Thursday, February 10, 2011

Craig Levein: A Tactical Reappraisal

A new dawn for an attacking Scotland?

Craig Levein had already been musing a change in emphasis before last night's win in Dublin, dictated by the players at his disposal. This was taken to mean no repeat of the 4-6-0 formation he used against Czech Republic.

But, as guest blogger Craig Cairns argues below, we should be cutting Levein more slack for his willingness to experiment.

Food for thought for anyone wondering how Scotland might accommodate their growing band of midfielders.

With the Carling Nations Cup commencing on Wednesday evening, questions are still being asked of Craig Levein’s ability to become a successful Scotland manager, particularly after the 1-0 defeat in Prague. Nonetheless Levein should be praised for his innovative approach and be given the full backing of the Tartan Army in the coming weeks and months.

Levein’s use of a strikerless formation in the 1-0 defeat away to the Czech Republic in October was met with suspicion, disbelief and even hostility from some quarters. However, his implementation of this tactic may not seem as loopy as some would have you believe.

Levein made a promising start to his tenure, defeating the Czechs at Hampden in a friendly match little over a year ago. This was followed by disaster in Solna, losing 3-0 to Sweden, a night in which an inexperienced defence was severely exposed. Scotland kicked off their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign with four points from a possible six – drawing away to Lithuania before coming from behind to defeat Liechtenstein, courtesy of a last-gasp Stephen McManus header. Granted, these performances and results were not the most inspiring, nevertheless Scotland sat in a promising position after two matches played.

Then came the match Levein was pilloried for. The Tartan Army left for Prague confident that they could take something from the Czechs, who were a shadow of the side that took them to the Euro 2004 semi-final. Rumours began in the press that the in-form Kenny Miller was to be dropped in favour of the untried Jamie Mackie in a compact 4-2-2-2 formation. What transpired was that Levein had opted for a 4-6-0 formation with Jamie Mackie and Steven Naismith deployed as wingers, neither of them as strikers.

Before delving into the thinking of the Scotland manager, it is worth pointing out that a defensive national tournament such as the recent World Cup in South Africa is often followed by a shift towards defensive football in general. There were even signs of this trend prior to the World Cup, with Inter Milan’s Champions League success. Furthermore, with few opportunities to get a squad together, and with matches spaced so far apart, national managers tend to use what little time they have to implement a successful defensive formation rather than a more enterprising one. On top of this, Levein has the added problem of key members of the squad consistently pulling out of friendly matches, only for those same players to miraculously recover for their subsequent league matches.

Now what of the 4-6-0 formation? Jonathan Wilson has pointed out that a growing trend in football tactics is to play a strikerless formation.

Roma employed this to great effect during the 2006/07 season, as did Manchester United in the 2007/08 season and Barcelona in 2008/09. The latter two played a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 (or more accurately 4-5-1-0-cum-4-3-3-0) with the central attacking player, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi respectively, as a ‘false nine’. Interestingly, the two teams set up with the one man in their side most suited to a typical striker role, Carlos Tevez and Samuel Eto’o, as widemen cutting inside. David Villa, naturally a striker, plays this wide left role in the current Barcelona team.

The false nine tactic is effective because the central defenders of the opposition face a dilemma: Keep their position and allow the player to drop deep into space between the lines, which is dangerous, or else one of them follows the false nine, leaving space behind them which is more dangerous still. One alternative is to field an extra man just in front of the back four to pick up the attacker, but this has the knock on effect of leaving you short in the midfield, an area where you are already over-manned. Moreover, it leaves the two central defenders with no one to mark.

In the end Levein didn’t have the players to pull the formation off effectively, but at least had the courage to give it a go. West Brom’s James Morrison was the player to take up the role but unfortunately he lacks the attributes allowing Rooney or Messi to do so. He struggled to hold the ball up in deep positions and allow the likes of Naismith and Mackie to get beyond him. Even if Scotland had lined up 4-4-2 with two deep-lying banks of four or a 4-5-1 with all defensive-minded midfielders, it is just as likely that they would have lost. The goal came from a set-piece, not from open play, which implies that defensively the tactic worked. Levein’s aim was to pick the Czechs off on the counter, a tactic which failed on the night but could have been successful on another.

People are quick to complain that, for example, 4-5-1 is a defensive formation. Pundits and supporters alike, especially in Britain, often point out that a one-striker system is inherently negative, but Wilson tirelessly points out that “formations are neutral; it is their employment that gives them positive and negative characteristics." Therefore, just because a formation is strikerless, does not entail that it is defensive. Yes, on the night Levein’s tactics were defensive, but he could theoretically have deployed the same personnel in the same formation versus Northern Ireland on Wednesday night yet have his side attack for ninety minutes. Roma showed that a strikerless formation can remain attacking and no one would seriously suggest that the recent success of Manchester United and Barcelona were in any way negative.

Dropping Miller still appears to have been the incorrect decision. He would arguably have been more effective than either Mackie on the wing or Morrison in the false nine but Levein’s reluctance may have come from a fear that Miller would drift into his more natural position.

The subsequent matches against Spain and the Faroe Islands have shown that Levein does possess the ability to get a performance out of the Scotland team as was proved in the opening match of the Carling Nations Cup against Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

Overall, regarding the tactical side of the game Levein has shown himself to be an intelligent manager, which is evidenced in his post-match interviews and appearances as a pundit, and even though time will tell whether he will become a good Scotland manager we should applaud him for at least having the bravery to be innovative in his approach and conscious of the way tactics are evolving. All this, while facing unnecessary pressure from commentators and supporters in his homeland. At the very least Levein should be given time to implement what he believes to be the way forward for Scotland even if immediate success is not apparent.

Glimmers of light are beginning to flicker on the horizon of the Scotland national team. There is once again a number of Scottish players featuring regularly for English Premier League sides, a few of them at the top of their game such as Charlie Adam and Craig Gordon and a few more who look likely to emerge in the years to come including the Danny Wilson and Barry Bannan. Add to this that the Old Firm now have more Scots in their starting line-ups than they have for a number of years and it is easily argued that it is time to get behind Levein and his side and end the negativity that has been nothing but detrimental to their cause.


Thanks to Craig. And apologies to him as well - this should really have been posted before Scotland played Northern Ireland last night. I've made a couple of edits to reflect this.

Links in the article are from Zonal Marking and The Guardian