Friday, 19 October 2012

Levein's Own Jump The Shark Moment

Last week might not actually be Levein’s jump the shark moment, a lot of the tartan army would pinpoint the 4-6 Czech Republic qualifier for that moment.  However it now seems as if there is a groundswell of opinion that sees someone else taking charge of the Scotland national team, possibly in time to face Luxembourg next month.

Well, at least it's not that annoying double finger gesture...
As I have said before, I think that the criticisms made of Levein by the Tartan Army don’t really stack up.  Levein was said to be too negative and tactically inept.  In truth, Levein was at times too clever, and other times unable to pick the correct players to fit the chosen formation.  That 4-6 formation for example was designed to flood the midfield and create opportunities by pulling the Czech’s forward, but fell down because of Scotland’s inability to hold on to the ball (Remember as well that Spain won the European Championships playing a variation of 4-6). 

During the first two games of this campaign, Levein went with a 4-1-4-1 formation.  This did not work because Scotland kept on giving the ball away.  Away to Wales, Levein went with a 4-3-2-1 formation (4-5-1 with the wide midfielders pushed up), which was by general consensus an attacking formation.  That fell apart in the second half because Scotland could not keep the ball after Brown was forced off.  This brings us to the Belgium game and giving the ball away about 20 times in the first half…  alone.  Anyone spot a pattern here?

The other hallmark of Levein’s time in charge is the amount of times that Scotland have somehow gained an advantage that is thrown away by the players retreating into a sort of defensive mode.  Again, against the Czech Republic (this time in the Hampden tie), Scotland found themselves 1-0 and 2-1 up  but surrendered control of the game as soon as a lead was established.  Scotland should have created something against the Serb’s, who lets not forget were poor in that Hampden international.  While last Friday Scotland were 1-0 up at half time in Cardiff before disappearing for all but five minutes of the second half.  Had we built on our advantage against the Czech’s, we would have been at Euro’s in the summer, while  the five points dropped against Serbia and Wales would have seen us only three points behind Croatia and Belgium rather than the current 8.

In short, while Levein has certainly made mistakes but Scotland are where they are partly because the players have not performed.  However I think that Levein should go for two reasons.  Firstly, his biggest mistake is persevering with 4-1-4-1 which as I pointed out in this post is a hindrance to Scotland performing. Scotland’s best performances over the past 20 years have been because we have had three central midfielders, while our best performance under Levein came in the Spain match at Hampden when we played 4-2-3-1.  Leven persisted with his formation until the margin of error was too big.

Secondly, I feel that this group of Scotland players needs fresh eyes.  A new manager might look at this crop of players and come up with different tactics and different formations than Levein… tactics that may well work better than Levein’s tactics.  Any new manager might even stop the practice of putting square pegs into round holes.  The last reason why Levein should go is a simple one, tactical genius Billy Dodds thinks that Levein should stay.

Unusually, there is near agreement among the Tartan Army about the preferred successor to Levein.  Step forward one Gordon Strachan.  Strachan has played for Scotland, making 50 appearances from 1980 to 1992.  The hallmark of his managerial career has been a pragmatic nature, which has seen him keep Coventry up, keep Southampton up while taking them to the 2003 English FA Cup final and win three Championships at Celtic, including the double in 2006/7.  Strachan also took Celtic to the last 16 of the European Cup two seasons in a row – falling to AC Milan and Barcelona.

It should be pointed out that there is no race at this moment, Levein has not yet been eased from his position.  Yet there is still a race for this position with candidates.  Strachan seems to be the clear favourite among the fans, but there are other candidates.  Walter Smith & Alex McLeish have been touted in some quarters.  Both have done the job in the past with a degree of success (McLeish was even 90 minutes away from taking us to Euro 2008), yet both left in difficult circumstances.

If the SFA were true to form, they would procrastinate until the new year until bagging Levein.  However Stewart Regan is under pressure, and I suspect that clubs annoyed at Regan’s handling of the collapse of Rangers will be using the current state of the Scottish National team to put pressure on Regan.  I don’t know when, but I do think that Levein is a goner as Scotland manager.  Whoever does take over needs to be either a miracle worker, or have a very very good plan.

Monday, 15 October 2012


Not only an assessment of where Scotland are in relation to the current World Cup campaign, but also many of the Tartan Army’s verdict of Craig Levein after the awful defeat to Wales on Friday.

There are two things that stick out for me.  Firstly - and not for the first time - we find ourselves with an advantage in a must win game and then throw it away by sitting back and letting the opposition come at us.  We did it twice against the Czech Republic at Hampden last year, while on Friday we went missing pretty much for most of the second half.  We roused ourselves and produced a five minute spell culminating in the goal that never was, but apart from that we were not at the races in the second half.

The second thing is that while Scotland suffered at the hands of the match officials - chopping off a perfectly good goal and awarding a penalty from a dive - the sense of outrage just wasn’t there.  There was no sense that we were robbed probably in truth because Wales were good value for their win.  Rather worryingly, Scotland’s performance dropped off markedly after the injury induced substitution of Scott Brown at half time.  Also rather worryingly, Scotland continued to give the ball away in key positions.

