Square balling the circle

And so, as sure as night follows day, all four of Scottish fooball’s European representatives will be out of Europe the summer transfer window has even shut. Rangers were knocked out of both the Champions League qualifier by  Malmo and the consolation Europa League play-off by Maribor. At the same stage of the Europa League, Hearts lost out to Tottenham Hotspur, 5-0 on aggregate, and Celtic lost 3-1 to Sion (although they may still be reinstated due to the Swiss side possibly fielding ineligible players). Back in the mists of time (ie, July) Dundee United were knocked out of the second qualifying round of the Europa League by Śląsk Wrocław. Fans of Scottish football are gnashing their teeth; it’s the death of the game in this small country, particularly when a second tier English side and a part-time Irish outfit made the group stages.

It’s only been three years since Rangers reached the final of the UEFA cup, as was, but the club have won just a single European match in 22 attempts since. Celtic haven’t ever won away from home in the Champions League. Motherwell are the only team outwith the Old Firm to have won a European tie in the last four seasons. So are the doom and gloom merchants right? Is Scottish football on a terminal decline?

The answer is more complex than simply yes or no. Scottish football’s decline isn’t just a recent development, and it didn’t start even 50 years ago; arguably we’ve been doomed to footballing baseness since we took up the codified game 138 years ago, due to our unwillingness to adapt to a changing world and game. For instance, I’ve recently started reading Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, and the tactics adopted by Rangers in the second leg of their Europa League play-off against Maribor were little different to the ‘aimless upfield punt(s)’ found distasteful by Jimmy Hogan in the 1910s. Jimmy Hogan was the English coach whose methods were eagerly embraced by Hungary (among other continental nations), and when England lost their first ever match to non-UK opponents in the 90 years since the FA’s formation, it was Hungary that inflicted the defeat. And it wasn’t just a defeat, it was a 6-3 humiliation on their own turf, perhaps symbolised by Ferenc Puskás putting England’s captain Billy Wright on his rear with a simple yet sophisticated drag back that would have appeared like magic to the shell-shocked English.

The Hungary defeat acted as a wake-up call to a complacent English game, and within 13 years they’d won the World Cup. In the intervening years, the stock of English football has fallen and risen once again, and at time of writing the English league is seen as one of the two strongest in the world, while perhaps still playing second fiddle technically to a continental rival, Spain this time. All this goes to show that football is essentially cyclic in nature (I believe I’ve referenced Boethius’ Wheel of Fortune’ in an earlier blog on this subject); sometimes you’ll be at the zenith, sometimes the nadir.

It’s my belief that these cycles of fortune are more pronounced for the smaller footballing nations, due to issues of resource. Uruguay (population ~4m) have experienced huge peaks and troughs since winning the first two World Cups they entered (1930 and 1950); similarly, Croatia (population also ~4m) have dropped down the UEFA nation rankings since their explosive emergence as an independent footballing nation (if you’ll pardon the unfortunate pun) in the mid 1990s. Scotland’s clubs have suffered poor European results before, and they’ll surely suffer them again, but that’s again more to the decline than the wheel of fortune.

Last year Uruguay finished fourth in the World Cup, and Croatia reached third place in 1998. Frustrated Scotland fans have pondered (angrily at times) how these small nations can manage such impressive international showings and Scotland can’t. But comparing the three nations like for like is unhelpful to an extent, due to the differences in culture and governance. Scotland can change its football administration all it likes, but it will never have a South American or Mediterranean climate and it may never be an independent country.

Scotland’s situation is further complicated by having a semi-autonomous government as well as a union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Unlike other similar regions in Europe (Catalonia for example), Scotland is still afforded the privilege of its own national team, league and membership  of the International Football Association Board, which meets twice annually to oversee the laws of the game. Thus, Scotland as a footballing entity has a reasonable degree of power and responsibility which it cannot hope to replicate as a political entity. I wonder if Scotland was an independent nation would it be better equipped to secure the type of television deals that have so benefitted other European leagues. In terms of cash anyway. An independent Scotland may better deal with the cultural cringe and lack of confidence that so often has us doubting our ability and being ultra-cautious on the football pitch when caution is not needed.

These are factors that Scottish football cannot change, at least not readily. There are things that it can do to improve its stock, without restructuring the league or switching to summer football (both of which are needed in my opinion). Firstly, we need to embrace passing football. The Queens Park and Scotland teams of the early 1870s were the instigators of football moving away from head-down dribbling that distinguished the early English game, but while the rest of the world has understood and embraced defence-through-possession-through-passing, Scotland (and England too) still seem distrustful of kicking the ball to another person wearing the same coloured kit. But passing’s only part of it; if the players don’t move into or find space once they’ve offloaded the ball. Scottish teams can play the ball sideways in midfield for a short period, but with no movement, and with the crowd baying for the ball to be punted, it invariably ends up being rolled back to the goalkeeper who does just that.

