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.