Monday, 17 March 2014

The Science of Penalties




Sunday’s Scottish League Cup final was billed as a potential classic: Two teams currently battling it out in the top half of the Scottish Premiership. One, former powerhouses of Scottish football, looking to end 15 trophy-less years, the other still in its infancy and appearing in its first major final.

Though not the most drab 0-0 you’ll ever see, 120 minutes of goalless action in a cup final hardly constitutes a classic. And so it took penalties to separate the sides. Which is a lottery, right?

Well it depends which manager you listen to. In their respective post-match interviews, Derek McInnes spoke in a measured tone that his team talk just before the spots kicks was “It’s not about luck...you have practiced them all week”. His Inverness counterpart, John Hughes, by contrast bemoaned penalties being “down to luck”, wedging yet another overused, empty expression into his already cliché-ridden vernacular.

This is where the final was won and lost in the end and the marked divergence between the managers’ attitude towards penalty shootouts is clear to see. Hughes, essentially, compared penalties to a lottery, and how can you practice for a lottery?

If it is a lottery, then why pick your best five penalty takers? Furthermore, best estimates put the amount of penalties scored somewhere around 80% - incidentally, the amount scored in yesterday’s shootout had a 75% success rate - if so, then why bother practicing other ways of putting the ball into the net, be it other dead-ball situations like free-kicks and corners or attacks through open play?

These situations end in goals with far less frequency than penalties kicks, making them even more of a lottery, so why bother practicing them either?

The fact is that scoring from the penalty spot is as much of a skill as finding the top corner on the turn or threading a through-ball through a tight space. Fine-tuning putting the ball into areas where the goalkeeper can’t reach, mastering run-ups that confuse and, from the goalkeeper’s point of view, researching where the taker is likely to strike the ball, are all techniques that can be practiced and developed.

Practicing and developing these skills will increase you chance of scoring penalties. Not some unexplained cosmic force.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

On the Precipice


Much has been made of Danny Lennon’s record since he led St Mirren to their first ever League Cup triumph in March earlier this year. The statistics surrounding the run since then have been done to death, so I won’t bore you with those. Instead, we will take a look into some of the reasons why so much is going wrong for the Paisley side.

For starters, the squad is weaker than it was six months ago. From that cup winning eleven Ismael Goncalves, Craig Samson and Paul Dummett all left the club during the summer. The team may have found itself in even worse shape had the services of Paul McGowan and Conor Newton not been retained.

David Cornell, who, from his early season form, is a downgrade on Samson in goal. And you don’t need me to tell you just how much weaker the defence is without Dummett. The Welsh Under 21 international excelled at left-back last season, and centre-back when required.

The likes of Dougie Imrie, Sam Parkin, Lewis Guy and Graham Carey, less prominent names, followed, leaving the squad thin just about all over the pitch, particularly in attacking areas. Jake Caprice and Stéphane Bahoken increase the options but it is far too early in their St Mirren careers to assess their potential impact.

Another new signing, Gary Harkins, seemed a good addition to the squad in theory. In practice Danny Lennon has failed to get the best out of the former Dundee playmaker. When stationed behind Steven Thompson in attack - who, it must be stated, has scored only once in his last sixteen league matches - their partnership lacks pace. Experimentation with Harkins in one or two other positions has also done little to inspire.

Perhaps it all could have been different for St Mirren had referee Kevin Clancy not unjustly awarded Inverness Caledonian Thistle a penalty when the ball struck David van Zanten’s arm on the opening day. Any hopes of salvaging a point were then doomed within seconds when some cataclysmic ball retention saw them concede directly from the restart.

Within another ten minutes it was three. They have failed to recover since.

A draw at home to Kilmarnock, their sole point thus far, was followed by another thumping in the Highlands. This time Ross County was the ruthless opponent with the lack of confidence and motivation evident in the St Mirren ranks a particular concern.

For the third goal in another 3-0 defeat, Richie Brittain was given the freedom to run around twenty-five yards without anyone tracking him before latching onto a Graham Carey corner. When he strikes to score there are five defenders stationary and within the six-yard box. Additionally, for the second goal, a Brittain penalty, only two St Mirren players are bothered about any potential rebound giving the County captain an easier time following up David Cornell’s save.

Lennon’s side took the lead in their next two fixtures but lost both 2-1. One of these came against Queen of the South in the League Cup. This result all but banished the sole remaining defence of the St Mirren manager: that his side were the holders of the competition.

