Scotland face Lithuania on Friday night in what is the first in a series of must-win games.
Gordon Strachan’s charges sit in fourth position, only three points above the Eastern European nation, and will know only too well that three points will be no formality against Edgaras Jankauskaus’ men.
After starting off their World Cup qualifying campaign in promising fashion, earning two draws against Slovenia and Scotland before defeating Malta, the Baltic nation has recorded three consecutive defeats.
This doesn’t tell the full story though, nor does their FIFA world ranking of 99.
The artificial surface in the capital, Vilnius, has attracted much attention, but on the newly-laid turf at Hampden Park, Scotland they toiled and snatched a draw at the death.
What can be learnt from the previous meeting?
Lithuania identified Scotland’s attempts to play the ball out from the centre-halves as an area of weakness.
In the first half the Tartan Army became restless with the pedestrian passing in their own third, but this was due to a bravely aggressive press from Lithuania.
Over the course of the game Scotland boasted 62% of the possession but it was largely futile.
Lining up in a 4-2-3-1, Grant Hanley and Russell Martin were denied simple passing routes, while Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan were suffocated as soon as they received the ball from the centre-halves.
Callum Paterson and Andy Robertson attempted to push back the two Lithuanian wingers, Novikovas and Cerbych, but as soon as Scotland made one forward pass the 4-2-4 press was triggered.
Hibs player, Slivka joined Valskis to form a partnership where the midfield supported in a man-to-man marking scheme.
The problems for Scotland were abundant in that, structurally, they were reliant on Fletcher to bring the ball out from midfield but positioned Snodgrass as virtually a second striker, with Burke and Ritchie too high up to offer a secure option.
This resulted in Fletcher being repeatedly forced to play the ball backwards and Scotland gaining no territory, especially when Slivka attached himself to the Stoke City player for large spells.
The other issue, outwith Hanley and Martin’s awkwardness with the ball at their feet, was that Novikovas would often make it a three-man front-line when the ball was on the opposite flank.
He would allow Paterson to stay wide and wouldn’t tuck in, instead, choosing to gamble on the ball being played along the back-line and forcing Scotland to rush or play the way they were facing.
It appeared that Strachan assumed Lithuania would sit deep and try to soak up pressure and didn’t devise a suitable counter until he could regroup at half-time.
The first 45 minutes featured endless long-balls to Chris Martin who found little joy up against a bruising, if sometimes brutal, central defensive pairing of Freidgeimas and Girdvainis and was left isolated for prolonged periods.
Scotland started the second half with a lot more intensity and were able to progress forward in controlled possession due to the wide players, Burke and Ritchie, in particular coming inside.
Scotland were dealt a sucker punch on the hour mark when Slivka found space centrally before evading the detection of three Scotland players to slip the ball through to the captain. Hanley should have deepened when Lithuania won the flick-on but was caught square.
Robertson was by far the most accomplished player in a navy blue jersey on the day and was the one source of creativity down the left flank.
The Liverpool full-back was able to get in behind goalscorer Cernych on numerous occasions as he has the tendency to switch off defensively. The problem for the rampaging full-back was that Martin was at times the only player in the box.
Scotland used the long-throw of Paterson several times, but it was only with a minute to spare that it bore fruit when scored a Hanley flick-on was met by the head of James McArthur. Up until then it had proved a facile approach, but it is a weapon Scotland will be without as Paterson tries to regain his fitness.
Novikovas was Lithuania’s main outlet, using his pace and trickery down both flanks, but Slivka was the catalyst for most of the positive things his team did.
Neil Lennon has tinkered in his search for a formation to accommodate the former Juventus player. In other qualifiers he has played deeper as one of the two but he is at his best when he is ghosting into pockets of space to receive the ball.
Lithuania had numerical superiority against Scotland in the centre of the park in the first-half, partly due to Scotland pressing as a 4-4-2. The personnel of Scotland played into Lithuania’s hands as only Oliver Burke possessed the physical attributes to press high.
