Scotland have now reached seven games unbeaten with only one fixture left before Steve Clarke’s side go into their all-or-nothing Euro 2020 play-off final in Serbia.
Eric Nicolson looks at five talking points as the latest international triple-header draws to a close.
1 – Stars at the back
A lot of statistics are being thrown around just now as far as Scotland are concerned. You can build an argument around the good and the bad to suit both optimistic and pessimist outlooks. Seven games without losing and nearly three hours of football without a shot on target in the last two of those are both pretty powerful in their own way.
The most meaningful as far as the development of the team and the improvement that has happened in this current international camp are the back-to-back clean-sheets.
Little over a month separated Nations League matches against Israel and a Czech Republic third team and the Israel and Slovakia contests of the last few days. The comparative solidity of the backline between then and now has been worlds apart, however.
Israel created one decent chance in 120 minutes of football less than a week ago and Slovakia none. Plenty will run down the quality of those two sides but the former had Eran Zahavi in it and the latter Marek Hamsik.
Maybe the five at the back formation has been to the detriment of Scotland’s midfield in an attacking sense (more of that later) but it is beyond debate that the defence hasn’t been this reliable since peak Gordon Strachan, and arguably peak Walter Smith/Alex McLeish part one.
David Marshall and Andy Robertson have been every bit as switched on as you would expect, Liam Cooper and then Andrew Considine were both seven out of 10 performers on the left side of the central three, while Stephen O’Donnell came on markedly from Israel to Slovakia.
The two players who deserve particular praise, though, are Scott McTominay and Declan Gallagher.
When you recall the bread-and-butter back post ball he was caught under in the first Israel game and the natural defensive instincts that were so obviously absent on any number of occasions in Olomouc, the prospect of career midfielder McTominay being converted into a passable centre-back that could help Scotland qualify for a European Championship within a couple of months appeared a very remote one.
There needed to be a sharp form-curve spike and there has been one.
In the two recent matches he hasn’t been caught out of position and his distribution has been the asset you would expect it to be from a player whose day job is in Manchester United’s central midfield.
And Gallagher, remember, wasn’t even one of Motherwell’s best players a few weeks ago.
Now he is the organiser at the heart of Scotland’s defence and their biggest set-piece threat in attack. Would you put Scott McKenna back in the team in his place? I wouldn’t.
We’re going to need a bigger sample than two matches but much more of this and the perennial issue for manager after manager may soon be talked about as a key strength.
Watching Scotland from in front of the sofa rather than behind it when an opposition is attacking is something we could all happily get used to.
2 – Midfield can do better
Just when one problem gets sorted, up pops another.
The blend in midfield didn’t feel right last Thursday and again at the weekend.
For all that John McGinn’s first touch lets him down a bit too often, his place is nailed down. His energy is an indispensable part of the Scotland team and if the goal-threat could come back, that would be quite nice too.
Ryan Jack performs an adequate holding role but the key failing of Clarkes’ side is stringing passes together in a positive fashion.
Callum McGregor is the chief culprit because he is the man most capable.
Too often for Scotland he’ll take the safe option when a higher tariff one is required. McGregor’s pass completion figures are decent but are a red herring. If he is abrogating creative responsibilities, then he isn’t justifying his starting jersey.
Maybe being left out against Slovakia – and looking brighter when he came on a substitute – will relight his fire for the Czech Republic game. Clarke needs the Celtic McGregor in Serbia.
It won’t happen in time for Belgrade but the case to include Billy Gilmour when he is fit again will be a strong one.
3 – Lyndon Dykes and one other
Persuading Lyndon Dykes to don a See You Jimmy hat rather than one with corks bobbing around it could prove to be the sliding-doors moment for Clarke.
Scotland needed Dykes to adapt quickly to international football and he has met that challenge impressively.
The heavy treatment he got against Israel on Thursday night told you all you need to know about the dangerman reputation he has earned.
Already it is a case of Dykes on his own or with one other up front. With two goals in four games, some impressive hold-up play and direct running beyond centre-backs, he has become an automatic first pick in Belgrade even if he has an off-night at Hampden on Wednesday.
Ryan Fraser linked up better with the QPR forward than Oli McBurnie and his pace looks a better fit for the counter-attack game Scotland will play in the play-off final.
4 – What to do about Leigh Griffiths?
Could the case for selecting Leigh Griffiths as the one other be overwhelming for Clarke by November 12?
I very much doubt it.
It would be a huge leap of faith to throw him into his starting 11 for the most important Scotland game in living memory.
But he should definitely be in the squad.
Having witnessed Griffiths change a game at McDiarmid Park a couple of Sundays ago with the quality of his movement, sure first touch and eye for a goal on the back of no competitive football, I can speak to the impact you could hope to get from him off the bench. There is no risk in having him as a substitute for a do-or-die contest by which time he’ll almost certainly have got many more minutes of action for Celtic.
Who better to turn to towards the end of a goalless 90 minutes or at the start of extra-time than a lethal penalty box finisher and outside the penalty box dead-ball expert.
I can envisage Griffiths leap-frogging McBurnie, Callum Paterson and Lawrence Shankland to be first choice first replacement.
There aren’t many Scots whose reputation goes before them when an opposition manager is giving his team-talk but the Hampden hero of that glorious June afternoon in 2017 is one of them.
5 – Clarke’s way is the right way
It was beginning to look like the man who was appointed to near universal approval was going to go the same way as the rest. Let’s not rewrite history – there have been more dispiriting Scotland performances under Clarke than encouraging ones.
But what has served him best has been unshakeable faith in the road he was travelling.
Strachan has been the best of his recent predecessors but got spooked after being too clever with his one defender malarkey against Gibraltar and never fully rediscovering his conviction and coherence after that.
Clarke had a big choice to make after the win which didn’t feel like a win in the Czech Republic.
There weren’t many voices saying the new-look defensive system must stay and even less saying McTominay had to be part of it.
Clarke backed his own judgment and he was right to do so.
He believes that being well-drilled at the back and risk-averse elsewhere is the best chance of getting to the Euros and history backs him up. More small nations have qualified that way than by winning admirers with their silky football, that’s for sure.
If it has been good enough for the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Iceland and others then it will be certainly good enough for us. Football snobs and their misguided nostalgia will never be sated so don’t be side-tracked trying to please them.
He won’t say it but I’m sure Clarke can picture another 0-0 and penalty shoot-out when his head hits the pillow at night.
No fans in the ground allows you to appreciate the camaraderie among the Scotland substitutes a few rows in front of you in Hampden’s main stand and, more importantly, the work ethic on the pitch. Andy Robertson’s guttural roar of “I love it” when one of his team-mates made a basic block tackle ahead of him summed that up. Every national coach strives for a club-type bond and Clarke now has that.
Whatever happens with an injury and suspension-hit team, possibly with a couple of players rested, against the Czechs, Clarke has taken this team as far as could reasonably have been expected since succeeding McLeish.
Beating Serbia away from home does not feel fanciful. That on its own is the validation of his work.