Scotland 0 – 0 Serbia: Low margins rein in high expectations

When you’re a team as contradictorily limited and ambitious as Scotland, the margins between defeat and victory are so slim. That’s why the two most “successful” managers of recent times have been so cautious, so dependent on defensive football, using set-plays to steal points from more technically adept teams.

The inevitable Achilles heel of such a strategy, is when you’re chasing something; when you are forced to pro-actively hunt for a goal. This normally comes after conceding, but there are fixtures that Scotland simply have to be ambitious and go after the win from the off.

Aside from the complete antithesis to this idea (the infamous Prague 4-6-0) Scotland’s record is littered with falling short when the situation calls for attack. Being too instinctively unambitious, too hung-up on our own defensive stereotype. George Burley started his tenure in this fashion losing to Macedonia in Skopje. Walter Smith had Belarus at Hampden, Berti Vogts had, well, numerous failings (Moldova, Slovenia, Lithuania, the Faroes), and Craig Brown’s failed final campaign in charge was blighted by Belgium.

The problem, generally, is that defensive football works, but against Serbia yesterday, that attacking situation reared its ugly head again. Steadying the ship in the opening period using the tried and tested 4-1-4-1, Craig Levein soon found that the opposition though having an impressive pedigree, were more keen for a 0-0 draw than himself.

Going back to the slim margins, Levein is no fool. He tweaked the central midfield three, making for a more attacking shape – Gary Caldwell was pushed up alongside Charlie Adam, with James Morrison asked to take on the linkup job between midfield and attack. 4-1-4-1 became 4-4-1-1.

It was a subtle adjustment, going largely unnoticed. But the problem wasn’t so much the shape (the tactical battle in a sense was won) as the personnel. Aside from impudent moments of stupidity from Steven Naismith and Alan Hutton that could’ve earned first-half red cards, at least 5 outfield players were playing poorly.

Charlie Adam – so depended on as a consistent deliverer of quality set-pieces, wasn’t providing. Naismith, Morrison and Robert Snodgrass couldn’t give support to the worst performer of all Kenny Miller. The question for the manager therefore was less tactical and more a test on making positive substitutions to influence that game at, crucially, the right time.

While it’s easy to indulge in a “I told you so” moment with regards to Miller’s eventual replacement – Jordan Rhodes – in fairness to Levein and with respect to “margins”, Miller had to start. He is a proven international performer and is exceptional defending from the front. But age, along with the move to Vancouver has caught up and yesterday’s wretched performance only underlined the requirement for a replacement.

Where Levein can fairly be criticised, is the timing of Rhodes’ introduction. The 81st minute was painfully tardy considering Miller’s glut of dire touches before an hour was even on the clock. The ambition to score was edged up with the addition of Jamie Mackie making for a late 4-4-2, but the lateness of the changes only served to separate the manager’s expectations from the impetuous tartan army’s.

On paper, a point against a side of Serbia’s relative standing is reasonable, if unambitious. But it feels to supporters like two points lost rather than one point gained. Scotland missed out on the play-offs for the previous major tournament – the 2012 European Championships – by 2 points, dropped to our usurpers Czech Republic.  World Cup qualification has proven even harder, trailing the Netherlands in the qualifiers for 2010 by 14 points; trailing Norway in the 2006 qualifiers by 5.

Those measly two points may be so much more valuable after all.

About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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14 Responses to Scotland 0 – 0 Serbia: Low margins rein in high expectations

  1. David says:

    Miller did not have to start. Only Levein’s stubbornness stands in the way of Rhodes and Fletcher. He’s a limited manager who is clearly out of his depth.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I just think Rhodes was too much of a gamble for the national team. He has zero goals at a top competitive level, that has to be remembered. Miller has an impressive C.V. in comparison.

      I agree that now with hindsight, it’s clear that Miller is well off the pace (perhaps Levein could’ve spotted this sooner) but before the match he had to go with Miller.

  2. gerry says:

    A good balanced article once again. However, I don’t agree that miller has to start when we have rhodes and should have fletcher available. Miller’s international career should have ended the minute he went to play in vancouver though you could argue it should never have started as he can’t control a football

    I’d like to have seen us play a 433 yesterday especially since we have so many good wide players available. It was also surprising that naismith started considering his lack of football in the last year and the other options available to levein such as maloney and forrest or the over looked commons

  3. paranoidandroid says:

    Good analysis as always. Serbia will be delighted with yesterday’s result. I wanted everybody to give Levein time as manager, and I still do, but he says a few weird things and makes some strange decisions. I think he’s trying to hard to show everybody he’s the boss. I wish he and Fletcher would both grow up and sort their egos out. We can’t afford to not play £15m players. And for that matter, we can’t afford not to play players that are on form, like Commons, either.