Bannan and Fletcher had to allow Lithuania comfortable possession when they broke through the first line of pressure. They are a team capable of keeping purposeful possession, but only if they are given time.
Robertson was relentless going forward but his he was caught with the ball in behind on a couple of occasions. Their main outlet comes from late overlaps provided by the right-back. Against Scotland that was supplied by Vaitkunas but against Slovakia Borovskis excelled with the timing of his runs.
Lithuania scored their equaliser in Glasgow through Valskis’ movement on the shoulder of the last defender. They could have doubled their lead with a similar chance, something Scotland will need to wisen up to.
The Lithuanians aren’t blessed with pace in the central areas, so Scotland may feel more secure about facing the counterattack with Tierney and Robertson better equipped to nullify the pace of Sernas and Novikovas.
Lithuania can make life difficult for teams when they settle into their defensive shape of 4-1-4-1, but they aren’t so adept at closing space when they have to readjust quickly.
Creativity isn’t something they are renowned for, as the last time they scored three goals in a game was in August 2011.
Lithuania have used a wide array of set-piece routines during this qualifying campaign, as shown in the video below.
The first two clips show their preferred movement against Scotland in October, which was for playmaker, Kuklys, to tap the ball back to Novikovas in order to create a better angle for the outswinger. Freidgeimas makes a run from deep to the front post where Scotland were zonally marking the space.
The second drill, exampled against Slovakia, is similar but the decoy comes from the four players lined up at the edge of the box in line with the back post. The player on the penalty spot uses this as his way to direct attention away from him and makes a darting run forward to just outside the six-yard box – in this case undetected.
The third set-up comes when Novikovas receives the ball short from the corner. He shifts it onto his left-foot to feign crossing the ball but plays a disguised one-two with the player making a run from the edge of the box.
The fourth routine sees the ball played back thirty yards to one of the defenders who rushes forward from the halfway line. This forces the opposition to push out, but while this happens, the Lithuain target men drift to the back post to create an overload before the ball is swung in.
The final play is a little more rudimentary in that they use sheer weight of numbers to unsettle the goalkeeper. By positioning five or six players all on the lined they try to disrupt the keeper from claiming the ball and make it difficult for any defender to get there before the attacker as all they need is a slight glance to steer it goalwards. Novikovas’ whipped delivery has to be extremely precise though, and often it is overhit, as seen here.
In terms of penalties and free-kicks, Novikovas is once more the designated player. He tends to place his penalties high and varies which side he chooses, but on the one occasion where he did miss he opened up his body and placed it to his left hand side.
Scotland’s XI & how they can triumph
In Scotland’s last outing Strachan switched to a 5-4-1. A back three seemed a long overdue alteration when one considers the embarrassment of riches Robertson and Tierney offer on the left, along with the dearth of quality at centre-back.
Scotland knew they would have to concede the majority of possession and so Strachan opted to be compact and give protection to his defence so as to limit the number of times they were exposed up against the likes of Kane and Rashford.
It seems unlikely that Strachan will stick with a similar set-up as Scotland need to be on the front foot – and that is difficult with three left-footed centre-backs – so reverting to a 4-2-3-1 seems the most likely scenario. However, the 4-1-4-1 that Scotland morphed into when in possession, with Robertson moving into left midfield and Tierney shifting across to left-back was a promising dynamic.
Allan McGregor could arguably be deserving of a return to the number one position given Craig Gordon’s poor form, but the two-full back positions pick themselves, despite Ikechi Anya’s valiant efforts at ring-wing back.
In the centre of defence Scotland need someone capable of playing the ball accurately into the final third. The only candidate is Charlie Mulgrew whose ability on the ball perhaps masks his defensive frailties, but he has been honing his reading of the game in that position for considerable time now.
Partnering him is the tough decision as in the last qualifying campaign Grant Hanley was crucified for the faults of Russell Martin and Alan Hutton. He has struggled for game time at Newcastle but the only alternatives, Berra and Martin, either make the defence unbalanced with three left-footed players or mean the back four is without a dominant player.
