Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Out Of The World Cup, But Keeping George

Having been eliminated from the World Cup last week, the knives were out big style, but yesterday the SFA indicated that they will be keeping George Burley as Scotland manager through the qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Championship.

I happen to think that it’s a bit of a surprise given George Peats comments before the Macedonia game. However, there is logic behind the decision. Scotland played some exiting football during the campaign, twice against Iceland and at home to Macedonia and apparently against the Netherlands at home (I say apparently as I missed the game as I was sick). George, unlike Walter Smith or Alex McLeish, also was willing to change his tactics.

However, there were three games which essentially cost Scotland dearly in their quest to at least make the playoffs. Scotland started so far off the pace against Macedonia, not helped by the fact that there was no acclimatisation time, the match kicked off at 3pm local time still in the middle of a hot Balkans summer. Scotland seemed to run out of energy early on. With hindsight, playing 4-4-2 was maybe too much of a gamble in that heat.

Scotland recovered admirably to win 2-1 in Rejkiavijk, playing 4-3-3 for the first hour. Next up though was Norway, which would be as critical as their meeting 4 years previously. This game hinged on a substitution and a miss. Burley, pressing for a win, decided to put on one of the Championship’s (Division 1 in old money) top scorers, Chris Iwelomu, rather than Scotlands champion at scoring against the not so good teams, Kris Boyd. Within minutes Iwelomu had a chance but missed in the moment which will surely define his career. The next day, in a display of breathtaking petulance, Boyd announced that he would not play for Scotland again while Burley was manager. This was probably the first sign that not all the players were behind Burley. The Scotland camp was not really helped by the attitude of the red tops, who smelled blood.

Boozegate came after Scotland demonstrated how not to defend set pieces against the Dutch, and the Scotland hierarchy made their first off-pitch blunder. After umming and ahhing about what to do, the Rangers 2 were banned and dropped, then restored to the bench against Iceland, where they let everyone know what they thought of proceedings. Completely forgotten in the furore was how good Scotland played without Barry Ferguson.

The final nail in Scotland’s campaign came in Oslo about 5 weeks ago as Scotland struggled with Norway’s physical route one tactics. When Gary Caldwell went down the tunnel after being sent off. Scotland’s qualification hopes went with him. Caldwell’s replacements in the Scotland defence struggled as John Carew pulled, pushed and generally ran riot against a set of players suddenly unsure how to play him. That’s without mentioning the parallels with the first Macedonia game, both games were early season games which featured undercooked and under-prepared Scotland players.

George Burley has made mistakes during the campaign, but so have the SFA hierarchy in the shape of Peat and Smith. They gave the go ahead for Scotlands fixtures, which included the early season fixtures in Macedonia and Norway which cost Scotland 6 points. It would have made more sense to swap the Macedonia tie with the Iceland tie, thus making conditions in the evening that bit easier. Finishing with the Netherlands at home is something of a boob too.

I’m not really sure if the SFA have done the right thing in extending Burley’s reign as Scotland coach, but I don’t subscribe to the view that he’s been a disaster either. There are three things he does need to do for the next campaign. He needs to sort out the defence. Most of Scotland’s goals conceded seem to come either from crosses or “second phase balls” – balls coming off defenders or other players and falling to other players. He needs to stop Scotlands forwards from being so profligate in front of goal. Against Iceland and Macedonia at Hampden we really should have won more heavily than 2-1 and 2-0, and by all accounts we had enough chances to beat the Dutch, and that’s before we come to Iwelomu’s miss against Norway. Lastly, we need to think about the scheduling of our matches. Craig Brown used to be a master at this, always starting away to a middle ranking team, get the top seed at home first, and always finish with a winnable game at home.

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