By Lewis Michie
Not all that long ago Scotland supporters were wondering where the national team were going to find defenders.
The entire backline had presented problems with many of the regular starters looking past their best, too slow, being used out of position on occasion, and less motivated from the fact they appeared to have permanent positions in the squad.
That, however, seems a worry of the past. First the left-back position fell into place with Andrew Robertson breaking through first and there are now constant debates as to who Scotland’s first choice left-back is after Kieran Tierney’s emergence last season.
Barry Douglas, Lee Wallace, Graeme Shinnie and Stephen Kingsley all provide further options in what is almost certainly the position which Scotland’s new coach – whenever he may be appointed – provides the most choice.
Right-back also appears to be less of a worry – Ikechi Anya has filled in on occasion and Kieran Tierney has shown his ability to switch sides. Players having to play out of their preferred role have been an issue for past Scotland managers but that may now be a thing of the past.
Callum Paterson has recovered well from a season ending injury last term and has impressed in the right full-back role for Cardiff. Meanwhile, Anthony Ralston was making an impressive breakthrough at Celtic before being injured and, with current first choice Mikael Lustig receiving criticism recently, Ralston could find himself in a starting capacity at Celtic Park sooner rather than later.
The last remaining concern in the defence for Scottish supporters are the centre-backs. Christophe Berra, Charlie Mulgrew, Liam Cooper (who has featured in multiple squads but has yet to make a debut), Grant Hanley and Russell Martin were regular features in Gordon Strachan’s final campaign in charge of Scotland.Embed from Getty Images
Scottish supporters have long been frustrated with the same names in the squad, campaign after campaign, despite the side’s defensive woes. Strachan’s team conceded 12 times in their failed attempt to qualify for next summer’s world cup – only Lithuania and Malta conceded more in group F.
Those central defenders with whom former boss Strachan had placed so much faith could have mixed futures in their international careers. Berra has reignited his career at Hearts, Martin will have hopes of doing the same at Rangers and Charlie Mulgrew has found a goal scoring touch at Blackburn Rovers, scoring 11 in League One this season.
Hanley has been in and out of the Norwich first team, not particularly impressing throughout, and Cooper is an important part of English Championship outfit Leeds United, which could give him a chance of forcing his way back into Scotland plans. But he has plenty of competition from up-and-coming talent.Embed from Getty Images
Scott McKenna, Ross McCrorie, Jack Hendry, Liam Lindsay and John Souttar would not have entered Strachan’s mind when he looked over the landscape of his Scotland squad before beginning his attempt to guide them to Russia.
All five have made their marks on Scottish football at different times. McKenna and McCrorie have stepped in to fill spaces in Aberdeen and Rangers’ sides respectively, impressing more so than their clubs may have even expected.
Hendry has vastly benefited from regular first-team football at Dundee and Souttar seems like he has been around for ages. Still just 21 years old, the Hearts centre-half is finally beginning to show his full potential.
Lindsay was highly impressive for Partick Thistle last season, even earning calls for his inclusion in Strachan’s squads at the tail end of last season. The big defender moved to Championship side Barnsley in the summer, and has been praised for his quick transition, with rumours of a £6million move to Premiership side Brighton now doing the rounds.
Scott McKennaEmbed from Getty Images
McKenna – a product of Aberdeen’s youth system – has always been tipped to become a quality centre back by his coaches. However, his loan spells to Alloa and twice to Ayr United didn’t kick up much fuss and in the summer it appeared Dons boss Derek Mcinnes expected the 21-year-old to leave on another loan.
A mini crisis after a League Cup trashing at the hands of Motherwell saw the youngster step in as the Dons faced the same opposition days later. McKenna stepped up and hasn’t looked back since –contributing to six clean sheets and scoring three times.
Progressively impressive performances have seen McKenna become Mcinnes’s first choice central defender and he has also shown that, not only does he have defensive ability, he has something to offer going forward too. Blasting into the top corner from all of 35-40 yards against Kilmarnock in a January league game certainly opened up people’s eyes to those skills.
Recently Mcinnes has stated his young star will not be leaving anytime soon, despite heavy interest and multiple offers from Hull City. The Aberdeen manager explained the club have particular goals for the defender to reach before they’d consider allowing him to leave – one of these is seeing McKenna make the step up to the national team.
