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Monday, 11 October 2010

Czech Mate For Levein

Partisan Alert: Fresh from banging his head against a wall for 48 hours, Rob has finally found the words to mouth off about Scotland's lack of ambition in Prague.

Another qualifier Scotland aimed to get something from; another chastening experience. When the final whistle blew in Prague on Friday night, the only man being sent homeward tae think again was Craig Levein.

Hopefully, his first act was to sack whoever provided him with the video of the Czechs against the Netherlands in 2004, given that he had obviously watched that team rather than its current incarnation. You can imagine him turning to Peter Houston: ‘That Nedved is some player isn’t he? And Poborsky’s quick. AND WHO IS THAT GIANT? Jan Koller? Jesus Christ. With him and Milan Baros they could score at ANY MOMENT’. There’s only one thing for it, he must have concluded. We MUST play without a striker. Otherwise we’re going to get thumped by a team who WEREN’T EVEN AT THE LAST WORLD CUP.

Fine Craig, play defensive. Scotland, too, are not the team they used to be. But no forward at all? SIX in midfield? I hope no-one told Arsene Wenger, because he would have had a fucking heart attack. The nadir has been reached. If the extent of our ambition is a 0-0 draw away with the Czech Republic, what is the point? What are we going to do against Spain, now that we’ve apparently given up playing football?

Playing without a centre-forward is the most alien of notions. Is any striker in better form domestically than Kenny Miller at the moment? I know he hasn't always done it for Scotland. And yes, the SPL isn't the greatest league in the world. But Miller has shown he knows where the goal is again this year. He scored a blinder at Hampden last time out. And the Czech Republic centre-backs aren’t the greatest in the world either. Miller works hard to hold the ball up, which isn’t to say that Jamie Mackie doesn’t, but you explain to me the reasoning behind handing him a debut in MIDFIELD and leaving Miller to win his 50th cap from the bench in a plan B so telegraphed it could have been received by telegraph from the Daily Telegraph?

Why afford the Czechs so much respect? A 1-0 win against them at Hampden in Levein's first match in charge may have been lucky to some extent, but more than that, it showed that they weren’t the team we all remember from five or ten years ago. There's keeping it tight away from home (rightly so), but then there is what happened on Friday. Scotland would have been less defensive if they had LITERALLY parked the bus and sat inside it for 90 minutes.

Levein is often quick to remind us that his job is to get Scotland to Euro 2012. If he does though, what then? Of course, no one in Scotland would have us with designs to win the tournament, but are we going to play the same style of football if we come up against, say, Montenegro in the group stages? I would like to think the way we played in a major tournament would reflect the kind of celebrations back home and in the stands if we actually made it to one. I dream of seeing Scotland at a tournament again, but it would be a nightmare if we played ultra-defensive and hoofed the ball either out of play or straight back to the opposition whenever it came our way.

It’s been said that this plan was designed specifically for the game in Prague, specifically to contain the Czechs. I cannot fathom why this was the case. Following their call-ups, Scottish strikers in brilliant form (Miller, Mackie, Dorrans) were asked to work on a formation in which two of them played in midfield and one wasn’t involved from the start. Strikers like Mackie and Miller aren’t really built for chasing the ball down – it’s not their game – it’s tiring and building the stamina to go with it can’t be taught in a coaching session in the week before an international. Placing the onus on them to defend religiously and then ‘get forward and try and hold the ball up’ beggars belief, as does inviting all the pressure onto a player who has played once for Wigan’s reserves all season. Peter Houston claims that ‘we set up to counter attack’. Counter-attacking needs pace and supporting runs. The six midfielders had no outlet and getting them to chase the ball all game only succeeded in exhausting those who hardly ever do it.

I’ve read all the arguments that it doesn’t matter how many strikers there are on the field if you’re going to ship a goal from a set piece, but to observe the noticeable ‘oh shit, well now what’ as soon as the brilliant ‘clean sheet at all costs’ plan went out the window was most worrying of all. Would I be complaining if we’d got a point from a 0-0 draw? Probably not, but I’d still find the whole setup a bit discomfiting. Scotland’s traditional problems in front of goal notwithstanding, I really am concerned that the whole ‘forgetting how to score’ thing will become less a cliché and more a reality.

Maybe I’m overestimating Scotland. Maybe the fact that getting to 70 minutes at 0-0 was actually a sterling defensive performance should suggest to me that in a more open game, we would have been slaughtered. But I can’t help but think a more open game wouldn’t have been so one-sided. More room for Hutton and Whittaker. More possession. Maybe some set pieces to attack. Of course, what-ifs are an easy business, but we are playing football far below what we are capable of, even for Scotland. Doing the business at Hampden is now absolutely vital and that includes getting a point off Spain on Tuesday.

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