The third poor performance in a row has seen calls for Levein to be replaced.  Personally, I am yet to be convinced that all of Scotland’s ills will be solved with the removal of Levein.  On Friday, he changed from his favoured 4-1-4-1 formation and played with a much more attacking 4-3-2-1 formation and still couldn’t get a performance from the players.  It is worth pointing out that Saturday saw the fifth anniversary of the 3-1 win over Ukraine that saw us three points away from qualifying for Euro 2008 - we went on to lose to Georgia and Italy to miss out by a point.  Since that game Scotland have been managed by three men (Alex Mcleish, George Burley and now Levein) and won 6 competitive matches (Iceland (twice), Macedonia, Liechtenstein (twice) and Lithuania).  Clearly the results do not bear out that we have the best set of players eligible to play for the national team since the early 1990’s.

Rather irritatingly for those people who want to speculate about Levein’s position, there is another qualifier on the way.  Unfortunately for Levein, this one is against the group leaders - and one of the promising sides in European football - Belgium.  Bossed by Marc Wilmot’s, a UEFA Cup winner at Schalke 04 in 1997 and featured in both qualifiers in 2001, Belgium seem to be in the midst of their own golden generation.  Kompany, Vermaelen and Vertonghen are well known to English Premier League audiences, while Hazzard, Dembele & Mirallas have moved to English Premier League clubs during the summer. 

The star of Belgium’s 3-0 win in Belgrade on Saturday though is not a house hold name in England yet, De Bruyne has been loaned out from Chelsea to Werder Bremen.  They will have to go some to match the achievements of the previous “golden generation” of Belgian football - when they were runners up to West Germany in the European Championships of 1980, beat Argentina in the opening match of the ‘82 World Cup, and went all the way to the Semi-finals four years later in Mexico - Argentina gaining some sort of revenge in that match.

If the quality of the opposition was not bad news for Scotland, there is our record in Brussels to look at…  then again, maybe not.  Scotland have never won in Belgium - a record that includes qualifiers for three successive European Championships (2-0 in November 1979, 3-2 in December 1982 & 4-1 in April 1987) as well as that 2-0 loss in September 2001 (pictured above) that saw Scotland fail to reach the World Cup 2002.  All of which makes a Scotland win unlikely.

The odds are on the autopsy on Scotland’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign beginning at some point tomorrow night.  Whether that goes hand in hand with a search for a new Scotland manager remains to be seen - and I suspect if the worst happens tomorrow it won’t be until the end of the week before there is any news to report on that front.  Whatever happens, there are a lot of reputations waiting to be salvaged with a win tomorrow night…  starting with the players.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Crunch Time For Levein

The next week sees the next block of matches on the road to World Cup 2014.  While England can count on 3 points with an easy win over San Marino, Ireland face a huge match in Germany.  The most intriguing fixture sees Scotland play Wales in a competitive match for the first time since the famous 1-1 draw at Ninian Park that saw Scotland reach the play-offs in their attempt to reach Mexico ’86.  The draw was immediately overshadowed by the death of the Scotland manager Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack just before the end of the match.

Dalgleish scores during Scotland's last World Cup win V Wales, October 1977
Prior to that campaign, Scotland had fond memories against Wales.  One of Scotland’s most famous qualifiying ties was a 2-0 win against Wales in October 1977 (right) – a tie that the Welsh FA chose in their wisdom to play at Anfield.  The tie was nip and tuck until with 12 minutes to go, a penalty was awarded against Wales when the ball was adjudged to have been punched by the Welsh defender David Jones (it was Joe Jordan who had punched the ball).  Masson (who at that point had a very good record in converting penalties) scored.  With five minutes to go a Buchan cross found Dalgleish who headed home to send Scotland into the World Cup finals – prompting the famous piece of commentary from Arthur Montford - “Argentina… here we come…

Wales managed to get some sort of revenge during the qualifying rounds for Mexico 1986.  In March 1985, they became the second team (the first in twenty years) to win a world cup match at Hampden, Ian Rush’s goal just before half time checked Scotland’s progress in this tournament after two early home wins against Iceland & Spain.  By the time that return match came around a draw would have seen Scotland into a play-off (on goal difference), a win would have seen Scotland with a chance of direct qualification depending on the result of Spain’s last match (a home game with Iceland).

Scotland fell behind very early on to a Mark Hughes goal, but managed to equalise with another penalty, taken by Davie Cooper.  At the final whistle, any joy was muted as the players suspected that something had happened.

Since that tie, Scotland has faced Wales in frendlies only.  Yet, Wales have developed a reputation of being the team that end’s the tenor of Scotland managers.  This first emerged when Scotland faced Wales at the Millenium Stadium in early 2004.  Both sides had lost out in the playoffs for Euro 2004, but Wales hammered Scotland 4-0.  From that point Berti Vogts time as Scotland manager was all but up.  Levein himself will be aware of this, especially as his predecessor George Burley also saw himself disposed of after a defeat in Wales, this time the SFA waited only 48 hours after a 3-0 loss at Friday’s venue – The Cardiff City Stadium – to sever Burley’s time as Scotland manager.

