Scotland 2-3 Spain: Scotland come back from two down, but plan B Llorente grabs winner
Scotland scored two goals against the World Champions, but that still wasn’t enough to take any points from an exciting encounter.
Craig Levein abandoned his midweek 4-6-0 formation in favour of a slightly more traditional 4-1-4-1 system, with Lee McCulloch between the lines of defence and attack, and the two wide players tucked in level with the midfield. Kenny Miller came in upfront.
Spain’s 4-2-3-1 featured nine of the eleven players who started the World Cup final. Xavi Hernandez and Pedro Rodriguez were the two who were out, with Santi Cazorla and David Silva coming in, pushing Andres Iniesta into the centre – although the attacking band of three switched around constantly, and giving them permanent positions is somewhat misleading.
Scotland started well – winning a corner in the very first minute, and that was important to give themselves belief and to rouse the fans – being penned back by Spain from the first whistle would have been a demoralising opening to the game, and Scotland showed a decent level of attacking intent throughout.
Spain dominate possession (of course)
Inevitably, however, the game settled down into the expected pattern of Spain dominating possession and their two deep midfielders dictating the game.
Scotland’s midfield trio were set out in a formation that made for natural closing down, but after 10-15 minutes, Darren Fletcher and Graham Dorrens dropped deeper and formed more of a three-man barrier in front of the defence, giving Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets time on the ball. Still, Scotland were pressing well when the ball was played into the final third, and the side was extremely well-organised, with each player knowing their defensive responsibilities.
The problem with setting out as they did was that there was often no out-ball when Scotland won possession. This, added to the fact that Spain were pressing very well themselves, meant that the home side found transitions difficult, and David Weir and Stephen McManus were clearly not used to being closed down so vigorously when they had the ball.
Spain were their usual selves – excellent in possession, happy to keep the ball in apparently non-threatening areas and wait to find the right pass. There were two avenues they looked like making the breakthrough from – and neither of them involved the front four players, who Scotland coped well with. Alonso was given too much time on the ball and was spraying some superb passes across the pitch, whilst Joan Capdevila got forward well from left-back, taking advantage of the fact that Spain’s left-sided midfielder invariably took up narrow positions and took Phil Bardsley with him. Capdevila’s crosses were a threat, and it was indirectly from one of these that Spain went ahead, after Steven Whittaker’s handball.
Levein chose to replace McCulloch with Charlie Adam, who spent most of the second half in that holding position in midfield. He was better at moving the ball forward quickly, however, and the game opened up slightly as Scotland tried to get back in the game. This played into Spain’s hands as they had more space to break into – Iniesta became more involved and eventually netted the second – although it was following another great pass from Alonso, given too much time on the ball.
Spain seemed comfortable at 2-0 and started keeping the ball to try and see out the game. However, Sergio Busquets was guilty of moving too high up the pitch and playing a poor pass, which resulted in a successful Scottish break – Miller crossing for Steven Naismith to head home. It was unusual to see Busquets that high up the pitch, and equally unusual for him to play such a poor pass. Like the goal Spain conceded against Chile, it stemmed from a quick break, and Spain are at their most vulnerable here, before they can get men behind the ball.
That said, they had plenty of men back for Scotland’s equaliser, a Gerard Pique own goal – they were simply opened up by excellent work down the right from Fletcher and James Morrison. The latter’s low cross was mishit into the net by Pique.
But Spain don’t just have a good side, they have a good squad. The obvious plan B was to bring on Fernando Llorente to provide a physical presence upfront, and he provided the winner after just three minutes on the pitch. Again, Spain were narrow on the left which allowed Capdevila all the time he liked to measure a cross into the box, and Llorente smashed home from six yards.
Llorente showed in the World Cup that he is an excellent ‘alternative’ strategy for Spain, and managers should note that even a side like Spain that pride themselves on playing short passes and beautiful football are not afraid to stick a ‘big man’ upfront and tell him to win balls in the air. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid could do with having Llorente as a plan B.
Scotland’s second fightback was spirited but ultimately fruitless, but this is a performance they can be proud of – not many sides cause the World Champions such problems. Their frustration will be that they defended well as a whole, but conceded a couple of very weak goals. It is also unfortunate that their next qualifier is ten and a half months away – it would have been nice to build on this encouraging performance (despite the defeat), but by next September, this will be a distant memory.
Spain sprung no surprises – it was the same formation and largely the same side that contested the World Cup, bar injuries. Their passing was as good as ever, and with the absence of Xavi, Xabi Alonso played more of a pivotal role – knocking some superb crossfield balls but also firing accurate passes into the front players. Llorente is a tremendous joker in the pack – not just quality from the bench, but someone that offers a completely different option. All sides should seek to have a Llorente.Scotland 2-3 Spain: Scotland come back from two down, but plan B Llorente grabs winner