Scotland 1 – 1 Macedonia: Scotland given a lesson in transition

Scotland’s 4-1-4-1 against Macedonia’s 4-2-3-1 counter-attacking system

Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign lies in tatters and Craig Levein teeters on the brink after a drab 1-1 draw with Macedonia. Nikolce Noveski struck an early lead for the visitors before Kenny Miller tapped in a barely deserved equaliser just before half-time. Levein gradually added more attacking impetus as the match wore on, but the winner couldn’t be found and in fact Macedonia had the better chances on the counter.

Pre-match, with the lineup named the anticipation was of an attack-minded 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, with Kenny Miller perhaps given close support from one of Jamie Mackie, James Forrest or Shaun Maloney. Instead, it was a revert to Levein-type, opting for the default cautious 4-1-4-1, with Mackie on the left-wing and Maloney unfamiliar in the centre of midfield. At least individually, there were more attacking natured players on the park in comparison to Saturday’s draw with Serbia, but this was the same “begin not to lose” 4-1-4-1.

Mackie and Forrest’s inclusion on each flank aimed to stretch Macedonia’s expected deeply entrenched back-line, but in practice Scotland weren’t able to make use of this width, playing too impulsively, trying to force the ball towards Miller rather than eke out space via thought-out midfield passing.

Scotland’s best chance came through the more composed approach, with Miller in a brief flash of best form absorbed enough defenders to lay-off Gary Caldwell, though his left-footed drive from twenty yards went well wide. It’s at moments like these – when pressing for goals – that Caldwell’s ‘spoiler’ role, as suited as he is, becomes counter-productive and Adam’s seat on the bench becomes more conspicuous.

With the tartan army already rankled Noveski’s opener caused outrage. Taking notes from Serbia’s ease in finding 2 vs 1 at corners, Ivan Trichkovski one-two’d a path away from Forrest and whipped in the assist. Noveski may have been half-a-yard ahead of the last defender but he appeared level with the ball.

Levein mentioned post-match that Scotland “had to win the match, hence number of attacking players”, so clearly the idea was for individuals to dictate the attacking balance of the match, rather than the formation.

Regardless, the front 3 couldn’t get on the ball in good areas. Forrest had nowhere to go, Mackie seemed unfamiliar and out of place on the left, and Miller continued his poor form, or more accurately inability to win or hold on to the ball.

The goal aside, Scotland were struggling to deal with two monstrous problems: Goran Pandev’s roaming with impunity and his side’s speed and urgency transitioning between defence and attack and vice versa. While Pandev was exempt from real defensive positional duties, he was the link, the physical hub that others scurried back and forth around.

In attack, he took forward with a magnificent sense of timing and awareness of his team’s counter-attacking movement, and in defence sauntered into areas that kept Scotland’s midfield on it’s toes. Capping a majestic performance he was incessant in attempting clever and ambitious slide-rule passes, with his front three continually trying to break the offside trap.

While Macedonia’s attacking players were energetic going forward, transitioning back into defensive positions they were even more energetic, making Scotland’s countering look slow and stodgy in comparison. This put a dent in Levein’s goal-scoring ambition, with the opposition quicker getting back than Scotland could move the ball forward.

The equaliser came through a rare moment of positional indiscipline from Macedonia, with James Morrison able to thread through to Mackie, beating the offside-trap, who supplied Miller with the easiest of tap-ins.

The gravity of the situation slowly dawned on Scotland, and while Forrest’s on-the-ball influence increased (linking up well with Alan Hutton on the right) too often it was only Miller in the box – who isn’t really one to get on the end of crosses.

Levein slowly ramped up the attacking flavour of the side, introducing Adam for Miller (with Mackie going up top, Maloney left) and then Rhodes for Morrison on 65 minutes (making for a 4-4-2). One criticism seemingly taken on board post-Serbia is that the gradual attacking increase (or in short: introduction of Rhodes) came far too late – here he was given 25 minutes to make the difference, and quickly after had 2  diving headers put narrowly wide.

Scotland bossed possession seemingly more intent on creating, but Macedonia landed with the bigger chances on the counter. Allan Mcgregor is responsible for keeping the score level, providing two brilliant saves one-on-one.

Levein’s failing here was being too exact in his planning. He wanted to start both games with a tight, defensive 4-1-4-1 and grow into the match, gradually adding firepower as appropriate. But both plans went badly wrong.

Against Serbia it made sense because they are a strong side, and he couldn’t really account for dreadful individual contributions – albeit could’ve been more proactive looking for the winner. Macedonia however were a different proposition, out “small-siding” us with superb, well-drilled counter-attacking and dogged defending.

In this respect Levein’s transition into a more attacking system came too late, but there were just as many damning selection errors. Maloney and Caldwell are both unsuited in midfield against such a dynamic side, Mackie generally plays on the right for his club, and Miller’s international career looked finished on Saturday, despite the goal. Adam – once so central to Levein’s masterplan, was discarded.

Forrest’s pace and Rhodes’ sharp movement in the box provided glimmers of hope and these youngsters hold a lot of promise for Scotland’s future. A future now surely without Levein and without the stodgy pessimistic football that’s unacceptably yielded two home draws against beatable sides.

About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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11 Responses to Scotland 1 – 1 Macedonia: Scotland given a lesson in transition

  1. I never saw the match, so I am glad to see your analysis.

    On the face of it, I think any club team will struggle for balance with having at least three players deployed in (relatively) unfamiliar roles. In international football, with much less time to coach and drill, the issue can be exacerbated.

    I do think that Caldwell can be the solution in defensive midfield, if he is instructed to be strict in his positioning in front of the two centre-backs. That would get the best out of him. What is the point in playing Caldwell in midfield if he’s not going to keep an eye on Pandev?