The most worrying aspect of St Mirren’s situation is the downbeat post-match interviews given by Lennon. Week after week we hear to tired platitudes and clichés from a man who sounds like he lacks fresh ideas or the motivation to find any. Facing the media on Saturday slightly bucked this trend but still done little to convince. Lennon bemoaned a penalty decision – even though it was, eventually, called correctly – then went on to take the positives from the new system they had been working on.

That may not suffice for the St Mirren faithful, who are growing increasingly impatient with their team’s inability to trouble opposition goalkeepers. Just a single shot on target was achieved during Saturday’s defeat. A distinct lack of strikers, apparent since the end of last season when Lewis Guy, Sam Parkin and Ismael Goncalves left the club goes a long way in explaining why St Mirren have scored at least three goals fewer than every other team in the division.

And constantly switching formations and shoehorning players into different positions, hoping that it will just all click into place eventually, is not the way to get the best out of your squad of players.

The season is still young, St Mirren have played a game less than most, the new signings are still to be given their chance and Darren McGregor’s return from long-term injury should improve the side. Unfortunately for Lennon, the responsibility for halting St Mirren’s decline and acting upon these few positives will likely be handed on to one of the current BBC Sportsound regulars within the next few weeks.

The little under three years between Danny Lennon’s appointment as manager and the cup success consisted of a steady progression of the playing squad and an valiant, if not always effective, attempt to instil a purer form of the game. However, one league finish of 8th, two in the bottom three and another that is heading in the same direction does not bode well. Even for a club with only modest ambitions.

The cup win was a high that was above and beyond the remit of the St Mirren manager even if it masked another terrible league campaign. Since then Danny Lennon has poorly negotiated the transfer window and seems unable to instil a system, or a confidence in his players, to compensate for the squad’s reduced quality. The way things are going at St Mirren Park, he will not see another transfer window to rectify the situation. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Edinburgh Derby Preview

With the removal of the Glasgow derby from what turned out to be the final SPL season, a lot of the television marketing weight was put behind its Edinburgh equivalent to compensate. Instead of emerging as the most anticipated fixture, it bored its audience to the point where its future presence on television was dreaded. Far greater entertainment was provided from the enterprising football of Stuart McCall’s Motherwell, the unyielding St. Johnstone and the rise of the Highland clubs.

Hearts and Hibernian supporters

The final Edinburgh derby of the 2012/13 season produced three goals - fabulous strikes from Leigh Griffiths and especially from Ross Caldwell cancelled out Darren Barr’s earlier whatever-that-was – but the previous two had ended goalless and followed a middling encounter from early in the season. Overall the fixture contributed only five goals across four SPL meetings and not enough quality to justify the hype. I will be finding it difficult not to cringe during the live TV coverage when the inevitable cheesy promotional reel that precedes the punditry hopelessly attempts to build the match up this time around.

Hearts scored only 40 goals last season, with 10 of them coming in the final six matches. In football parlance, that would usually indicate some goal-scoring form worth mentioning, however, the Hearts squad has since regressed and is currently strikerless. Ryan Stevenson and Callum Paterson are the two tasked with filling the void, but Hearts supporters have seen enough of both in that position – even if, admittedly, less so of Paterson -  to not be too optimistic about these options.

That’s not to say that neither will find the net, just that it is doubtful whether either can be prolific enough to satisfy Hearts’ needs.  A friend of mine swore that one of them had possession in the St. Johnstone penalty area last weekend but it didn’t make the Sportscene highlights, so it’s unconfirmed on my part. Almost every outfield player in Hearts’ diminutive first-team squad is required to produce at least a goal or two if they are to overcome their fifteen point deficit and get anywhere close to the league’s other sides.

But since the fixture list was released, Gary Locke will have had an eye on Sunday’s match knowing it would be an ideal opportunity to fire-up his players, sneak a result and embark on the run that will ultimately give them a chance of survival. And the earlier the better because if the Tynecastle club fail to and if a season such as the preceding one unfolds – Dundee aside, but there are reasons for their poor showing – every other club will be too far away by the time they reach zero.

Things aren’t looking much better, form wise, down at Easter Road though they will also see Sunday as a potential catalyst for a decent run of form. Hibernian will be looking to put their early season mauling at the hands of Malmö and their uninspiring season opener at home to Motherwell behind them. A derby victory to rub salt into the wounds of a bleeding Hearts would certainly aid that.

