This International break has, like so many others before it, proved a fly in my ointment. Scotland’s recent display against the Czech Republic, most notable for manager Craig Levein’s ‘innovative’ 4-6-0 formation, has thrust a sooner than expected hole through my recently established position on my infant Arsenal – Chelsea scale.
Undoubtedly, Scotland’s performance was unquantifiably harder on the eye than even Chelsea’s least inspiring demolition. Clearly the Scotland squad and starting eleven are selected rather than assembled and all the castles and whisky in the world (or oil and sand, Abu Dhabi aren’t much cop either) can’t change that. But this is not an idealistic defence of Scottish football along the ‘we’re a small country, we’ve got to accept our limitations’ party line. Far from it (the population of the Czech Republic is roughly twice that of Scotland and they played with exponentially more strikers – there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation).
The flaw in Levein’s plan was pretty obvious to anyone who managed to stomach watching the game. Scotland are ranked 47th in the world, the Czechs are 37th. Realistically, they both have one properly good player (Fletcher and Rosicky respectively). Good players look especially good if you give them space. Levein swamped, quite literally, his best player in a quagmire of a midfield that was so overloaded that it left a huge portion (more than half, often) of the pitch completely free for the Czechs’ best player to jog into, turn and attack – again and again and again. I assumed that Levein’s intention was to let that happen for a while, an hour or so perhaps, while he figured out what the Czechs were about. This is sympathetic; they had lost their last home game to Lithuania after all. In any case, after about an hour it was clear that they weren’t very good, and that their defence was an accident waiting to happen. If he’d changed to something resembling a system I’d seen before at that point then, even if the result had been the same, fair enough. The plan, as it was, seemed to consist of hoping that, even as Scottish players tired, the Czech Republic wouldn’t score. They did.
That it took the world’s 37th best team 70-minutes to break down this turgid wall Levein seems to regard as a degree of justification for his tactics. This is the problem. Levein’s conception of football – a series of games there to be won, lost, or drawn – does not allow for degrees of success outside of that matrix. Seen in those terms, games are won, lost or drawn; games are worth 3, 1 or 0 points (dissatisfyingly recidivist isn’t it?). Near wins, and narrow defeats, simply don’t exist and neither, then, do nearly successful tactical ploys. Levein’s ‘near draw’ got Scotland zero points.
Having gone to great rhetorical lengths to establish myself as an aesthete of the beautiful game, I feel let down by Levein. International football has always been something separate for me, a version of the game where my usual criteria (again, see my previous post) doesn’t apply. If I regard football as a sequence of ninety-minute episodes then Scotland games have become a sort of hiatus: a Hitchcock connoisseur’s Happy Gilmore (only, obviously, with fewer laughs).