McCrorie made the best of Rangers’ injury problems earlier in the season as the 19-year-old stepped in to what was then still a Pedro Caixinha side. He impressed so much he has made a further 17 first-team appearances since.
The defender has recently experienced his own injury issues, and there is plenty competition for places in the Rangers side, so at 19 it may be possible Scotland won’t look to promote him from the youth sides quite yet. But he is certainly one who could be playing alongside the other names mentioned in a dark blue shirt for years to come. The Rangers youth product has shown ability not only to play in the centre of defence, but also as a defensive midfielder.
Hendry has found his first burst of regular playing time at Dens Park with Dundee. He seemed to have only just appeared on the scene for Partick Thistle when he transferred to Wigan Athletic in 2015 but, after a frustrating two years at the DW Stadium, the 22-year-old joined Neil McCann’s side in the summer summer. Hendry impressed to such an extent he was sought after for much of the January transfer window by Celtic and finally completed the move on deadline day.
While this move will almost certainly raise Hendry’s profile, giving him a chance to play in Europe and virtually guaranteeing some winners medals for the former Partick Thistle man, the move to Glasgow could prove to be detrimental for Hendy’s prospective Scotland career.
There will be plenty of competition for places in Brendan Rodgers’ side and with Hendry still in his early twenties and being a new arrival, he might have to wait his turn for the regular game time he experienced in Dundee.
Liam LindsayEmbed from Getty Images
Once a team-mate of Hendry’s, Lindsay was the only player not playing for Aberdeen or Celtic to be included in the 2016/17 SPFL team of the year. The22-year-old joined English Championship side Barnsley this past summer for a fee dwarfed by the estimated price tags being thrown around this January amid rumours of a move to the Premier League.
Having already racked up 25 Championship appearances the powerful centre-back has shown his ability to play the ball out from the back and, similarly to McKenna, is a left footed player – an asset sought after by many teams. Barnsley supporters have been full of praise for the Scot and have not been surprised to see him linked to Premier League team Brighton.
Lindsay will need to wait at least until the summer before such a move could take place, but if he continues his current form it will likely be just a matter of time.
Souttar has a particular advantage that the other players mentioned do not. The Hearts man has formed a successful partnership with existing national team defender Christophe Berra.
Both players have teamed up in a back three with Northern Ireland international Aaron Hughes – a back three that recently went on a run of eight games without conceding – and Souttar, despite being just 21, has already made 120 career league appearances. That is more than any of the other four players discussed and just four less than McCrorie, Hendry and McKenna combined in Scotland’s top flight.
Something that is clear when watching that Hearts side is how well drilled they are, and how important the teamwork between players like Berra and Souttar is. Effectively taking both players from that Hearts squad and placing them together for Scotland could be a weapon the new Scotland coach can use to their advantage. The national team can then benefit from chemistry developed at club level. Even if it isn’t a long term solution, it would certainly be an easy way to introduce Souttar to the international stage.
The former Dundee United player – similarly to all of the players talked about here – is comfortable with the ball at his feet, which is now a major requirement of a modern centre-back, and Souttar, similarly to McCrorie, has also filled in as a defensive midfielder in the past.
All of these players share some particular attributes. As mentioned, a modern centre-back is expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet, capable of playing out from the back and contributing to the attack when required.
These defenders have all shown in their short careers that they clearly possess such traits. All five players are capable of playing in different formations and system as well as many being comfortable in more than one position.
It’s unlikely all five of the players mentioned, if even a majority of them, will feature in the first few squads of a new era in Scottish football. There will have to be something of a transition, the likes of Christophe Berra will be incredibly useful in such a change. Many supporters however, will be hoping that the new Scotland coach does not fall into the trap of picking the same old faces and end up failing to pick many, if not any, of these rising stars.
Scotland have a lot of work to do in order to reach their first major tournament in 20 years. The development of young players like those mentioned, but also those in other positions such as Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Fraser, Callum Macgregor, Lewis Morgan and Oliver McBurnie, is key to doing so.
Scottish supporters have seen far too many potential stars not fulfil their promised ability. Choosing the right coach to move forward, after the rejection from Michael O’Neil, is also as vital as anything but it’s important to remember that most international sides the size of Scotland find success through building from the back.
Finding the right combination of centre-backs – all of whom have bags of potential – and playing them alongside the likes of Callum Paterson, Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson, could be the key to qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship once again.
Have you listened to the SportSpiel podcast yet? Find all our episodes here.