    • tictacticuk says:

      Cheers for the comment John & good point about Caldwell. All I would say is that I do like him in that spoiler role against the Italys of this world, but you’re right that Pandev ran rings around him. I’ll concede that he was fantastic to watch! Also a good point about unfamiliar players, in hindsight perhaps Adam wasn’t deemed fit enough, Dorrans too green, and therefore Caldwell/Maloney quite an experienced compromise.

  2. moctical says:

    I’m surprised you thought Hutton linked up well with Forrest – as I saw it Hutton largely negated Forrest’s danger by constantly running the ball into the area and squeezing the space on that wing. After the first quarter Forrest was playing as much as an inside forward as a winger because he was simply being given no space on that side by both the opposition and his own players. The times where he did have space there Scotland looked at there most dangerous.

    There was also a problem with Maloney, Morrison and Mackie often looking to move into the same space – this is where we really missed a couple of natural centre midfielders to hold the shape and give the attacking players a base to play off. Even by the time Adam came on we’d resorted to long balls so his influence was diminished in that sense.

    It’s maybe too early to judge the team given the number of midfield injuries at present, but Levein is running out of excuses – he’ll have to deliver at least improved performances and probably at win and a draw (unlikely as that is) in the next two matches or it’ll be time up.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I thought Hutton/Forrest had a good one-two system, with Forrest back to goal playing it back to Hutton and darting up the line. I also believe that Levein had instructed Hutton to hit the by-line and Forrest to go inside when possible (although I might be wrong there)

      Do agree with the 3 M’s trying to occupy that same central/slightly leftish position and generally nobody actually getting their way. Mackie wider than he would’ve liked, Maloney deeper than he would’ve liked, and Morrison had other areas to occupy.

      Final paragraph – maybe I’m being harsh but I think Levein’s time is up. Even thought that after Serbia 0-0.

  3. Craig McKee says:

    I think the thing that has made the Scotland fans so despondent is not the negative formation stuck to be Levein but the player selection and the postions those players are played in. Any Manager could give a reasoned argument for any formation, trying to negate the opposition attacking threat with X or trying to expose their frailties with Y but wrong players in wrong positions infuriate any fan who has watched any amount of football quicker than anything else.

    Alan Hutton, I clearly got this one all wrong. i couldn’t understand why Rednapp dropped him from Spurs and why the first thing Paul Lambert did was to transfer list him. I do now, terrible defensive positioning and refuses to pass unless to a player being tightly marked.

    Sean Maloney, a fantastic player and back to his best it would seem either left side, right side or in the hole one the my first picks but never at any point at any club has he played as a central midfielder. I know we were short of options here but terrible decision making by Leven, Selecting the eleven best individuals and squeezing them on in alien positions do not make a team.

    Above you talk about Pandev’s speed in the transition from defence to attack, you could almost use Gary Caldwell as the case for the prosecution. As the holding midfielder he received the ball every time a Macedonia attack was broken and every time would slow down, turn back and turn inside again then hit it long (while pointing the other way). a ball playing center back nothing more and hung out to dry last night.

    Kenny Miller, at the world cup finals Kenny will be 35. I could almost stop there, nothing need be added except this would seem to give an insight into Levein’s train of thought being either A. It would be perfectly acceptable to play a 35 year old up front on his own at a major championships or B. halfway through a qualifying campaign he will be happy to change the team and blood younger players. Halfway through? not at the beginning? Stubborn, incapable or scared of defeat. I don’t know which one it is but it’s one of them.
    One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s many strengths is he is absolutely ruthless in his team selection. Stam, Beckham, Ince, Van Nistelrooy. If you can’t do the job 100% anymore then you’re out.

    Being “a good servant for Scotland” should only get you respect not a starting place.

    All of the scotland players are above criticism over these two games in my opinion, I didn’t see any lack of effort or hunger but if craig Levein can look himself in the mirror and say Chris Commons, Ian Black or Lee Wallace would not have improved both those teams then we have an even bigger problem than first thought.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Brilliant post, thanks very much. I do think Hutton is a better player than many make out though, and thought he got into really good areas last night and got back OK as well. Not a world beater by any means but far down the list of guilty…

      Cheers again

  4. gerry says:

    One of the finer aspects of this blog is that you can find out exactly what happened in a game, or in scotland’s case what went wrong, after getting blootered watching the game down the boozer. All I could have told you about last nights match was the score. Now I’m ready to bore everyone to death with my tactical knowledge.

    For what it’s worth, I also thought Hutton was awful last night and his only use seems to be in falling down and winning fouls.

  5. Mick Nolan says:

    Nevermind this national team, or any of the rest of them. International form never reflects well on Celtic players. Scout CL opposition or a different tactic or even the youth teams. Celtic qualifying last week and playing this saturday has been a long long time.

  6. Connor Mac says:

    Excellent analysis as usual.

    Always trying to find something positive, to be fair Scotland does have a long way to go yet in the qualifying games. The bad news is that Croatia and Belgium are to be played twice. A bridge too far IMO.

    An international manager should be appointed on the back of his exploits in club football. With regard to this Mr. Levein’s CV looks rather short. Another 10 years in club stewardship, may have seen him suited for the Hampden hotseat. He is just too inexperienced and naive to succeed where he is now.

    The SFA are reaping what they sow once again. Why Gordon Strachan was not convinced to take the job will always be beyond me. A gallus wee ginger (that is meant as a compliment) in the Scotland job that took Celtic to the last 16 of UCL twice AND on a shoestring budget, would have been the ideal appointment. Oh wait, isn’t he still available?

  7. agropelican says:

    Where are you tictactic? twiddlin ma thumbs here waiting fir the st johnstone report! yae kin go back tae bed when yiv finished it. &-e

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