Later this afternoon, Gordon Strachan will embark on the next phase of his managerial career as he leads out Scotland for his first competitive match in charge against Wales. Strachan faces an uphill struggle as he tries desperately to revitalise Scotland’s world cup qualifying chances which so far have flatlined with no wins in the first four matches. The diminutive Scot was brought in to replace Craig Levein who did very little to improve his own managerial reputation during his time as the top man but fortunately for Strachan has set the bar so low that a single win in qualifying will look better on paper than Levein’s efforts. But getting that elusive win in the forthcoming double-header will not be easy as Scotland have to travel to Serbia next Tuesday after entertaining Wales at Hampden today. When the draw was made for the groups, Wales appeared to be the easiest team but few had remembered about Wales secret weapon – Gareth Bale.
The Welsh winger is having the best season of his career. His performances have been so dazzling, that most would put him in 3rd spot, behind Messi and Ronaldo, as the best player in the world at the moment. He is impossible to contain, moving from one flank to the other after been given more freedom by his respective managers at Tottenham and Wales, and with electric pace and the ability to finish with both feet and his head, Bale is on fire. Going into todays game, Strachan will know that to beat Wales, he will need to come up with an effective plan to stop Bale. Easier said than done and only Strachan really knows how he is planning to do it but he certainly has a few options that he can use.
For one he can man mark Bale. By putting a player tight onto the winger and having him follow him wherever he goes, it should restrict the time he has to control, turn and size up the space. This can be highly effective with the right player chosen to perform the duty. If Strachan and Scotland go down this route, he will effectively sacrifice a player to contain another. That player will have no position other than the one Bale occupies at that time and his job will be simple – to follow Bale and stick as close as humanely possible. Scotland have used this tactic before with either Scott Brown or Gary Caldwell acting as the marker but with Brown out and Caldwell likely to start at centre half, it may fall to the likes of Steven Whitaker to do this role. The only issue with this tactic is Bale’s awareness and pace. He has become accustom to having someone man mark him this season and is aware that very few people possess the pace that he does so Scotland will need to be careful that he doesn’t spin his mark and start running as no one in the team will be able to keep up with him.
Another possible option open to Strachan is the double team. Less tight marking but instead when Bale gets on the ball, he instantly has two markers tracking is every move, working together to deposes him. On the right flank Alan Hutton and Steven Whitaker again could be asked to do this (Hutton has already proved he can as he marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game when Mallorca met Real earlier this month), but as Bales often floats between the wings, Scotland will need to be careful that Bale doesn’t pull two players out of position leaving a gap for others to exploit. Generally with extremely skillful players or ones with pace, the double team is highly effective and is the most likely option that Strachan will adopt but he will have to decide who those two players are depending on where on the pitch Bale is at that time.
The third solution harks back to a by gone age when footballers were real men and literally kicked lumps out of each other. Stories about former Scotland defender Billy Bremner are legendary but one story stands the testament of time and is still used as a tactic today by several teams. Bremner’s approach, when faced with a powerful or creative striker (or in this case Bale) he would simply make them aware of his presence within the first few minutes of the game by either dragging his studs down the back of the strikers leg or by stamping on his heel. The philosophy was simple – either it injures the player enough that he has to be substituted and the problem disappears or that he is rattled and mental scarred for the rest of the game, worrying that every time he gets the ball, he will get the same treatment from Bremner as he got in the first few minutes. Highly effective yet highly risky as one bad challenge early on may result in an injury but could also result in a dismissal for the defender which is something Strachan will definitely not want – facing up to Bale and Co with just ten men.
Regardless of what Strachan chooses to do or what tactic he employs, stopping Bale from playing will be a key objective if his side are to get the three points. His problem may not actually be a problem as Bale struggles to shake off an ankle knock he sustained at the weekend for Tottenham. But Wales coach Chris Coleman cannot afford to play the game without Bale, having already lost Joe Allen and David Vaughan to injury. The Welsh medical staff have been resting Bale from training sessions in an effort to have him ready for today’s game but he may not be 100% which will come as good news to Strachan. The Scotland boss will be planning for their trip to Serbia as well and analyzing the risks that they present but for today only,the focus is on Bale and Wales and those valuable three points.