The start that Scotland have made in this group – 2 home draws – has put the pressure on Levein to pick up at least four points from the two away games against Wales and Belgium (which follows next Tuesday).  The Wales tie will be the easier of the two, but that is not to underestimate this side despite the fact that they have lost in their two outings in this group so far (2-1 at home to Belgium and 6-1 away in Serbia) and that they will be missing Craig Bellamy for this double header.  Wales midfield is their best part of the team, with Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsay playing alongside Liverpool’s summer signing Joe Allen, while they can also call on Tottenham’s Gareth Bale on the left.  There are also familiar faces there in the shape of Celtic’s Adam Matthews and Joe Ledley, while Aberdeen’s Jason Brown is also in this squad.

In sharp contrast to last time out, Levein’s squad has the feel of returning faces – with the exception of the banned Stephen Naismith.  Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher both return, with Brown seemingly only fit for one of the games.  Whichever match Brown plays, both will add a grip to the Scotland midfield that was sorely missing in the previous two matches – assuming of course that Levein plays with three central midfielders.  Also returning is Sunderland’s £12 million striker Stephen Fletcher.

Fletcher had fallen out with Levein at the start of the Nation’s Cup matches last spring.  However it has taken until Scotland’s flat performances against Serbia and Macedonia last month for both sides to thrash out their differences.  With Rhodes out injured, Fletcher’s chances of playing look good – depending on Levein’s decision on Miller of course.  As I have pointed out previously, the key to Levein getting desirable results out of these two games depends on whether he sticks with his 4-1-4-1 formation.  The inclusion of Commons even gives Levein the option of going into both games with a genuine winger.

Scotland needs at least 4 points from this double header to pull themselves back into the pack.  3 points from Wales is an absolute must, while a point is needed from this group’s form side Belgium.  The problem is that anything other than 3 points on Friday means that Scotland will be all but out after 3 games.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Best Comeback Since...

Europe’s dramatic comeback in last weekend’s Ryder Cup has has the sporting commentariat reaching for the superlatives.  One of them was the claim that this was one of the biggest comebacks in sporting history.  Big claim.

Luke Donald tee's off as that fightback is about to start...

In truth, Europe’s fightback was always a distinct possibility, given that the European golfers had not performed to their own high standards during the Foursomes & Fourballs.  What was a surprise was how much certain members of the US team crumbled, in the same way that the European golfers crumbled in 1999 at the infamous Brookline Ryder Cup.

So, if the “Miracle of Medenah” is not the most remarkable comeback in sport, then what is?  Liverpool’s own Miracle in Istanbul is often touted as one of the great fightbacks, often overshadowing one from Manchester United’s back catalogue.  In the European Cup semi final in 1999 they had drawn 1-1 in the home leg against Juventus.  At the Stadio Dele Alpe Juventus went 2-0 up very early on in the second leg and were looking to be in the ominous form that they were in when they won this competition three years earlier.  Manchester Utd clawed their way back into the game and nabbed a vital away goal through a Roy Keane header.  This broke the Juventus spell as the began to fade out of the game as Manchester Utd took more of a grip, levelling the game with a Yorke goal 11 minutes before half time and then going on to get a winner with 6 minutes left through Cole.

The Autumn of 1999 saw another, much more improbable fightback when France came from 24-10 to beat New Zealand 43-31 and reach the Fourth Rugby World Cup final.  New Zealand were heavy favourites for this tournament, including most of the side that lost to South Africa in 1995, including Lomu and Mertens, as well as new find Christian Cullen.  However France turned things around early in the second half to not only beat New Zealand but also sowed some seeds of doubt in the minds of New Zealand rugby players – it was a hex that was only banished with last years win.

Snooker has seen two monumental comebacks that should be considered.  Stephen Hendry’s comeback from 14-8 down to win 18-14 in the 1992 World Championships is considered one of the great comebacks, but overshadows another.  People forget that in the famous “Black Ball final” of 1985, Steve Davis whitewashed Denis Taylor in the afternoon session on the first day 8-0 before Taylor took 7 out of the 8 frames in the evening session.

The granddaddy of comebacks has to be the Rumble In The Jungle, the legendary boxing fight between George Foreman & Muhammed Ali that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire in October 1974.  Ali had come back from his ban and lost to Joe Frazer in 1971.  Frazer then lost to George Foreman, who then demolished Ken Norton.  Ali and Foreman agreed to the fight, with Foreman the strong favourite.  As early as the second round, Alli resorted to his “rope a dope” tactics – designed to tire Foreman.  To the watching media, this looked like madness, but as the fight entered the fourth round Foreman began to look tired.  Ali pounced in the eighth round to set the seal on a remarkable comeback.

Europe’s comeback last week was not in the same league because the Ryder Cup was generally though to be nip and tuck anyway, and that Europe could not possibly have played as badly again as they had done over the first two days.  That’s not to take anything away from a huge achievement, especially on enemy territory.