Ukraine overcame a Scotland side severely lacking creative nous at McDiarmid Park on Tuesday evening to leapfrog them in the race to qualify for the next European Championships.
Scotland began the game in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that had so far served them well during the European Championships qualifying campaign. Oliver McBurnie was the focal point of attack, replacing regular frontman Oliver Burke after the latter pulled out of the squad with an injury.
The lineup was virtually unchanged from Friday night’s home draw with Latvia, with Scot Gemmill only replacing John Souttar with Ross McCrorie after the Hearts defender sustained a concussion during the Latvia game.
Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna captained the side and was paired alongside McCrorie in central defence – the Rangers defender rewarded for his fine recent form at Ibrox.
Ukraine manager Olexandr Holovko set his side up in a 4-1-4-1 formation initially, with Oleksandr Pikhalonok sitting in between the midfield and the defence. While Ukraine were on the ball, centre-backs Pavlo Lukyanchuk and Ivan Zotko remined in defence marking McBurnie, allowing both full-backs to push forward into midfield to support attacks.
The Ukrainians played with a high line and pressed Scotland relentlessly; in contrast, Scotland’s build-up play was ponderous and slow. Holovko had clearly done his homework and recognised Scotland’s strength down the left of the pitch – the away side did well to nullify Scotland’s attempts to find Lewis Morgan out wide.
The opening half-hour was a cagey affair with Ukraine in particular crowding the midfield, leaving space on the wings that Scotland failed to exploit. Morgan was ineffective out wide and the one time he moved further infield, the St Mirren midfielder managed to fire off a decent shot from distance.
The visitors began to grow into the game and exert more control over proceedings, enjoying more of the ball than Scot Gemmill’s men. The Scottish defence was extremely compact but both Morgan and Chris Cadden were guilty of not tracking back, allowing the two Ukrainian full-backs to repeatedly drive beyond the Scotland defence on the overlap.
Holovko then switched to a 4-3-3, where the attacking players in particular swapped positions and roamed in an effort to unsettle the Scotland back line. Viktor Kovalenko and Olexandr Zinchenko were especially impressive, swapping seamlessly between central midfield and striker roles every few minutes.
Then, with the last kick of the first half, Ukraine got the goal that swung the match in their favour. A tactical rethink was required of Gemmill and when the teams ran on to the park for the second period, the Scotland boss had rejigged his team into a 4-1-4-1, with Allan Campbell protecting the back four.
McBurnie cut an increasingly isolated figure at the head of the home side’s attack, with little support from midfield. Ukraine took to the pitch in the same system as before – this time, however, they were knocking the ball about with more confidence and were dominating possession. They continued to press high up the park and gave the Scotland defenders very little time to play out from the back.
Ukraine pressed for a second goal and around the hour mark Gemmill made his first substitution, replacing Dom Thomas with Dunfermline’s Ryan Williamson. Holovko stuck to his guns and reaped the rewards – with his full-backs pushed up, the Ukrainians outnumbered the Scots in midfield and Gemmill’s team failed to get a foothold in the match.
Andriy Boryachuk squandered a couple of decent chances to add to his tally before Gemmill sensed that something had to change. Liam Smith was replaced by Ryan Hardie with 20 minutes left to play as Scotland moved to a 4-4-2 formation. Five minutes later, Gemmill used his final substitution to bring on Scott Wright for McBurnie.
Wright made an instant impact for Scotland, pressing the Ukrainian defence and making life uncomfortable for them. Another tactical tweak followed for Scotland – the players now lined up in a 4-4-1-1, with Wright playing off centre-forward Hardie.
In the last ten, Scotland began to throw players forward and were almost rewarded with an equaliser, but captain McKenna saw his header following a set-piece cleared off the line. The momentum had swung in Scotland’s favour but despite their change in intensity, an equaliser was not to be.
Ukraine switched to a 4-4-2 to see the game out and made two substitutions in stoppage time to break up the game. A deflection deep in stoppage time saw the ball fall to Kovalenko for a one-on-one and the Shakhtar prospect coolly slotted the ball past Ryan Fulton to seal the win for the Eastern Europeans.