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.