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.