Grant Russell penned this column. Russell is a journalist for STV (Scottish Television) and regarded as an expert on Scottish football and on homegrown rules and players eligibility. Russell also tweets frequently on the Rangers and the American contingent playing there.
Two-and-a-half years have passed since Craig Levein’s brave new era got underway, yet Scotland are still in a period of exploration as the national coach tries to find the formula which will take the team to its first major championship since 1998.
The right steps are being taken behind the scenes to overhaul youth development, something long overlooked but being addressed by the appointment of Mark Wotte as performance director.
As ever in Scotland though, there is an expectation of the short term to be equally prosperous. After failure to qualify for the 2012 European Championships, the man at the helm is arguably facing a make-or-break World Cup qualifying campaign, albeit with a public element frustrated to date with his approach and not necessarily from his bosses.
Levein, at least, will have the next 18 months to win over a largely sceptical public. The friendly with the USA is hardly whetting even the most committed Scotland follower’s appetite and only a spectacular result in Jacksonville will register with most.
The friendly with the USA also comes against a backdrop of internal strife in the Scottish game. Rangers dominate the headlines owing to their perilous financial state and their incredulity at a year-long signing ban placed upon them by the Scottish FA for failing to pay government tax for nine months.
There is also the looming threat of worse to come for the club, with a ruling overdue on a possible £75m tax bill and an ongoing investigation into whether payments to players were hidden from the football authorities for over ten years, something which could see them stripped of almost all of their titles won since 1998.
An international match would normally divert the focus temporarily. But the squad named by Levein, with one relatively low-key exception in Matt Phillips, has failed to capture the imagination enough to suggest the game in will be little more than a footnote.
Jordan Rhodes, one of Scotland’s two hopes of a superstar emerging in the near future, is instead with the under-21 selection for a more important European Championship game with Bulgaria. The other prodigy, Celtic’s James Forrest, misses the trip through injury.
Steven Fletcher, a respected and developing goal scorer who bagged nine in the English Premier League this season, remains in the wilderness because of a dispute with Levein.
Jamie Mackie, the man who threatened to thwart Manchester City in their title hopes in QPR’s final day fixture, misses out because his wife is expecting. Same too for Graham Dorrans, an established midfielder in England’s top flight, who could have used the match to enhance his own prospects of a permanent place in the starting team for the World Cup qualifiers. Likely starter James Morrison, another who impressed with West Brom tjis season, is absent through injury.
What left then for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team to fear or counter in Jacksonville? Levein expects fringe players and new additions to prove their worth, and those retaining an interest in the game are all keen to judge whether the hype generated by the coach surrounding Blackpool winger Phillips is accurate.
Described as possessing explosive pace out wide, Scotland’s capture of the English-born player certainly upset his club boss, Ian Holloway. The 21-year-old has earned many plaudits down south and is expected to bring a new dimension to Scotland’s attacking play.
There’s a chance too for Celtic defender Charlie Mulgrew to transfer a hugely successful season onto the international stage. A former youth player at the SPL champions, his career was fair to middling as a full back at Aberdeen before Neil Lennon surprisingly took him back to Parkhead in 2010.
Having originally been a fringe player, Mulgrew rose to prominence as a makeshift central defender last season. His rise continued this term, operating both in the middle and at his favoured left back to a level which made him the unanimous choice for the country’s player of the year.
What the USA friendly may do is provide an insight into how Levein intends to approach the qualifiers for Brazil 2014 tactically. Lambasted for experimenting with a 4-6-0 formation in an early Euro 2012 match with Czech Republic, his setup his slowly morphed into a 4-1-4-1 shape.
The 4-1-4-1 tactic normally includes two caveats. One sees Liverpool anchorman Charlie Adam utilised as a deep-lying playmaker, but his lack of pace and defensive awareness can exploit a soft centre in front of the Scotland defence.
In his absence, there is either an opportunity for Don Cowie or James McArthur to add steel as well as guile to the DM position, or for the diminutive Barry Bannan to inherit the playmaker’s role.
The second strategy involves the use of inverse wingers, with the left footed wide man being used on the right flank, and vice versa. Not only does this, in theory, allow those confident on the ball to exploit space inside, but it also lends itself to pacy full backs getting beyond and stretching the play.
There is an expectation now that, given the pace in the flanks Levein’s strongest selection provides, the coach may adjust his style.
Plan B has been developed behind the scenes and is likely to either follow a 4-4-1-1 shape, which will see a second striker provide greater support to both a lone forward and two wingers looking to stretch the backline, or a 4-3-2-1 formation which will bring the offensive wingers further forward still, providing backup to a targetman.
Given the absence of Mackie, Forrest, Naismith and Dorrans, Scotland will most likely revert to type, although Shaun Maloney and Phillips provide an interesting option in both setups, either supporting Craig Mackail-Smith/Kenny Miller behind the frontman, or cutting in from the wings in the accustomed style.
There has even been suggestion that inspiration may be taken from Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation, which saw Gary Caldwell excel as the centre point of the back three. Such a revolution seems unlikely but is a viable Plan B, with the shift towards more pace higher up the pitch, and given the versatility of many of the full-backs to play in the middle of defense.
Although Rangers’ Allan McGregor is the undisputed number one, Craig Gordon may be given playing time in goal as he looks for a summer move to relaunch his career. Something approaching a settled central defensive pairing in Caldwell and Christophe Berra is expected just in front.
Russell Martin and Phil Bardsley, who could both arguably line up at centre back, will vie with Steven Whittaker for a spot at right back, with Mulgrew and Lee Wallace in contention, along with Bardsley, to play on the left.
The role of Scotland’s other midfielders, less Manchester United’s workhorse Darren Fletcher due to illness, is to retain possession in tight operating spaces, dictate the play before spreading the ball to wider areas, and subsequently provide support.
Off the ball, every man is expected to close down spaces intelligently and press the ball in particular areas, a style which Scotland have certainly become more comfortable with during Levein’s tenure.
Judging which five will start is a tall order and depends heavily on whether Phillips is given the nod. Whittaker may even find himself in the mix, comfortable on the left flank cutting in with his right.
The Tartan Army, Scotland’s devoted travelling support, will bring encouragement across the Atlantic for Levein and his side. Back home, the emphasis for those watching will instead be on judging the depth of the talent pool, seeing if the tactical approach may differ and deciding whether there is cause for optimism, or further criticism.
This game, together with a home match with Australia on the other side of the summer break, is an essential, limited opportunity for the squad to assemble and the coach to settle on how he intends to attack a tough World Cup qualifying group.
Some players are missing simply because Levein is comfortable they will be in his team when it matters later this year.
For the rest, this is a chance to impress, demonstrate their versatality and learn Scotland’s style. It’s an important exercise for those making their way to Florida, just don’t expect most left behind to get carried away with it all.