We may only be one game into the World Cup 2018 qualification campaign, but it’s already crunch time for Scotland.
Gordon Strachan’s men have brought the feel-good factor back to fans up north. They’ve kicked on since failing to make to the Euros, winning four of their last six games.
Fans around Scotland are feeling optimistic as their current qualification venture continues. It seems as if the word “optimism” is said every two years, only for the Scots to fall flat on their faces at the end of qualification.
But this time, they’ve been given a leg-up due to their schedule. Their first three games are winnable fixtures and give them an early chance to lay down a marker for the second, or potentially top position.
Scotland’s first game of the group against Malta was a decent outing, and they showed a lot of knack going forward, particularly in the wide areas.
Matt Richie and Robert Snodgrass really look like nailing down the wide areas as their own.
With the likes of James Forrest and Barrie McKay waiting in the wings, there is enough strength in depth.
The Scots seem determined to play a passing game. A style of football not seen north of the border since they last qualified in 1998. Scotland in the past have often been labelled a “tough” team – a phrase relating to their bustling style.
It’s supposed to be a compliment, but in reality, it’s a sarcastic one. It means to say that your side doesn’t play good football. You rely on muscling opponents out of the game as opposed to playing them out of it.
Strachan has made strides in the past two years to improve that image. The Euro 2016 qualifying campaign saw a slow change in how Scotland play. They use their wide men as their dynamic form of attack.
However, the centre of midfield now has cultured passers of the ball in there. What used to be known as a tough-tackling area of the Scotland side is now slowly developing into an elegant passing engine room.
With Scott Brown retiring before the Malta match, we saw early signs of what this new-look Scotland are all about. Barry Bannan, who is used to play a quick-passing game replaced him.
Scotland used to play either an old 4-4-2 or tended to pack the midfield with a 4-5-1. While the Scots still play the lone striker, they like to play with a 4-2-3-1 system under Strachan, a system that brought them so close to Euro 2016.
They use two of the attacking midfielders in such a wide role and prefer to play with the ball on the deck. However, they like to mix up their attacks these days, and play one in behind the striker should they prefer to go through the middle.
Interestingly, that one behind the striker against Malta was Oliver Burke. Burke made waves around the United Kingdom when he signed for RB Leipzig for £13m in the Summer.
But most importantly, he likes getting the ball into feet. It’s another sign that Scotland are now looking for top footballers as opposed to top warriors.
So it’s all looking positive for Scotland. And this is perhaps what separates this campaign with previous ones. They’ve made a strong start with their 5-1 win in Malta, and with such a talented young squad at their disposal, there is a strong sense of momentum.
Next up for them is Lithuania on Saturday, and they’ll be supremely confident of making it six points out of six.
The Lithuanians will come to Hampden and pack the midfield. They’ve only won two of their last 17 games and drew their first match in qualification against Slovenia 2-2.
They played an attacking 4-1-2-1-2 in that one. However, don’t expect them to try the same against Scotland. They’ll most likely play with either three defensive midfielders, or pack the midfield with a flat five.
Scotland’s formation won’t change. They’ll go with 4-2-3-1 as they continue to try and develop a way of playing.
It won’t drain the confidence of this Scotland side knowing their record against Lithuania either. Out of their last four meetings at Hampden, Scotland have won all four. The Lithuanians have never taken anything from Scotland’s national stadium.
They’ve only recorded one win over Scotland overall – a 1-0 home success back in 2003. Scotland have drawn twice in Lithuania, but despite it being a tricky away venue, they don’t have to worry about that for now.
They’ll fancy attacking this Lithuania side and racking up a similar score to the one against Malta. And with a new song set to grace Hampden when the goals go in, Strachan’s men will be keen to get the fans dancing regularly on Saturday.