In midfield, Scott Brown is a certainty to start as he sets the tone for the team and will not allow Lithuania the same space to link as they were given in the reverse fixture.
Darren Flecther cannot start in the same team as Brown, it really is as simple as that. They are two people competing against each other to fulfil the same role, one which Brown is now superior at overall.
Lithuania will want to disrupt Scotland’s rhythm and force breakdowns in the hope that they can transition quickly. Scotland need someone who can motion through the thirds with purpose, while providing steel and energy to dominate the physical battle in the middle of the park.
In the first game, Bannan and Fletcher were all too keen to drop goalside of Slivka when he blocked off the angle inside for the full-backs to play into. Scotland’s midfield three has to be braver on the ball this time and move higher than Slivka to receive the ball rather than being reactive and passing the ball in a U-shape.
James McArthur and James Morrison are tidy players but, again, their roles, especially the former, would overlap with Brown.
Strachan would be wise to utilise the Celtic contingent’s pressing ability to its extreme. Stuart Armstrong will occupy the more advanced position after his impressive start to his international career, but John McGinn has the qualities to complement this approach.
The Hibs midfielder has markedly improved his technical ability in the last eighteen months and has been a driving force for the Easter Road side since the start of the season.
His performance against Rangers, albeit against ten men, was of the dominating type that only comes when confidence is flowing. His power when running at full speed is an asset that would be useful against a midfield that can often overcommit itself, while his real strength lies in attacking transition as characterised by his role in two of the goals against Partick Thistle.
As mentioned earlier, Lithuania’s high press leaves space in front of the full-back and behind the back four as they don’t tend to push the last line as high as they should in relation to the first wave of pressure.
The space is there for Scotland to clip the ball into the feet of the wide players, and in Mulgrew they have someone with the range to deliver this.
Scotland will get success if they have two wingers who are strong in 1v1 situations and offer a threat if the ball is played over the top. Snodgrass and Naismith don’t offer the necessary directness, which leaves a four-way battle between Forrest, Phillips, Ritchie and Fraser to grab the two wide berths.
Ritchie, one of the outstanding players in the English Championship last season, hasn’t discovered the same form at national level yet.
Tierney playing at right-back as a natural left-footer does alter the balance and, thus, the criteria needed. Scotland have often played with two inverted wide players, with Snodrgass or Ritchie coming in off the left. As Tierney will drift inwards with the ball, Scotland need someone with the ability to drive down the line as any overlap will be treated as a decoy due to it being Tierney’s weaker side.
With regards to the 1v1 point, in Matt Phillips, Scotland have an athletic winger who fits the bill. He has been in and out of Strachan’s squads but his form at West Brom, a top-ten Premier League club, speaks for the gains he has made.
Both-footed, he can commit defenders either way and has a rasping striker from long-range. Tony Pulis’ mentoring has also ensured that he knows how to support his full-back in defensive duties, which would give Tierney protection in an unfamiliar position. Strachan may choose James Forrest instead but the diminutive winger can be too contained at times.
On the left side, Ryan Fraser’s ability to drive inside and link-up like he does at Bournemouth makes him a prime candidate to partner Robertson, while his industry and fleet of foot means he offers flexibility with Phillips to rotate.
Leigh Griffiths has proved himself to the doubters who thought he wasn’t capable of leading the line alone at European level. At club level, while the ceiling of Moussa Dembele’s talents is obviously higher than the Scot’s, the Frenchman’s injury problems and inconsistency has allowed Griffiths to flourish.
His all-round game has improved drastically since Brendan Rodgers took over, with his hold-up play and movement being the two major arrows he has added to his bow. Griffiths’ finishing ability has never been in doubt; he is the most potent forward the Scottish game has had since Kris Boyd was in his prime.
Lithuania don’t allow a tremendous amount of high-quality chances, but they do tend to give up space at the edge of the area. Griffiths is lethal from that range, and the two free-kicks against England to break his duck will have given him huge confidence.