    As for Miller, I think he deserved his start yesterday. He’s been a good player for Scotland, running hard, and loving every minute of it. But I agree he should have come off much earlier, possibly even at half-time.

    Yesterday was a big disappointment. A formidable task just got a lot harder.

  4. Douglas Ferns says:

    Darren Mackie? Don’t you mean Jamie?
    Too many so-called class players contributed nothing, yet Levein did nothing positive until it was too late. Until we get a manager prepared to put out a team with a positive outlook, we will go nowhere and playing jet lagged and average players as were on the park yesterday clearly demonstrates Levein is not the man for the job! There is a good argument for putting Billy Stark in charge as he knows all the good young players coming through the system, who are unburdened by the negative tactics used by so many Scottish managers. He also is prepared to put out a team that will do their utmost for a win, rather than have to constantly adapt to what other teams do.

    It should be Scotland who force the pace and dictate how games should be played and, if players picked cannot live with it, others should be brought in to replace them. Yesterday, Adam, Naismith, Miller, Morrison and Hutton were dire. Hopefully, but I doubt it, Levein will show more balls and drop them for Tuesday, bringing in players who a job.

    What a dreamer, eh?

    • tictacticuk says:

      I don’t think it can be said that Scotland should be forcing/dictating the pace of the game. I mentioned clearly in the article that historically, reactive teams have brought (relative) success, and when we’re forced to chase goals we stumble.

      It’s this transition between reactive pessimists into proactive winners that Levein (and other managers) have struggled to deal with. I think we’re agreeing that too little was done too late.

      The Billy Stark thing is interesting as is bringing through youths, but the fact is that we need to play counter-attacking, sometimes dreary looking football to eke out enough points to progress.

  5. Connor Mac says:

    Agree with Douglas Ferns. The future lies with the U21 generation, with the odd mature head around them. Make Kris Commons, or Charlie Mulgrew captain and lets at least attempt to make a pass on the ground.

    IMO it’s a disgrace that yesterday Fletcher and Commons didn’t start. They are currently Scotland’s greatest goal scoring and creative threat respectively.

    Gordon Strachan as Scotland manager for me, with some younger, ambitious coaches on the training ground.

  6. O'Leveller says:

    Your headline: Reign? It’s rein….as in horses reins, y’know?

  7. Aldo says:

    The same old failings keep occurring and in short ; when it comes to the onus on Scotland to take the game to the opposition, we fail.4-2-3-1 against Macedonia; with Forrest and Mackie in the wide positions. Naismith or Maloney in behind the striker for some support and no need to pack 10 men behind the ball. Give the opposition something to worry about.

    • gerry says:

      Interestingly, macedonia could be the last game in the group where we have to be proactive and take the game to the opposition. Every other game afterwards we could probably expect the opposition to take the game to us and we could sit in and have success playing on the counter. We would be in Levein dreamland

  8. eap says:

    Bielsa could make an incredible team with Scotland

  9. N. Burns says:

    Scotland won’t qualify now. But its only one game in, you may say. yes, but at home to Serbia and Macedonia has to be 6 points. we beat Macedonia in 09 2-0 at home, and no reason why we can’t repeat that. Pandev is a couple of years older and who even cares who the rest of them are.

    we gave Serbia far too much respect. Mijhailovic’ll see this game as a good point and clean sheet away, and one that he could have nicked 2 more points from in the last second. 10/10 for them.

    but what about us? Miller was really bad, i dont want to single players out but he had to come off earlier. A chimpanzee could have told you that. Im not saying Rhodes is the best player ever, but surely he could not have played worse? And even so, there were other options. Move Naismith forward, take off Miller, put on Commons. Why not? Miller off, Mackie on. On 60 minutes. Why not? Mackie even gives you that defensive-forward thing (Though why you’d want that in this must-win game I don’t know.)

    We had to win this game. I cant stress that enough. If we even wanted a 25% chance of qualifying, because Belgium and Croatia are shoo-ins, then we had to win this game. And we had the chances to, but Miller just had to come off earlier.

    In general we (Levein sorry) were far too cautious and although as a whole played a fair/decent game, some performances were really bad – Miller, Adam, Morrison (normally dependable) and Naismith (normally dependable) let the team down.

    My scotland team:

    S. Fletcher* **

    *wont play because of that farce away to the Czechs in Oct 2010 when Scotland actually went out to lose the game

    **By the way, he would play for Scotland, would Levein pick up the phone and admit the 10-0 was a mistake (Once again a mistake of being over-cautious in a must-win, win-able game). But he won’t do that which shows that Levein doesn’t think the 10-0 was a mistake and possibly would do it again. Personally i think he should have been sacked the first time, it was a disgrace

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