Saturday, 15 September 2012

In Defence Of Levein (Well Sort Of...)

The fall out from Scotland’s second successive home draw in World Cup qualifying has seen Levein under pressure from fans and the press alike.  While there are serious problems with Levein’s Scotland side, a lot of the criticisms seem wide of the mark.

The main criticism of the Scotland team is that it is far too negative in playing one up front.  Of course the best teams on the planet play with more than one forward, yes?  Well, no actually.  Italy got to the final of Euro 2012 playing two forwards but they were the exception, not the rule.  Portugal, Germany & the Netherlands all played with one up front, however they also deployed wingers that pushed up when their sides were on the attack.  Brazil also played this formation at the last World Cup, whether they stick with one up front for their home world cup remains to be seen.

I think that Levein’s ideas on tactics suffer because they fall down in the gap between the chalkboard and the pitch – they fall down in the execution rather than the formulation.  The biggest example of this was the deployment of the 4-6 formation in the away tie in the Czech Republic.  The basis to making 4-6 work was retaining enough possession to free runners from midfield.  What happened was that Scotland haemorrhaged possession from the off (though it should be pointed out that the Czech Republic goal came from poor defending).

This brings us to Levein’s favoured formation for Scotland – 4-1-4-1.  On paper this has the potential to be an attacking formation with four attacking midfielders playing behind the sole forward with a single holding midfielder.  The problem is that Levein has never quite got the correct mix in midfield, and has used a recycled defender (in Gary Caldwell) as the holding midfielder in the first two qualifiers.  Ideally, the holding midfielder should be a defensive player, but also should be able to pass the ball.  Because Levein hasn’t quite got the mix right, Scotland at times look disjointed up front. Clearly, Levein is missing Darren Fletcher more than we thought, as he would be the ideal person to fit into that holding midfielder role.

It is this lack of grip in midfield that is undermining Scotland.  From Craig Brown and his favoured 3-5-2 formation on to Alex McLeish and his 4-5-1 formation, Scotland fielded sides with 3 central midfielders.  This gave Scotland at least a toe hold in matches.  When George Burley deployed three central midfielders – normally in a 4-3-3 – he tended to get results (particularly in wins against Iceland and Macedonia). 

When Burley shifted to his favoured 4-4-2, Scotland lost grip in the middle of the park and lost.  If Levein is to get this campaign back on track, he must think about his formation.  Maybe in this respect the best way forward is the 4-2-3-1 formation beloved of many of the world’s top sides.  After all, when we deployed that formation we gave Spain an almighty fright.  That however is not Levein’s biggest problem.  His main problem is at the back, and this one is of his own making.

Levein’s favoured defensive pairing is Christophe Berra and Andy Webster.  Unfortunately, both players are too similar to each other.  Ideally either Berra or Webster would be playing, with Caldwell slotting in.

One area where Levein has caused himself problems is with that striker spot.  Levein has exiled the new Sunderland forward Stephen Fletcher and has not really given an in depth explanation for the decision.  The original decision stems from Fletcher’s decision to make himself unavailable to play for Scotland prior to last years Carling Cup tie against Northern Ireland.  Yet, Levein seems to be losing the PR war.

Had Kenny Miller been on form last Saturday, this issue would not have come up.  However Miller seemed to be off the pace in both matches and reinforcements were brought on too late to affect both matches.  While Jordan Rhodes seems to be the current fan’s favourite, the bad handling of the Fletcher situation means that there are some Scotland fans that see Fletcher as a sort of Prince across the water.

The criticism of Levein is justified, but not the reasons for the criticisms.  Levein’s Scotland is not set up to be negative or conservative.  However, Levein must recognise that his 4-1-4-1 formation is not working and that he needs to sort his defence out. Next month Scotland face trips to Wales and Belgium.  If Levein makes the same mistakes in those matches, then we will be left to fight for nothing but pride.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Art Of Missed Opportunities

World Cup - European Qualifying Group A: Hampden; Scotland 0, Serbia 0

Did I say that a point against Serbia would be par?

To be honest, I though that Serbia would show an awful lot more, would be dangerous in their movement and look dangerous going forward.  Instead, while they weren’t quite awful, this was a game that Scotland could have won and should have won.  Serbia were comfortable in possession, but save for a couple of shots on target did not look very dangerous.  Indeed, at this early stage, it looks unlikely that they will be involved in the shakeup at the conclusion of this group. 

So, if Serbia were disappointing then what does that say about a Scotland side that spurned several clear opportunities to nab a win.

In the first 15 minutes of the match, Scotland won 6 corners against Serbia but could not fashion any chances from those set pieces, while Serbia responded with just the one chance – a free kick from Kolarov that was put around the post by McGregor.  The first sign that things were not going to go Scotland’s way came on 23 minutes when a Snodgrass cross went uncontested, with Miller off the pace.  Had Miller gambled at that point, it would have been a gift horse.  Instead Scotland fluffed a very good chance to take the initiative.