Goals have been an issue for Pat Fenlon’s side as well - three games, no goals so far this season - but this weekend will be the first time he has both Rowan Vine and James Collins to choose from. Vine proved dangerous cutting in from the left side for St. Johnstone last season and Collins already displayed some potential during his debut. What’s more, the away side go into this match as favourites both in terms of recent form in this fixture and when assessing the respective starting staring elevens.

Pressure can often work against you though, even more so when fierce rivalry is involved. A converted Derek Riordan penalty earned a makeshift Hibs side, containing Steven Thicot and an expiring Ian Murray at central defence, a 1-0 victory against an in-form Hearts side at Tynecastle in 2009 and the current team will be hoping that a similar upset, albeit in their disfavour, doesn’t occur.

If the unthinkable happened and Hearts were to snatch an unlikely victory then time may be called on Pat Fenlon’s career at East Road. His win percentage is dangerously close the other Hibs managers that have been forced out the exit in recent years and this added to the poor showings at two Scottish Cup finals, not to mention a record defeat in Europe for a Scottish club, would be deemed inexcusable by many if it culminated in defeat at Tynecastle.

For many but not for all, however, as these days the Hibernian support is split into two opposing camps during their bleakest periods: those who blame the manager and those who blame the chairman for appointing the wrong man and/or not backing his choice sufficiently. Fenlon could perhaps point to not being afforded adequate time thus far but cannot complain about a lack of finances, as in a period of severe austerity for Scottish football Hibernian have spent somewhere in the region of £200,000 on Collins as well as a nominal fee on Bradford defender Michael Nelson.

Other proponents of sticking by the manager would point to the proverbial gelling of the squad being in its rudimentary stages and that changing manager directly following pre-season is counterproductive. The performances of the new recruits at their previous clubs suggest that given time they will strengthen the squad and assist the club in beginning to climb the league. Giving Fenlon until later in the year would allow his new signings to settle and begin hitting the form that attracted their attention in the first place.

The smart money for this match is that neither seizes the moment and that a dour, low-scoring draw that does nothing to help either side awaits. Failing that a narrow victory for either side is expected, with Hibernian the most likely. It is possible, however, that the negative angle of this piece was misguided from the start. It’s a new season with all new, yet chored, branding and with yet another new dynamic surrounding this Edinburgh derby. It may just surprise us all and throw up a spectacle that we had previously come to expect from this fixture when it lurked in the shadows of the Glasgow derby.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Tough Acts to Follow

*This article initially appeared on The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast's website. Check out their podcast (as well as lots of other great content) which starts tomorrow.

St. Johnstone Chairman Steve Brown’s first managerial appointment of his tenure was slightly against the grain to those of his predecessor and father. Whereas Geoff Brown, more often than not, gambled on inexperienced coaches, giving over half of his choices their first taste as the sole man charge of a professional football club, Chairman Brown Jr. decided to promote from within, replacing the departing Steve Lomas with his slightly more experienced assistant, Tommy Wright. Despite this also being the former Northern Ireland international’s first managerial role of a professional club (he managed at semi-professional level in his native land, as well gaining several years of experience as a goalkeeping coach in England and Ireland), Wright is older than all but one of Geoff Brown’s nine appointments and has at least ten years on each of the last three Saints managers - all at the time of their respective appointments, of course.



If the current chairman estimates that his father is going to be a tough act to follow, he should spare a thought for the new manager who is expected to do what the three most recent St. Johnstone managers have achieved, and that is build upon the good work of their respective forbearer. Owen Coyle was able to stabalise the club after a turbulent few years and may have achieved promotion in 2007 were it not for the lavish spending of Gretna, not to mention a last-minute goal from James Grady. After departing for Burnley, Coyle was replaced by Derek McInnes who secured promotion during his second season in charge, before going on to establish St. Johnstone as SPL regulars once more.

The curse of a successful management team struck once again when English clubs began to take an interest in McInnes. He eventually left for Bristol City and was replaced at McDiarmid by another first-timer, Steve Lomas. Coincidently, the day Geoff Brown announced Lomas as manager was the day he signalled his intention to step down as chairman of the club and pass his stewardship on to his son. Lomas led St. Johnstone to the top six in consecutive seasons, including their most recent third place finish in May, earning them a shot at the preliminary stages of the Europa League. Predictably, this feat led to yet another English side turning to St. Johnstone for their next manager, making Lomas the third head coach to leave McDiarmid for the English Championship in less than six years.

