Overrated or underrated: Steven Fletcher (Scotland)

September 11, 2015

fletcher

Craig Cairns (@craigcairns001)

Modern international football is flush with lone striker systems and, more often than not, the striker is expected to do much more than just score goals. In fact, in certain cases, teams will intentionally select a striker that maybe doesn’t have the most prolific strike rate but is well-versed in pulling central defenders out of position, creating space and linking with midfielders.

This is why Gordon Strachan favours Fletcher to lead the line for Scotland. At the top level, strikers are, in general, favoured when they are more complete players and if it comes down to a choice between a goalscorer and a facilitator, many international managers will chose the latter, knowing that there is plenty of goal threat coming from midfield. Ikechi Anya’s goal in Dortmund displayed exactly why Fletcher is useful in such a system, even if it hasn’t worked as often as we’d have liked. Select the player who is purely a goalscorer and you may not even get around to creating chances for him.

That is not to imply that Leigh Griffiths is nothing but a goalscorer. He has added much more to his game since moving to Celtic but still doesn’t possess the characteristics to fit in as the lone striker in Strachan’s system. It is one of the reasons why Nadir Çiftçi was selected ahead of Griffiths in the early European matches – although, admittedly, it was also influenced by Çiftçi’s domestic ban – and it is the reason Derek McInnes favoured David Goodwillie to Adam Rooney in Aberdeen’s European ties. Griffiths may one day become a Scotland regular but that would likely involve a change in approach from Strachan.

Granted, four goals in 28 appearances – which include three against Gibraltar – is not a great strike rate and is difficult to defend. However, if there was a better option I’m sure Gordon Strachan would have drafted him into his starting line-up by now. Yes, we want more goals from our striker but making him a scapegoat for the nation’s failings when he has, on the whole, performed well during the qualifying campaign is a little harsh.

Vote: Underrated

Craig Anderson (@craig_killie)

Those who argue in favour of Steven Fletcher starting for Scotland tend to base their argument on the idea that he and only he can fit the style of football which Gordon Strachan wishes to play. They will tell you that Fletcher possesses a unique ability to hold the ball up and bring our midfielders and wingers into play. That is not the Steven Fletcher I have watched across the last five qualifiers. Fletcher certainly represents a physical presence in attack, and he will occupy defenders purely by being there. However, that presence is, more often than not, a static one. When Fletcher does get the ball into his feet, his first touch (while much better than Kenny Miller’s) is not infallible, and he compounds this by regularly attempting first time flicked passes which rarely come off. One in every ten or twenty might make it round the corner to a teammate, but more often than not, his use of the ball is wasteful.

I believe this propensity to overplay is a symptom of a player who has an inflated sense of his own ability, something which also cropped up in his pathetic (on both sides) stand-off with Craig Levein. Levein’s unpopularity meant that public opinion went with Fletcher at that stage, but in hindsight Levein was probably entirely correct in his judgement of the Sunderland man. As Scotland got worse and worse under Levein, Fletcher’s perceived ability grew exponentially, but since Fletcher returned he has failed to score in 14 of his 15 appearances, with the only exception being three goals against a nation better known for their monkeys than their football.

Even Fletcher’s biggest cheerleaders would acknowledge the criticism of his goalscoring record, but they would also claim that there is nobody else available to fulfil the centre-forward role in Strachan’s system. I would disagree. Arguably the best performances of Strachan’s reign came at the tail end of the last qualifying campaign. For those matches, Steven Naismith nominally occupied the number 9 role, but his movement and game intelligence allowed him to interchange with the three behind him, thus providing a fluid and dynamic attacking unit. The midfield retained the ball better, and Scotland played the patient possession game to which our current squad is best suited.

With Fletcher in attack, Scotland are a one-dimensional side – opponents know straight away that the ball is going down the centre to the big number 9, and even a poor team like Georgia can easily deal with that. His reputation as an obvious first pick for Scotland seems to be based solely on one good pass to Ikechi Anya against Germany over a year ago, plus a hat-trick against Europe’s poorest side. If Scotland harbour hopes of going to France, Fletcher simply cannot be allowed to continue in the role in the next double header.

Vote: Overrated

Kris Jack (@krisjack85)

For all the criticism of Steven Fletcher’s efforts in the dark blue of Scotland (and the candy stripes of Sunderland for that matter), one thing will remain a constant in his career: he’s a Scotsman playing at the top end of the game.