In the meantime Kenny Miller was having one of those nightmare matches that everything he touched turned to rubbish.  He failed to gamble at that chance midway through the first half, while just before the break, Adam sent him though on goal.  Instead of passing to players in a better position, Miller went for goal.

While I thought that Serbia would be technically excellent on the ball, what I wasn’t quite expecting was that Serbia would indulge in so many niggling foul challenges.  Nastasic was the first to pick up a booking with an awful challenge on Hutton, while a couple of the other Serbian defenders were intent on intimidating the Scotland attack.  Yet Scotland topped the crime count, Hutton picking up a booking for showing studs during a slide tackle while Snodgrass picked up a booking for a push on Kolarov.

While the pattern of this match continued, Serbia settled into a counter punching role – holding possession before launching short sharp attacks.  Scotland did create three very good chances during this half though.  With 10 minutes gone, Berra put a cross across goal, only to see Miller slow on the uptake at the back post.  Mid way through the match, Caldwell put the ball through to Naismith, who’s cross-shot went just wide of the post (pictured above), while just at the end of the match the substitute Forrest shot straight at the goalkeeper Stojkovic.  That last chance had come just after Serbia’s best opportunity of the match, Tadic was put through and almost chipped McGregor but for a great save.

The match finished in a chorus of Booing. To be honest, I don’t think that was harsh at all.  At the end of qualifying, this might look like a very good point, but on today’s evidence Scotland did not take the opportunities presented to them.  While I don’t think Levein made any selection mistakes, Levein was slow in making necessary substitutions.  Miller should have been hooked by the hour mark at the latest (it was obvious he had faded badly in the second half), while the double substitution took place far too late to have any effect.

With the first round of matches now complete, both Scotland & Serbia now find themselves two points behind both Croatia and Belgium.  Both those side meet in Brussels on Tuesday while Serbia host Wales and Scotland host Macedonia.  That tie with Macedonia looks more vital, not for Scotland’s chances of qualifying but for Scotland’s chances of just staying in the pack.  Anything less than a win will probably see Scotland all but out of the qualifying shake up, even at this early stage. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Road To Brazil Starts Here...

There have been World Cup qualifiers in other parts of the globe, for example the marathon single qualifying group for South American teams began last Autumn (with Chile currently top of the table), but for European teams, the road to Brazil begins at the end of this week with qualifiers on Friday and Saturday.

Scotland start their last sucessful World Cup campaign in Austria, August 1996
On Friday, both of the Irish teams and England face at best tricky matches with parts of the old Soviet Union.  Ireland begin in Kazakhstan at teatime on Friday with a match that is a must win for them.  Northern Ireland face the Russians in Moscow in what will be an incredibly difficult match for them, Russia will still be smarting form their surprise early exit from the European Championships.  In sharp contrast, England face Moldova in what should be a repeat of the outcome from their meeting in September 1996, the 3-0 win then kicked off their campaign to qualify for France ‘98.

Qualifying group A also begins on Friday, though Scotland’s first match does not take place until Saturday.  By which time Wales will have started and found out if Belgium really are as ominous as they appear.  Wales will be hoping that home advantage will be a help.  Kicking off this group will be Croatia and Macedonia, half an hour before Wales & Belgium begin their match.

While this will be the first time Scotland will have played Serbia, Scotland have faced Yugoslavia on a number of occasions.  Scotland’s 1-1 draw in the 1974 World Cup saw Scotland eliminated undefeated from that tournament.  The most recent meetings though came during qualifying for Italia 90, a 1-1 draw at Hampden in October 1988 was followed 11 months later with a 3-1 win for Yugoslavia in Zagreb.

Serbia’s new coach is the controversial former Red Star, Sampdoria, Lazio and Inter defender Sinisa Mihaijovic – this will be his competitive debut in charge of Serbia.  While Serbia failed to reach the finals of the European Championships, they are aiming for 3 World Cup final’s in a row.  They will have to unearth a forward, as lack of goals was their downfall with regard to qualifying for the Euro’s.

That’s not to say that Serbia are not very good.  Like most of the former Yugoslavian countries, Serbia will be very good on the ball.  They played with a 4-5-1 formation against Ireland last month, so may go with that formation once again.  Partizan’s winger Tomic is being touted as the key man, while another player to watch will be Red Star’s Lazovic.  It remains to be seen if the loss (to retirement) of Dejan Stankovic will be felt. 

One area that suffered a loss that won’t be so keenly felt is at the back.  Manchester United’s Vidic also retired, but his place will be taken by either Subutic from Dortmund or Maksmimovic.  Chelsea’s Ivanovic captain’s the side from the Right back position while holding the left back berth will be another familiar face in the shape of Manchester City’s Kolarov.

With a home tie with Macedonia hard on the heels of this tie and ties with Belgium and Wales on the horizon, it will be desirable to get off to a good start.  I think that 4 points out of 6 is probably par and that 6 points would only give us some room for manoeuvre.  It’s worth being reminded as well that while 6 out of 6 is desirable, it won’t give us a huge advantage.  The last time Scotland won their opening two qualifiers was when we beat Latvia and San Marino…  on our way to finishing behind Belgium and Croatia during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.