Shortly after his promotion, Tommy Wright’s task was made all the more difficult when Murray Davidson (though the central midfielder has since rejoined), Gregory Tade, Rowan Vine and Liam Craig, all key components of last season’s success, left the club under freedom of contract. The quartet was amongst the club’s six top scorers last season, with a combined total of 29 goals - including 27 of the side’s 45 league goals. Furthermore, what remained of the team was rewarded for last season’s achievements by having their holiday ended prematurely in order to prepare for an extremely difficult tie against a side with the European pedigree of Rosenborg.

Any supporter of the Scottish game could be forgiven for being a pessimist regarding Saints’ chances, but Wright and his side proved those doubters wrong by shocking the Norwegians into a 1-0 home defeat, before coming from behind to earn a 1-1 draw at McDiarmid Park. They did so by employing similar principles to that of Lomas and McInnes before him: a strong, organised defensive unit, first and foremost, with some decent ball players in the middle of the park, along with a few creative outlets in advanced areas.

It was one of those outlets, in the form of new recruit David Wotherspoon, who provided the assists that ensured St. Johnstone would be lining up against Belarusian side Dinamo Minsk next week. The attacking midfielder flattered to deceive at Easter Road for a number of years before finally moving on this summer. It was his corner in the first leg, and clever first-time ball in the second, that allowed Frazer Wright and Stevie May to score the goals that clinched progression to the next round. The hope now is that Wotherspoon can build upon his impressive start and become the player he has promised to be for so long.

The Hibernian graduate isn’t the only decent signing to arrive in Perth this summer. Brian Easton has proved a top performer in the two stints he’s had at SPL/Premiership/What-are-the English-calling-it-now-so-we-can-copy, whereas Gary McDonald brings a wealth of experience from stints both north and south of the border. Gwion Edwards, who impressed during a loan spell at McDiarmid last season, returns to and seems a promising acquisition. Added to these are Steve Banks and Rory Fallon, the former of which has been brought in to provide back up, while Fallon must improve on his Pittodrie performances if he is to avoid a similar fate.

It is, of course, too early in the day to declare any of these signings, or the recent managerial appointment, a success, despite the heroics of the last two Thursdays. Though if those two matches are anything to go by, it would appear that shrewd managerial appointments runs in the Brown family, and that Wright will be every it a success as those who have come before him. It is at least safe to say that, on a night where Pat Fenlon was forced to apologise for a Scottish club’s worst ever showing over two legs in Europe, Tommy Wright’s St. Johnstone were the talk of the nation’s football contingent with a result that will go down as one of Scotland’s finest: A 2-1 aggregate victory over a side with an annual budget eighteen times the size of theirs, and who were recently a regular in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Hearts 0 Rangers 2


Rangers put in another excellent defensive display away from home and continued their remarkable run of six wins from six on the road, scoring fourteen and failing to concede in the process.  It was a rather drab performance from Hearts, although they could have levelled at 1-0 had the ball fallen to a more composed striker of the ball than Adrian Mrowiec midway through the second half.


Ally McCoist changed the shape of his side for this visit to Tynecastle, ditching his usual 4-4-2 in favour of a 4-4-1-1, which matched Hearts man-for-man in the centre of the pitch - something Neil Lennon failed to execute in Celtic’s recent defeat at the same ground.

Another notable feature of the Rangers formation saw two left-backs start on the left – Sasa Papac was deployed at left-midfield – and Maurice Edu moved out to the right of midfield.  Hearts have gained a fair amount of success from their advancing full-backs this season and the use of two defensive-minded players as their direct opponents, as well as a three-man central midfield, displayed McCoist’s willingness to prioritise stopping his opponents from playing.

There was little to note about the Hearts formation.  For the third successive match, Paulo Sergio fielded the same starting eleven in a 4-3-3 formation.

Scrappy first half

Hearts dominated the early stages of a first half more noteworthy for its stop-start nature and cynical fouls than any football on display.  Steven Whittaker picked up an early booking and was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch after a late foul on David Templeton.

This came after he had helped his side take the lead, however.  The former Hibernian full-back collected the ball from Edu around the halfway line and drove towards the Hearts penalty area.  He evaded the challenge, or lack thereof, from no fewer than four Hearts players before feeding Steven Naismith, who struck the ball through the legs of the advancing Marian Kello.

