams withdraws.
The last time they played an opener in a Euros campaign, they lost 3-0 to Kazakhstan. Since then, the world has changed for this team. They were desperate at the time. They’re becoming more discriminating. McGinn can complain all he wants. Some of the greatest players Scotland has ever produced were also world-class snobs.

Steve Clarke’s substitutions turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-0 lead, with Scott McTominay, Ryan Christie, and Lyndon Dykes increasing the intensity, threat, and execution. Scotland has won a European qualifying campaign opener at the fourth attempt. They’ve won three and drawn one of their last four competitive games, scoring eight goals and conceding one. They’ve had worse runs, to be sure.

Spain in the image of e La Fuente
But things are about to get complicated. Anything less than three points on Saturday would have meant disaster in a group with Dani Olmo of Spain, Erling Haaland of Norway, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Napoli’s Kvaradona and Georgia’s footballing god.

Spain, led by Luis de la Fuente, will play at Hampden on Tuesday night. Scotland’s performance against Cyprus will not suffice against Spain. McGinn is aware of this. Clarke is well aware of this. Everyone is aware of it. Spain also won their first game on Saturday, a 3-0 victory over a Haaland-free Norway in Malaga. Norway had chances at 1-0, blew them, and then vanished at La Rosaleda.

This is a very different team than the one we saw pass themselves to death in Qatar during the World Cup. De la Fuente is an intriguing character who was appointed as Luis Enrique’s replacement six days after the loss to Morocco in the last 16.

He won two La Liga titles as a player with Athletic Bilbao in the 1980s, but his managerial experience at club level is limited to 11 games with Alaves a decade ago. His reputation has been built on his work with a number of underage national teams. In his time, he led the under-19s and under-21s to Euros glory and won silver at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021.

He has coached all of Spain’s best young players at some point. “No one understands the present and future of Spanish football better than me,” he claims. He named two teenagers to his starting lineup against Norway: Barcelona fullback Alejandro Balde and Barcelona wide midfielder Gavi. He also brought on Yeremy Pino, a 20-year-old Villarreal attacker.
De la Fuente is a hybrid, whereas Luis Enrique was deemed tactically rigid and addicted to the sterile possession game, which saw his team register one shot on target in 120 minutes against Morocco. He wants some of what Enrique advocated, but he also wants more energy and goal threat. He’s also switched from Enriques’ 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation.

He is thought to be friendly and caring. Nacho Fernandez of Real Madrid started against Norway after last playing for his country away in 2018. De la Fuente is “very affectionate, very much in the profile of Carlo Ancelotti [his club coach],” he says. But the man clearly has a tough exterior.

He took a metaphorical blow torch to Enrique’s World Cup squad, releasing a slew of former Enrique players. Jordi Alba, Koke, Ferran Torres, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Marco Asensio were all missing. “This is a new era,” De la Fuente declared. That it is.

When he named his first squad, he included 13 players who did not play in the World Cup and seven players from the Olympic squad he took to Tokyo (and would have been more had it not been for injury). Only four of the players who started against Morocco started against Norway on Saturday night.

In addition to bringing Nacho back from injury and giving Kepa Arrizabalaga his first cap since October 2020, De la Fuente gave Espanyol striker Mato Joselu a debut off the bench. Joselu has had to wait his turn. Enrique didn’t want to know him because he was 32. Joselu sealed the game with two goals in two minutes.

Norway offers hope to Scotland.
Clarke only needs to think about Saturday night in Malaga when analyzing Spain. Because so much has changed, both tactically and personally, that footage is the only one worth looking at. The final score appears to be comprehensive, but Norway was in the game for long stretches and created opportunities. Clarke will be encouraged by this. Spain was there to be captured before they withdrew.

Starting McTominay on the bench against Cyprus and instead going with Ryan Jack was a nod to Tuesday night. Christie’s productive cameo may have pushed Stuart Armstrong back into the starting lineup, but Armstrong was solid on Saturday. The point is, Clarke has choices. Lewis Ferguson has been in excellent form in Serie A, but he did not play against Cyprus. He’s a good customer to have on hand.

Clarke is unlikely to make many changes, other than Dykes replacing the injured Adams. He’ll bet on the opposition’s quality and the nighttime atmosphere giving his players an advantage. The campaign began on Saturday, but it really begins in earnest on Tuesday, when a new Spain arrives and so much more about them and their hosts will be known.

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