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.