Naismith started the match just off Kyle Lafferty in attack and was a handful for the Hearts defence all afternoon through his movement and intelligent off-the-ball runs.  Eggert Jonsson was the man tasked with man-marking the Scotland international but, for the goal, allowed him to slip free when attempting to stop the run of Whittaker.  Naismith darted into space and finished for his eighth of the season, taking him to the top of the scoring charts.

Hearts then finished the half the stronger side, as they had started the match, but failed to trouble Alan McGregor in the Rangers goal, with the exception of a long-range Rudi Skacel effort.  Rangers, as they have done for many of their away matches this season, sat on their lead and attempted to hit their opponents on the counter attack.

Second half

Rangers’ focus was to get as many men behind the ball as possible for the vast majority of the second half, allowing Hearts plenty of possession.  Hearts managed to carve out two great opportunities – one at 1-0, another at 2-0 – but for all their possession they, for the most part, struggled to break Rangers down.

The main reason for this, mentioned earlier, was the set up of the Rangers side.  Hearts had little joy down the flanks due to the presence of Edu and Papac as auxiliary wide-midfielders.  The Hearts full-backs rarely threatened in advanced areas and both had poor matches, especially Danny Grainger.

Further to this, Hearts were denied space in the centre of the pitch and were rarely able to work the ball through central areas.  Sergio waited until almost eighty minutes had elapsed before making a substitution, sending on Mehdi Taouil for Jonsson.  Taouil is the type of player that can take the ball into feet and find a pass or take the ball past opponents when space is at a premium and it is a change the Hearts manager maybe should have considered making much earlier in the match.

A final reason for the poor performance was the decision-making of some of the Hearts players.  They often elected to play a long ball, a long diagonal pass or a switch of play when there was often a much simpler, shorter passing option available.  On several occasions a Hearts player would make themselves available for a pass in the centre of the pitch yet were ignored.  The Hearts full-backs were particularly guilty of this and Skacel was one player who became visibly frustrated with his teammates.

This is not to take anything away from the Rangers performance.   Knowing the recent form of Hearts at Tynecastle, McCoist intelligently set up his side to stop their opponents and made the right changes at the right time.

After a spell where Hearts greatly dominated possession, McCoist responded by sending on Nikica Jelavic and Gregg Wylde for Lafferty and Papac.  Not only did this produce a goal within three minutes – Carlos Bocanegra picking out Jelavic with a ball over the top of the Hearts defence – it gave Rangers two extra players to target in the final third that could keep the ball in advanced areas something Lafferty had failed to do in his seventy-odd minutes on the pitch.

Conclusion

Without doubt, McCoist won the tactical battle from start to finish.  Stopping the Hearts full-backs from influencing the game and matching the home side man-for-man in the centre of midfield meant Hearts were largely ineffective and, with players like Naismith in attack always likely to finish one of his side’s chances, it culminated in a very efficient performance from the champions.

Hearts shouldn’t be too discouraged from their performance.  Even though they didn’t create much and were woeful in front of goal when they did, they were simply defeated by a better side with a better strategy.  The one worrying thing from a Hearts point of view was their manager’s lack of a plan B and hesitancy in making changes earlier.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Is Levein's 4-1-4-1 formation working?


During his latest pre-match press conference, when it was suggested he sacrifice his holding midfielder in order to field two strikers in the up-coming Euro 2012 qualifier versus Liechtenstein, Craig Levein responded by questioning the logic behind working on a certain system for a year and consequently “throwing it out the window then starting again”.  Instead, the former-Hearts and Dundee United stuck with his favoured 4-1-4-1 formation which encompasses a fluid midfield four just ahead of one sitting player.

Many have criticised the reign of Levein thus far, even going as far as to claim that his record so far is worse than that of George Burley or Berti Vogts, but as pointed out by Greg Perkins on the Thierry Ennui website, this is to skew the facts somewhat.

The narrow win in Vaduz on Saturday saw Scotland dominate possession for the vast majority of the match, create many chances, yet fail to convert all but one of them.  The performance was remarkably similar to their previous qualifier versus Lithuania at Hampden, a match they also emerged from with a 1-0 victory.

Despite these narrow victories, Scotland have displayed an ability to retain possession and fashion quick attacking play through slick passing and good off-the-ball movement.  Those who incessantly call for our national side to “go with two up top and be positive” would do well to listen to Jonathan Wilson on the latest version of the European Football Show, in which he points out that, paradoxically, the 4-4-2 tends to be more defensive than most lone-striker systems.  No matter what the notation, it is the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the formation that gives it its attacking or defensive characteristics.

