Friday, 13 August 2010

SPL 2010/11: The Season Starts Here!

Rangers get ready to recieve the championship trophy for season 2009/10
Barring Celtic’s abortive European Cup campaign, Hibernian’s abortive UEFA Cup campaign, Motherwell’s run in the same competition and Wednesday’s defeat in Sweden, the 2010/11 football season begins in earnest on Saturday with the start of the Scottish Premier League (with apologies to the Scottish Football League who started last week).  With all of the action which has occurred already, this must be the smallest close season in living memory.

Aiming for a hat trick of championships are Rangers, who like last year have not added to their squad.  However they have lost seven of their squad, with Thompson and Boyd making the move to Middlesbrough, and Danny Wilson making the switch to Liverpool. However the transfer of Kevin Thompson is arguably the only transfer involving a key player.  Weir will be around for another year, and will be supplemented by the returning Andy Webster, and Boyd was firmly second pick for the key games Rangers played.  In Walter Smith’s last season, Rangers have the necessary experience to win the Championship.

At the other side of Glasgow, Celtic have been busy in the transfer market.  After finally confirming the appointment of Neil Lennon as Manager after his caretaker stint.  Celtic have brought in Joe Ledley from Cardiff, and Charlie Mulgrew from Aberdeen.  However they have lost the “Holy Goalie” Artur Boric.  The questions posed for Celtic are the same ones from 12 months ago; can they pull a new side together under a new coach and overhaul Rangers.  The Omens are not good for Celtic, who have sacked their previous “inexperienced” coaches (Liam Brady after 2 years, John Barnes within 6 months).  I take Rangers to win by between 4-7 points.
Elsewhere, Dundee United have pretty much kept their Scottish Cup winning team intact (save for the aforementioned Andy Webster), Hearts have rather shockingly bought in Scottish players in the shape of the former Falkirk captain Darren Barr and Kilmarnock’s Kevin Kyle, while Aberdeen have brought Paul Hartley back from exile in Bristol.  Those three teams, as well as Hibernian, should be in the running for third.

The tightest battle over recent years has been the battle to avoid the drop, with Inverness Caley dropping down on goal difference in 2009 and Falkirk loosing out by a point in May.  Inverness are back in the top flight, the first team to bounce straight back up since Hib’s flew through the First Division in 1998/99.  They might find themselves at the bottom end once again, but should see themselves safe come the end of the season.

Calderwood celebrate's Kilmarnock's survival against Falkirk
The weakest squad on paper is St Mirren’s.  Their dismissal of Gus MacPherson, is one that gathered criticism among the media, but among the supporters, the opinion was that Gus’s teams looked more and more stale as the weeks went on. In his place, St Mirren have brought in the highly rated Danny Lennon from Cowdenbeath.  The problem for many journalists is that Danny has also brought 4 players from Cowdenbeath, as well as bringing back Marc McAusland from Queen Of The South and David Van Zanten from Hamilton.  St Mirren’s survival depends on the ability of the lower league players to step up to Premier League level, which to be honest is not as big a step up as most sports writers seem to think.

Hamilton have lost the talented James McArthur, their survival depends on their much vaunted conveyor belt of talent continuing.  I suspect that this will be a difficult season for Hamilton, and for Kilmarnock, who brought in Mixu Paatelainen to replace Jimmy Calderwood as Manager.  I think that the team to go down will come from those four, and I think that once again it will be too close to call.

More than most, Scottish football needs to come out and provide a season to remember, it needs to show that it was watching the events in South Africa, and that notes were being taken about technique and attacking football.  Above all Scottish football needs to realise that for the third season on the spin, the Old Firm are vulnerable.  The Old Firm will finish in the top two positions, but a winning mentality and a bit of ruthlesness needs to be shown from the other sides before they can be taken seriously.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Shape Of Scotland

I must admit that I should be thinking about the preview pieces for the start of the SPL and the EPL.  Instead Scotland are playing an International friendly tomorrow in Stockholm.  The thing that had got my ire up though was Chick Young’s piece in the BBC website, in particular his favoured Scotland team of “Allan McGregor in goal. A back four of Steven Whittaker, Garry Kenneth, Christophe Berra and Lee Wallace. A four in the middle of Barry Robson, Darren Fletcher, Kevin Thomson and Charlie Adam. And, up front, the great James McFadden playing off Kenny Miller.
England V Scotland in the Euro 2000 playoff, second leg
Does that not light your candle? "

The question that should be asked is, did Chick actually see any of the World Cup, you know the tournament that saw Spain, the Netherlands and Germany reach the last four with split mid-fields, and Uruguay playing with a diamond four in midfield at times.  One of the tactical developments coming from the World cup was that 4-4-2 just doesn’t work anymore, that 4-1 game should have told you that.

The interesting thing about Scotland is that their best results over the past 16 years have come from deploying a 3 man central midfield.  Craig Brown played with a 3-5-2, while both Walter Smith and Alex McLeish played with a 4-5-1.  I think Voghts went with 4-4-2 for most of his games (i could be wrong here, i stand corrected if I am), which was ironic as many people thought Voghts would be the natural upgrade from Craig Brown, while George Burley varied between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3.

Three in the middle of the park puts a premium on space, and also enables Scotland to split the midfield, playing McFadden & A N Other (possibly Steven Fletcher) between the midfield and the lone forward (maybe Kenny Miller?).  It’s a tactical trick we have deployed with some success for the past 16 years.  I hope that the 4-3-2-1 formation is one we stick with into the double header with Lithuania and Liechtenstein at the start of next month.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Art Of Intimidation

We shouldn’t be surprised that the new Celtic' managers attempts to whip up an intimidating atmosphere has failed.  Celtic’s loss on aggrigate has shown that Neil Lennon is a work in progress.  It does raise the interesting question of what makes an intimidating atmosphere?

Celtic fans on their last visit to Love Street in 2008
For me part of the equation is the crowd itself. The most intimidating atmosphere’s I have been part of have been when the Old Firm visit, this is partly down to our hostility to the particular Old Firm teams supporters choice of song’s.  That atmosphere is warm compared to the atmospheres waiting for teams who visit Turkey & Greece.  Manchester United were famously greeted with a banner saying “Welcome to hell” when they played Galatasaray in a European Cup tie in 1993, and that was as welcoming as it got for them.  Rangers had two scary visits to Greece in the 1990’s.  In a preliminary tie for the European Cup in 1994, they fell to a 2-0 defeat against AEK Athens, while four years later the visited the stadium dubbed “The Tomb” to play PAOK Salonika to defend a 2-0 lead.  It’s no coincidence that both Italy and Spain tend to play their trickiest qualifying games at the most intimidating stadiums (Naples and Seville respectively), while Wellington is seen as New Zealand’s most intimidating venue for a Rugby Union test.

The other part of the equation though has to be the strength of the opposition.  Parkhead probably won’t have scared Braga so much at the moment, as Celtic are currently a team still being put together.  Had they played Celtic during the O’Neill years, things would have been different.  Barcelona I'm sure is a daunting place mostly because of the quality of the teams over the years (though this probably doesn’t apply to Dundee United who are still the only undefeated British team to have played there) though even more so now that half their side have just won the World Cup.  And also there’s a very good reason why the Netherlands lost two World Cup finals in the 1970’s, they came up against very good sides buoyed by home advantage, and in Argentina their fans played their part - “They who are not jumping are Dutchmen!”

The truth is that a good atmosphere feeds off of a good team, which is more likely to strike fear into the hearts of opponents.  It is a good team which Neil Lennon needs to work on first, the atmosphere will come later.