When Oliver Burke left Nottingham Forest to join RB Leipzig last summer, Scottish football fans raised their eyebrows in excitement. Ooh, that’s exotic. A player in the Bundesliga? At a team built on fast and dynamic football? That can only be a good thing. The problem, however, is that the style employed by Leipzig’s Ralph Hasenhüttl could not be more different from the cautious, let’s-not-lose-to-Georgia-again tactics of Gordon Strachan. In fact, no Scotland manager in recent memory has played the kind of high pressing style of the newly promoted German side, while the demands placed on a winger like Burke at the Red Bull Arena are nothing like those placed on wingers at Hampden Park. Hasenhüttl wants the wingers in his 4-2-2-2 formation to link up with the midfield and to interchange with their full-backs. Strachan dreams of someone who can babysit Alan Hutton.
So could Burke’s less-than-sexy move back to the UK and to West Bromwich Albion actually be the best thing for the Scotland national team? There have been grumblings from Scottish football fans that ‘Pulisball’ will ruin this exciting young talent – he’s still only 20 – and that it would have been better for him to stay in Germany in a flourishing young squad. Yet Scotland aren’t going to be changing their style dramatically any time soon, even if there is change of coach.
They’ve played four at the back and a target man up top pre-Strachan and they’ll do so again post-Strachan, so that’s why the best thing for the national team could be to have Burke playing in a similar style at Tony Pulis’ West Brom. In the kind of tough international matches Scotland need to win to qualify for any major tournament, they’ll probably have less of the ball and will rely on their defence and their ability to nick a goal from a set piece. If Burke can start learning that day in, day out at club level then he’ll be ready to plug into the national team.
It must be said, though, that playing for Pulis is about more than learning how to win 1-0, especially for a player in Burke’s position. The Welshman has an excellent track record when it comes to working with wingers, which makes sense given that he’s one of a decreasing number of coaches who still values a quick burst down the flank and a good ball into the box. In fact, Scotland fans have already seen the impact Pulis has had on Matt Phillips, who similarly moved to The Hawthorns last summer and who provided more assists in 2016/17 – with nine – than he had done in any other year of his career, earning him a return to the national team.
Speaking about Burke, Pulis has already explained how excited he is to work with the player and to lead him to the next level. “He’s already got good experience from playing at Forest and now the added taste of figuring in a team which finished second in the Bundesliga,” he started. “I’m sure our fans will like him. He’s very direct and he scores goals. There’s a bit of work to be done and certainly more to come out of him, as he’s not the finished article yet by any means.”
Burke and Scotland fans alike should be excited, then, to see what Pulis can do for the 20-year-old over the course of this season and beyond. Of course, it will also be a massive boost for Burke to be playing more regular football than he did in Germany, when he played just 617 Bundesliga minutes last season, starting just five times and not completing the 90 minutes once. Given his price tag of £15m, Burke is surely in the West Midlands to play. If he does, he’ll surely be making many more appearances in the blue of Scotland.