Levein’s 4-1-4-1 sees two wide players, usually inverted, cutting into the centre of the pitch, whether to aid transitions from midfield to attack or else to support the lone-striker, who himself is expected to work the channels, hold up the ball and bring midfield runners into play.  The inverted nature of the wide players also allows the full-backs to move into the space created and provide an overlap.  Barry Bannan and Steven Naismith were the two deployed in wide berths on Saturday evening, albeit with slightly differing roles.  Naismith was the main support to Craig Mackail-Smith, with Bannan more intent on dropping deeper to link up with the likes of Charlie Adam and James Morrison.

The other main feature of the system, up until Saturday at least, saw Charlie Adam as the ‘1’ behind the ban of four midfielders, pulling the strings with his range of passing.  Levein tweaked his formation for the trip to Vaduz, moving Adam forward one and dropping captain Darren Fletcher into the holding role.  The role of Adam didn’t change however, he was still expected to be the side’s main playmaker, it was merely his positioning that differed.

After watching the two most recent victories, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that, looking forward, goals will be a problem for Scotland under Levein.  The fact is that Scotland have now won six of their previous nine internationals - an encouraging statistic at international level regardless of the opposition – averaging 1.67 goals per game in the process.

Two goals in each game versus Czech Republic and Denmark – both considerably stronger opposition than Lithuania and Liechtenstein – coupled with two goals in the defeat to Spain almost exactly a year ago surely merits some sort of praise.  In fact, Scotland are the only side to have scored twice in the same match versus the world and European champions in their previous fourteen competitive matches.

Moreover, of the nine matches, Scotland have dominated possession in all but three of them, including the defeat to Republic of Ireland (59%).  The average possession across the matches is a promising 52.11% – which looks even better at 54.9% when the defeat to Brazil is excluded – and they have managed an average of 14.9 attempts on goal, a third of which have been on target.

These statistics should breed some sort of optimism amongst the Scotland faithful, despite the recently inability to kill off significantly poorer opposition.

Another noticeable element of the matches analysed is the mentality of the side.  You feel that Scotland sides of the past would not have, say, come from two goals behind to level with the current world and European champions or have regained the lead so soon after surrendering it to the Czechs.

This is not to criticise the likes of Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, who each managed a few spectacular results during their respective tenures, but their approach was based on setting up not to concede through solid defensive play and converting one of their few chances at the other end.  The point is that each system has its relative faults and merits, and that the manager, whoever it may be, must implement a strategy that suits the players at his disposal.

This brings us neatly back to Levein.  Most would concede that defence, especially the centre-back pairing, is the weakest part of this current Scotland team, where once it was the strongest, and that Scotland perhaps has more and better quality attacking options, especially in midfield, than it has for a number of years.

The final point is debateable.  What is certain, however, is that Scotland now have more players that are comfortable and confident in possession.  The aforementioned Adam, Fletcher and Morrison form an impressive midfield trio with the likes of Naismith and the emerging talents of Bannan and James Forrest available in wide positions.  It is little wonder, then, that Scotland are now set up to be a side that attempts to retain possession as opposed to clearing their lines.

It wasn’t always this way under the current manager.  He and his side have come a long way since the infamous night in Prague when Levein chose to line up his side without a striker.  Since then, we have seen Levein’s confidence in his squad and his own abilities grow and we are now seeing some progress in terms of results.

I have been a defender of Levein from the start, even after the trial of 4-6-0.  Like I pointed out then, we should take encouragement from his willingness to rip up previous blueprints that have failed in the past and start all over again.  This is always likely to involve some failed experiments and poor performances in the process, which the manager should be given the time to learn from.

It seems that Levein has learned from his early mistakes and has now instilled a more attacking approach combined with a mentality and team spirit that is beginning to bear fruit.

Granted, an attacking approach from the start will likely not be adopted ahead of the match in Alicante tomorrow night, but Scotland can at least take a little confidence from the fact that they breached the Spanish rear-guard twice before and are on an moderately impressive run of results.

Whether or not Scotland match or better the result of the Czech Republic tomorrow night and qualify for the play-off, it is clear to see that Scotland have come on leaps and bounds under the current manager and he seems to have settled upon a formation and strategy that is taking the nation in the right direction.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Should retrospective punishment of simulation carry a two-match suspension?

