On Saturday, Scotland will host England at Hampden for the first time since 1999, and for the first time ever in a World Cup qualifier. Scotland currently lie 4th in Group F, behind England, Slovakia, and Slovenia, although with 5 games played, and 5 games to go, a lot can still happen.
But talk of this weekend’s game being a ‘must-win’ for Scotland is not just premature, it’s wrong.
It’s a question that will be asked all week of the players and the pundits: ‘Is this a must-win for Scotland?’ It was reported yesterday that Strachan said the game was a “must not lose”, and today apparently he said it was more like a ‘must perform’.
But the thing is, to really answer that question, you need to do an in depth analysis of the remaining games, the standings across the other groups, and the history of 2nd place finishers, to have any idea about how many points we actually need in order to qualify. And I’ve not seen anyone that has yet been actually arsed to do that.
So I’ve done it, and the answer is no. The game against England is not a ‘must-win’.
Now I get it that most people reading this article want Scotland to win. I do too, and I’ll be in Scotland for the game. I’m just saying that even if we lose or draw, it’s not the end of the world. Here is why:
This is the table going into the games on June 10, 2017:
At this stage, everyone has played each other once. The group winners will qualify automatically and the runners up will probably, (more on that later), go through to a playoff.
Let’s just assume that England will win the group. They have not lost a tournament qualifier since 2009, and they haven’t even conceded a goal in this campaign. So, it’s between Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia for second place, and a chance to qualify for the World Cup through the playoffs.
Scotland’s remaining fixtures
After England on Saturday, Scotland will play Lithuania away and then Malta at home in September. To have any realistic hopes of qualifying, then yes those games are ‘must-wins’. It’s very hard to see a path to 2nd place unless we pick up 6 points from those two fixtures.
If we do, then regardless of the result against England, we will still have a chance to qualify from the remaining two fixtures against Slovakia at home on October 5th and then Slovenia away three days later.
Something else to keep in mind is that after Saturday, Scotland will have played England twice, whereas Slovenia and Slovakia both still have to face each other, and they both have to play England at Wembley. Another reason why the campaign will live on after this weekend, regardless of the result.
How many points can we get?
We have 7 points now. If we don’t win against England, we will either still have 7 or maybe 8 if we get a draw. With 6 points in September, that puts us on either 13 or 14 points going into the last two games. And then potentially 17 or 18 with a win and draw in the last two games. Or as many as 19 or 20 with two more wins.
How many points do we need to finish 2nd?
Assuming the same for Slovakia and Slovenia – that they both beat Lithuania and Malta – that would give them 15 and 14 points respectively. But if they also both lose to England in London, which is not unlikely, then that only leaves their game against each other, and their games against Scotland.
If one team emerges as a winner in the Slovakia / Slovenia game on September 1, then that team could get to 18 or 17 points. If that match ended in a draw, then Slovakia and Slovenia would effectively be on on 16 and 15 points respectively before the Scotland games are counted. We will need to win at least one of those games.
But we could possibly finish 2nd with only 16 or 17 points. More than likely we would need 18 or 19 points.
How many points do we need to finish 2nd AND qualify for playoffs?
This is the big question. First of all if you take a glance at the other groups, then Group E looks like the odds-on favourite to produce the worst 2nd place team. Currently Montenegro are in 2nd place with only 7 points, and Denmark (7 pts), Romania (6 pts), and Armenia (6 pts), are all still in contention.
In calculating the best runners up, the matches against the lowest ranked team are not counted. That means that the 6 points every country will likely gain against Malta will be subtracted. The rankings are then determined from the 8 games that remain.
Now we look back at the results from the last qualifying tournaments with similar formats.
In 2010, Ireland were the 8th best runner-up with 12 points from the 8 games that counted. Norway lost out with 10 points.
In 2012, Montenegro were the 8th best runner-up with 12 points from 8 games.
In 2014, Croatia were the 8th best runner-up with 11 points. Denmark missed out with 10 points.
The format was different in 2016 with 3rd placed teams qualifying, but the research shows that if you get 12 points from the 8 games that count, that should be enough to be one of the best runners-up.
That means for Scotland, if you include the games against Malta, then 18 points is the goal.
With 7 points now, we can get to 18 points with wins against Malta, Lithuania, Slovenia, and a draw against Slovakia and England. Or we can lose to England and win the last 4 games, and still make it.
The bottom line is that the game against England is not a must-win. And in fact, a draw would be a very, very useful result.
So after the big match at Hampden, keep an eye on the late game between Lithuania and Slovakia on Saturday night. That game is a must win for Slovakia, and anything less would be extremely good news for Scotland.
Why this matters?
I saw something from Scotland Assistant Coach Mark McGhee today that he wants Scotland to have a “must-win approach“. And here’s why that’s dangerous. What if it’s 0-0 or 1-1 with ten minutes to go? Do we want McGhee telling Strachan to throw on strikers or send Craig Gordon up for corners? Not if we don’t need to win.
Forget about beating England. I would take the draw if we can get it, then go and beat Malta and Lithuania. Then come October, it is very likely we will know exactly what we need to do. And the dream of World Cup qualification will be very much alive.
(Having said all this, I did have a very vivid dream last week that Scotland would win 2-1 with Darren Fletcher getting the winner.)