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It’s not just his capacity to score goals for Scotland that makes John McGinn such an admirable character, it’s his candour in cutting through the PR and calling it as he sees it.
His assessment of the performance against Cyprus was an exercise in straight-shooting. Not for him a glorification of a 16th goal for his country and a place in the top seven of all-time goalscorers for Scotland. In the aftermath of a 3-0 win that was stodgy but ultimately satisfying, nobody would have mistaken him for a cheerleader.
He cited a number of things that could and should have been better before checking himself and admitting that he was being “a bit moany”.
That, actually, was to his credit. He expected more because this team is capable of more. When you’re finding fault with a 3-0 victory then you’re in a good place. A few years ago – maybe even a year ago or less – a 3-0 home win against anybody would have been hailed as an unconditional triumph, but Scotland’s standards are higher now.
The last time they played an opener in a Euros campaign the final score was also 3-0, but to Kazakhstan. The world has turned for this team since then. Back then they were desperate. Now, they’re discerning. McGinn can moan all he likes. Some of the greatest players Scotland has ever produced also happened to be world class curmudgeons.
Steve Clarke’s substitutions turned a 1-0 into a 3-0, Scott McTominay, Ryan Christie and Lyndon Dykes upping the intensity, the threat and the execution. At the fourth attempt, Scotland have won a curtain-raiser in a European qualifying campaign. In their past four competitive games they’ve won three and drawn one, scoring eight and conceding one. It’s fair to say, they’ve had worse runs.
Spain in e La Fuente’s image
It’s all about to get tricky now, though. Anything other than three points on Saturday would have meant a doomsday scenario in a group with Dani Olmo of Spain, Erling Haaland of Norway and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the Kvaradona of Napoli and the footballing god of Georgia.
Luis de la Fuente’s Spain will be at Hampden on Tuesday night. What Scotland delivered against Cyprus won’t cut it against Spain. McGinn knows that. Clarke knows it. Everybody knows it. Spain also won their opener on Saturday, a 3-0 win against a Haaland-free Norway in Malaga. Norway had their chances at 1-0, blew them, then went out like a light at La Rosaleda.
This is a dramatically different team than the one we saw pass themselves to death at the World Cup in Qatar. Appointed as Luis Enrique’s replacement six days after the loss to Morocco in the last 16, De la Fuente is an interesting character.
He won two La Liga titles as a player with Athletic Bilbao in the 1980s but the sum total of his managerial experience at club level was 11 games with Alaves a dozen years ago. His reputation has been forged on the back of his work with a succession of underage national teams. He guided the under-19s and the under-21s to Euros glory in his time and won silver at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021.
All of Spain’s best young players have been coached by him at some point. “No-one knows the present and future of Spanish football better than me,” he says. He picked two teenagers in his starting team against Norway – the Barcelona full-back Alejandro Balde and the wide midfielder, Gavi, also of Barcelona. He also brought on the 20-year-old Villarreal attacker Yeremy Pino.
Whereas Luis Enrique was deemed tactically rigid and addicted to the sterile possession game that saw his team register one shot on target in 120 minutes against Morocco, De la Fuente is a hybrid. He wants some of what Enrique espoused, but wants more energy and more goal threat. He’s also changed the formation from Enriques 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1.
He’s considered friendly and caring. Real Madrid’s Nacho Fernandez started against Norway having played his last game for his country away back in 2018. He calls De la Fuente “very affectionate, very much in the profile of Carlo Ancelotti [his club coach].” There’s clearly a hard edge to the man, though.
He took a metaphorical blow torch to Enrique’s World Cup squad, dropping a host of Enrique’s former players. There was no Jordi Alba, no Koke, no Ferran Torres, no Cesar Azpilicueta, no Marco Asensio. “This is a new era,” was De la Fuente’s message. And it is.
When he named his first squad he included 13 players who hadn’t made it to the World Cup and seven players from the group he took to Tokyo for the Olympics (and would have been more had it not been for injury). Only four players who started against Morocco were there from the beginning against Norway on Saturday night.
As well as bringing Nacho back in from the cold and giving Kepa Arrizabalaga a first cap since October 2020, De la Fuente gave a debut to the Espanyol striker Mato Joselu off the bench. Joselu has had to bide his time. He’s 32 and Enrique didn’t want to know him. Joselu scored twice in two minutes to seal the game.
Norway provides hope for Scotland
In analysing Spain, Clarke need only concern himself with Saturday night in Malaga. So much has changed – tactical and personnel – that that’s the only footage worth looking at. The final scoreline looks comprehensive but Norway were in the game for large parts and created chances. That will give Clarke hope. Spain were there to be got at before they pulled away.
Starting McTominay on the bench against Cyprus and going for Ryan Jack instead had to be a nod to Tuesday night. Christie’s fruitful cameo might put him back in the starting line-up ahead of Stuart Armstrong, but Armstrong was decent on Saturday. The point is that Clarke has options. Lewis Ferguson is in fine form in Serie A but saw no minutes against Cyprus. He’s a useful customer to have in reserve.
It’s hard to see Clarke making many changes, beyond Dykes replacing the injured Adams. He’ll bank on the quality of the opposition and the night-time atmosphere giving his players more of an edge. The campaign began on Saturday, but it really only begins in earnest on Tuesday when a new Spain arrive and when so much more will be known about them and their hosts.