Earlier this week, the SFA offered Garry O’Connor a retrospective two-match ban after he allegedly dived to win a penalty in the victory over St. Johnstone little over a week ago.  Hibernian responded by rejecting the offer, forcing a tribunal, which will convene today to decide whether or not to uphold the ban.

The Hibernian decision to appeal cannot be based upon the innocence Garry O’Connor, even their Assistant Manager Billy Brown admitted his guilt on Sunday night’s Sportscene, rather their appeal will relate to the severity of the punishment.

Even though the new rules, introduced by the Scottish Football Association along with the new Fast-Track system, state that "No player shall cause a match official to make an incorrect decision and or support an error of judgment on the part of a match official by an act of simulation”, the on-pitch punishment for the same crime only carries a yellow card.

This poses the question: Is it just to retrospectively suspend a player for a bookable offence?

Steven Naismith, the first player to receive a retrospective ban since the introduction of the new system, was found guilty of elbowing Dunfermline’s Austin McCann almost two weeks ago and received a punishment identical to the penalty he would have incurred had referee Ian Brines noticed the incident when it occurred.

The same cannot be said for O’Connor, however.  Had referee Steve Conroy noticed the simulation by the former-Birmingham striker a yellow card would have been shown, a free-kick awarded and O’Connor would find himself available for selection for the Motherwell match at Easter Road on Saturday week.

As it stands, the ruling today could see the ban upheld, and even increased if the SFA deem that Hibernian are wasting the governing body’s time through appealing.

Intuition dictates that a retrospective two-match ban is a harsh punishment for a yellow card offence: We would surely find it difficult to accept a player receiving such a ban for, say, jumping into the crowd or ripping his shirt off whilst celebrating a goal.

A common retort in opposition to this line of argument is that the severity of the ban should be greater since the referee was actually conned and that the outcome of the incident had decisive bearing on the result.  That is, not only did O’Connor commit the bookable offence of simulation, his conning of the referee caused the referee to make an erroneous decision and the incident was central to the outcome of the match - the spot-kick allowed Hibernian to take a 3-1 lead in a match they eventually won 3-2.

Nevertheless, I have doubts as to the strength of this defence of the SFA’s decision.  For instance, what if the simulation had taken place in on the halfway line and Conroy had failed to spot it?  Would we still be having this discussion?

The defender of the SFA’s decision may interject here and claim that this is precisely why we are having this discussion, because it did take place somewhere that had a significant effect on the outcome of the match.

This, again, fails to stand up to scrutiny.  If we accept that dives inside the box, missed by the officials at the time, are worthy of a retrospective two-match ban, then surely we should also accept the same for free-kicks at the edge of the area.  These have a lower success rate in terms of goals scored but, nonetheless, are potent weapons in the armoury of certain sides.  Regardless, the point is that such a decision may have as much of a bearing on the full-time result as the O’Connor incident versus St. Johnstone.  Moreover, the referee was conned was still conned in our hypothetical example.

This then extends to free-kicks awarded, say, thirty-five yards from goal or around the halfway line.  The award of free-kicks in such areas when the player is guilty of simulation may still lead to a goal which decides the outcome of a match.  Soon we are on a slippery slope to the conclusion that each and every piece of simulation, for which the officials failed to take action, should be targeted by the authorities as worthy of a retrospective two-match suspension.

We can take this example to extremes and show that even a Steven Pressley-esque dive in a players own penalty area may lead to a long up-field punt, be flicked-on and then stuck into the net, leading to a 1-0 victory.  I find it difficult to accept that should this type of scenario come to pass that the authorities would act in the same manner as they have regarding O’Connor.

Therefore, the SFA either has to punish each and every act of simulation it catches on camera, or else we are left with some arbitrary cut-off point which, at the moment, seems to be whether or not the act took place inside the box, with the extra qualification that it had a bearing on the eventual outcome of the match.

Failing this, until simulation is deemed a red card offence, offering a retrospective two-match suspension, a punishment akin to that of a red card offence, is untenable.  Instead, we should stick to punishing the offence for what it is, a yellow card offence.

Amending the laws of the game so that simulation is worthy of a red card would, of course, bring about its own issues.  But until the authorities deem it so, when simulation occurs, we are left to draw an arbitrary line between what areas of the field are appropriate for retrospective punishment and which are not.