Looking at his modern-day predecessors, Kenny Miller and Stephen Thompson, both Scottish players who have scored regularly in the English Championship but have struggled to find the net once promoted, it shouldn’t be surprising that his recent goal return for his club has been unimpressive. It seems to be a curse on those Scotsmen who dare to dream in England, and you can bet that the likes of Jordan Rhodes and Chris Martin will also feel the pinch if they get the chance in the EPL, like those before them.

And just like Miller and Thompson, Fletcher has been playing in club sides that haven’t had the greatest quality of player alongside him, which would hinder any strikers strike rate no matter who they were. Now, I’m not saying that if you put Fletcher in to Jose Mourinho’s starting line-up, that he’d be up there for the Golden Boot, but you’d have to think that with a higher number of quality chances being made for him, the higher the propensity for him to actually find the net, until one goal begats two, two goals begats three and so on and his confidence rises with it.

Confidence is a huge factor in the success of any striker; not just in themselves and from others, but in the players around them. And at club level it’s something that Fletcher is clearly lacking. With international football being as sporadic and spaced-out as it is, the need to build that confidence with and between his compatriots is all that is needed to turn his fortunes for Scotland around.

Whether in the Premiership or on the international stage, Fletcher is doing what everyone who has ever kicked a ball in anger dreams of doing, and regardless of the armchair fan’s opinion of him, he obviously has the work ethic and the attributes required of him to get him to where he is, with a good few managers seeing that certain something in him. Apart from Craig Levein that is.

Vote: Underrated

 

Shaughan McGuigan (@ShaughanM)

“I’m doing what I can. I’m running around.”

In terms of self-appraisal, Steven Fletcher’s summary of his own personal performances against Georgia and Germany isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Disconcertingly though, it’s probably the most flattering review you’re likely to come across.

Let’s be clear, by no stretch of the imagination is Fletcher the only issue with this misfiring Scotland team. After all, this is a side which is almost the dictionary definition of hum-drum, but the hirsute front-man is certainly providing more questions than answers when it comes to his continued involvement in the Scotland starting eleven. Most pertinent of all, what exactly does he do?

He certainly isn’t scoring any goals, other than a recent hat-trick against Gibraltar, but in fairness, you’d expect Fletcher’s namesake, Jessica, the Cabot Cove crime-fighter, to have tucked one away during the one-sided affair at Hampden Park. His only other goal for Scotland was against Iceland back in 2009, leaving Fletcher with a goals-to-game ratio at this level which is bordering on the derisory.

The continued argument to justify his inclusion seems to boil down to the fact that forwards are now more often than not, especially for mid-ranking nations such as ourselves, expected to have more strings to their bow than simply poking the ball into the net. They need to work the channels, keep defenders busy, hold the ball up and bring others into the game, lay it off wide, win the ball in the air, and a myriad of other things which allow people to say “Ah but..” when you mention their lack of goals.

Rewind a year or so, and you could argue Fletcher was doing just that, to a point. His assists for the equalisers against Germany and Poland were both fine demonstrations of unselfishness, that saw him drop deep, before releasing a runner with a searching pass, but twelve months is a long time to wait for a similar flash of inspiration in a meaningful match.

He almost got on the end of the ball Andy Robertson curved into the box against Georgia last Friday, but it was difficult not to think that a more confident striker may have sniffed out the opening a little quicker than the out-of-touch Sunderland man. As for the Germany game, the moment where he sprang the offside trap 40-yards from goal, and immediately decided his best option was to play it wide, pointed to a player who has completely lost his scoring instinct and eye for goal.

Whether his worryingly deep rut is down to a dearth of confidence, or more seriously, the accumulative effect of a number of injuries which have bugged the forward during the last couple of years, Fletcher appears a sliver of the player who tempted Sunderland to spend £12,000,000 as recently as 2012.

It’s admirable that Gordon Strachan has a sense of loyalty to the players who have managed to get him this far, and the theory of having a “club side mentality” seems a sound one. However, Fletcher’s recent contributions should see him deployed as a Plan B at best. We need more than a striker who offers up running around.

Vote: Overrated

Conclusion

Once again we have a hung jury, but unlike the recent Scott Allan blog we shan’t be requiring the services of an independent adjudicator to hand down the final verdict. Those arguing in favour of ‘Overrated’ stated their case forcefully with a much more vehement manner, and it is that group who have won the argument. Sorry Mr Fletcher.

Verdict: OVERRATED

 

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