It has been suggested that Rangers utilised the long diagonal to the inside left channel on Thursday night because Maribor were playing such a narrow formation, with everyone behind the ball, and to an extent that’s fair enough. The problem arises when this style of play manifests itself in the national identity, with young players being schooled in the hit-and-hope, and when it comes to trying anything else, they aren’t equipped for it. It’s a vicious cycle. In order for Scottish football to address this issue, better youth coaching needs to be put in place, and more facilities made available for young vessels to be filled with proper technique and tactical awareness. But that needs investment from the clubs, the governing bodies and the Scottish/UK Government which isn’t forthcoming; that’s another vicious circle.

It seems to me that if Scottish football is on the verge of shuffling off this mortal coil, perhaps it would be kindest for us all to let it. Then we could create a new incarnation of the national sport, based on intelligent football and maximising our strengths and resources. Perhaps we’d then be better equipped to believe in our own abilities and adapt to the ever-changing trends of world football. In the immediate term? I don’t think there are any short-term solutions. We will talk about change and none will happen. Britain is not a country of revolution. The stock of our game will rise again and we’ll forget this disappointment. And so on and so forth.

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Scotland vs. Denmark

After watching news coverage of the instances of civil disobedience that have broken out across England (or Britain, depending on your semantic inclination) for much of the last four days, an international friendly between Scotland and Denmark proved to be a welcome relief from scenes of wanton violence. At least after Scott Brown retired injured.

Intended as a warm up for the forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifier against the Czech Republic, Scotland lined up as you expect they will against the Eastern Europeans, with a slight variation of the 4-5-1 formation that is fast becoming signature. Despite the absence of such names as the twin Fletchers (Darren injured, Steven apparently still in the huff), Alan Hutton, Craig Gordon and Steven Whittaker, Scotland were still able to name a strong starting XI. Allan McGregor started in goal, with a back four of Phil Bardsley, Gary Galdwell, Danny Wilson and Steven Crainey. Robert Snodgrass, Scott Brown, James Morrison and Steven Naismith made up the midfield, with Charlie Adam sitting between the two lines of four, a holding role I don’t think particularly fits him. Kenny Miller was the lone striker, a role he carries out tirelessly if often fruitlessly.

If the often-maligned, but broadly useful FIFA World Rankings are to be believed, Denmark are some 40 places higher up the international football pecking order than Scotland, but from kick off, such a gulf in class was not evident. Denmark were allowed, and accepted most of the early possession, with Scotland looking to hit on the counter. However, Craig Levein’s gameplan had to be modified after just 20 minutes when Scott Brown limped off the pitch after diving into a 50/50 challenge. He was replaced with Cardiff’s Don Cowie in a like-for-like change. Scotland took the lead shortly afterwards when Cowie earned a free kick on Scotland’s left just outside the penalty area, and Charlie Adam’s low, whipped delivery skipped up off the greasy surface, met Dane William Kvist’s foot and zipped into the net.

The lead didn’t last long however; Denmark were awarded a free kick in a similar position to where Scotland had capitalised, and Ajax’s Christian Eriksen’s looping, inswinging delivery appeared to catch McGregor in two minds, dropping over his despairing reach and landing in the back of the net. To their credit, Scotland didn’t let their heads drop, and shortly before half-time, Kenny Miller’s precision cross was headed into the Danish net by the stooping Robert Snodgrass for his first international goal.

There was less to speak of in the second half; a raft of substitutions by each side seemed to bleed impetus from the game. There were a few scrappy half chances, and each team’s goalkeeper was asked to make one decent stop. Perhaps the teeming rain and danger of injury so early in the season planted a seed of caution in the players’ minds. Still, Scotland held on to win the game 2-1, a result important in terms of morale and the World Rankings points balance.

Performance wise, it was perhaps not so impressive. Gary Caldwell won the official man of the match award for a performance where he hardly put a foot wrong, although his 19 year old centre back colleague Danny Wilson was more impressive, in my opinion.  The midfield started the game well, however hampered they were by the wretched inverted wingers system preferred by Levein, until they lost their shape a little in the second half. Kenny Miller again ran the channels and harried, and gained an excellent assist. Of the substitutes, Bannan, Forrest and Dorrans looked promising. Mackail-Smith had little service and Grant Hanley’s cameo was cursory at best.

There were however a few troubling negatives. Scott Brown continues to flatter to deceive in a Scotland shirt and would be advised to try and spend as much time kicking the ball as he does opposition players in a misguided attempt to prove himself some form of midfield enforcer. Indeed, his withdrawal through injury came as a result of him sliding into a tackle he had no reason to. The inverted wingers system doesn’t appear to suit the players being forced into it, as Naismith and Snodgrass continually checked inside onto their stronger foot, sucking all momentum out of Scotland’s attacks and causing possession to cycle back to the centre-backs on more than one occasion. In my mind, this is incompatible with the counterattacking tactics Scotland otherwise set out with. I’d like to have seen Naismith and Snodgrass switch flanks, at least for ten minutes, to give Scotland a little more balance and width.

It was a little disappointing to not see David Goodwillie at any point, especially given his close relationship with the Scotland management team, but I’m sure they have their reasons. I do have other concerns regarding Craig Levein’s long-term relationships with his players (Steven Fletcher returning to the fold would be wonderful), but for the time being, everything appears to be slowly travelling in the right direction.