Scotland – Spain: The Perfect Start For Scotland Against Miserable Spain (2-0)

Scotland frustrated Spain to continue their winning start to EURO qualification. It was a fiery and unforgettable match for the Scottish crowd as an experimental Spanish side lost their heads and left the new regime with more questions than answers. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Nick Hartland.

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Steve Clarke’s squad were comfortable winners at home as they beat Cyprus 3-0. However, the manager was quick to stress that they cannot afford to allow their performances to drop. This is a team that is looking to qualify outright from their group rather than face the lottery of a playoff match. The inference was clear, Scotland had one eye on their next fixture against the group favorites, Spain. 

Luis de la Fuente’s start as Spain’s manager against Norway was less comfortable than the 3-0 scoreline suggested and is a reflection of a certain chaos to the Spanish national team following their World Cup exit. Not many expected de la Fuente to be the manager for the side but already he has made his mark with sixteen players from the World Cup team being dropped from his first squad, it is clear that he is actively experimenting and attempting to assess who he wants to play within his system. 

It was only a small surprise that de la Fuente made eight changes to his team as he set the side out in the now traditional Spanish 4-3-3 shape. Kepa Arrizabalaga kept his place in goal behind an all-new back four of José Gayà, David García, Iñigo Martínez, and Pedro Porro. In midfield, Rodri and Mikel Merino were the only two remaining players from the victory over Norway and were joined by Dani Ceballos. Joselu in his first start after his heroics against Norway played as the number nine with Mikel Oyarzabal and Yéremy Pino flanking him on the wings. 

Whereas Clarke made only three changes to his 3-4-2-1 formation that beat Cyprus in keeping with the general message of maintaining pressure and not allowing their levels to decline. Angus Gunn in goal, with a back three of Kieran Tierney, Grant Hanley, and Ryan Porteus. Andy Robertson and Aaron Hickey played as wing-backs on either side of Callum McGregor and the returning Scott McTominay. Up front, the final two changes of Lyndon Dykes and Ryan Christie came into the side with Dykes as the number nine and Chrstie joining John McGinn as the two number tens. 

Scotland strike early

Scotland approached the start of the game with aggression by pouncing on heavy touches from Spain and wrestling the ball away from them. It was a tempo where Spain struggled to initially play their usual metronomic passing, and instead, there were these rushed moments where they attempted to pass over the Scotland midfield rather than the more typical tactic of playing through or around them. 

These passes worked against Spain and meant that Scotland was consistently able to win the physical battles and gain an early spell of possession. In matches against Spain where possession becomes a scarce commodity, it was vital for Scotland to capitalize on these periods, and that is exactly what they did. 

Using their attack-minded wing-backs to push high up the pitch Scotland attempted to find Robertson, the pass failed to reach him and was picked up by Porro who on the poor surface slipped under pressure. Robertson stole in and from the byline crossed low towards the late run of McTominay. McTominay shot and the players wheeled away in celebration. A dream start for the Scottish side against the group favorites. 

Spain take control 

It took a while for Spain to find their rhythm in the first half and it is hard to look past the number of changes from their fixture against Norway. It’s difficult to create team chemistry in a squad that has not played frequently with one another, and when coupled with the complexities of a possession-orientated system there is a good reason why Spain started sluggishly. 

This began to shift as a clear understanding between the players began to slowly develop. There was a fluidity about their play with each player responding to the movement of their teammate. Rodri as the anchor in midfield would sit deep but would then make a forward run to lose his marker, Merino and Ceballos then dropped back to cover his role. It created a fluency to their attacking play and the chances began to mount up for Spain. 

However, it was around this point that the entire feeling of the game changed. It had been a physical match from the first whistle but it suddenly transformed into a fiery affair following Robertson’s foul on Porro. 

Robertson was extremely lucky to walk away with just a booking as he shouldered Porro in the face. It looked like a deliberate foul and one that another referee might have given a straight red card for. From this moment there was a genuine dislike between the teams. Spain became increasingly riled up and Scotland seemed to enjoy frustrating them. 

Fourteenth minute: Rodri is blocked by two players so pushes up the pitch triggering his midfield partners to drop back creating a fluid midfield shape and providing more passing options. 

Scotland score again 

De la Fuente made two changes at halftime bringing off Porro and Oyarzabal for Dani Carvajal and Nico Williams. It was a necessary change for Porro who had a torrid half where he was at fault for the goal and still looked furious from the Robertson incident. The Oyarzabal decision looked strange if only because he had looked the more threatening winger than Pino who had an anonymous half. 

Spain looked to start the half immediately where they had left off with an aggressive approach that pinned Scotland back into their own half, but once again Scotland struck early in the half. It was against the run of play and the result of another mistake from the fullback position, with Carvajal misplacing a pass and then his tackle allowing Tierney to make an overlapping run from central defense all the way down to Spain’s box. 

A poor cross from Tierney worked in his favor with the deflection landing into McTominay’s path as he made an almost identical late run into the box and slotted home his second goal. Scotland looked like the far superior team as they tried to maintain pressure following the goal. A free kick from McGinn hit the crossbar and looked troubling for the Spanish defense as Scotland searched for a third goal to put this tie out of Spain’s reach. 

If the decision to take Porro off was an attempt to calm the team down then it simply did not work for Spain. Increasingly, they looked frustrated and furious at every moment that did not go in their favor and ultimately played into Scotland’s hands. It broke the game down and meant that despite having seventy percent possession, there was increasingly none of the early rhythms that the Spain team had worked hard to develop. 

Brilliant Williams

There was still a danger to the Spanish attack as they searched for a way back into the game, but it looked increasingly isolated, with the team relying on the individual brilliance of the substitute Williams to be the answer to unlock the Scotland defense. 

He looked like the most threatening play on the pitch as he was the only one that looked able to create a flicker of worry in his markers. His speed and intelligence meant that the defense looked flat-footed against him. He had a turn of pace and trickery about his movement that meant he was consistently able to attack the halfspace and cause concern across the stadium. Albeit his final ball consistently let him down and none of his passes or shots forced Gunn into a difficult save. 

His individual brilliance increasingly appeared to be symptomatic of the problem for Spain in this game. They were a team becoming reliant on a single player in a system that is designed around teamwork and using the collective skills of the squad to dismantle defensive problems. 

The game had been won and it looked as if the Spanish players were fully aware of it. In one of the last attacks in the game, a chance fell towards Borja Iglesias and Williams, the two reached to take a shot and maybe save the day, but only worked to get in one another’s way. They remonstrated with each other as the ball moved past them, in that instant, they exemplified a frustrated team in the process of a communication breakdown. 


This was one of the finest results for Scotland and a dream start to their hopes for EURO qualification with two wins out of two. They had played a phenomenal game that worked to unsettle a team that despite the chaos surrounding them are still firm favorites to win the group. If Scotland can keep this momentum going they will be a tough opposition to come up against. 

The number of changes to the Spain team gave off the impression of arrogance coming into this match against Scotland and suggests that De la Fuente is without a clear idea of who should be in his first eleven. There are still a lot of games to be played and there is more than enough quality for Spain to qualify easily from this group, but this is the kind of loss that will pose difficult questions to any manager, let alone one that was never truly expected to get the role. 

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