By Paul Gardner
Having been thoroughly miffed by the 6-4-0 formation that Scottish coach Craig Levein used against the Czech Republic last week, I noted his remarks before yesterday’s game against Spain with considerable distaste.
I mean ... “It's a game that we need to try and express ourselves in and try to win, it's as simple as that.” Then ... “We'd like to get a goal, we would like to get two goals ... I feel there are areas that we can exploit.”
Up on my television screen came the Scottish formation, laid out as a 4-4-2. I don’t know there they got that from, but it was nonsense. Only Kenny Miller played up front, an isolated, lonely man. For the rest it was highly defensive, ostensibly four backs and five midfielders, a 4-5, but this was frequently a 5-4, even a 6-3.
The same defensive mentality that doomed Scotland to defeat in Prague was at work. Which meant I was right to be scornful of Levein’s pledge that “We're at home, it's really important we get the supporters right behind us.”
Why would the home supporters, the Scottish fans who know good soccer when they see it (they rarely do, these days), get behind a team that appeared to be waving a white flag before the game had even begun?
So we got the sort of game that we saw so frequently when Spain played in this summer’s World Cup. Overwhelming Spanish possession and passing, bloc defending, often desperate, by the Scots who, to use the current coaching buzzword, were being compact.
Sardine compact in fact, with at times nine defenders in their penalty area. There was no attempt, that I could see, to “exploit” anything.
Every so often -- by which I mean rarely -- Scotland would attack, and, you know, they didn’t look too bad. It was all a bit hurried, as counterattacks tend to be. Maybe if a little slower, if more methodical, the Scots could make a game of this.
Right on halftime the Spanish got their deserved goal -- from a David Villa penalty kick. So, surely, the Scots would have to decompact themselves in the second half and go looking for goals ... wouldn’t they?
They didn’t -- Spain took up where it left off, totally dominant, and Andres Iniesta got a second goal.
Only then, did Scotland react. I’m not about to guess whether this was the coach’s idea (seems unlikely, or it would have happened earlier) or whether the players had simply had enough of being compact ... but this now looked like a real soccer game.
Within 10 minutes the Scots had tied the game. A nice diving header from Steven Naismith for the first goal, then Spanish defender Gerard Pique, under pressure, put the ball into his own net.
The Scottish dream lasted only some 13 minutes ... until Fernando Llorente swept Joan Capdevila’s long cross into the net (it was a goal similar in buildup to Naismith’s).
But after nearly an hour of tactical pussy-footing around, the Scots had decided to play, and we got 30 minutes of exhilarating soccer.
The inevitable question: why did Scotland not play the whole game in attacking mode? Could they have won it, playing like that? Possibly they could, but we’re never going to know the answer to that. What we can be reasonably certain of is that Scotland was not going to win the game playing as timorously as it did in the first half. Those first-half tactics were designed to ensure a tie.
Think back to the World Cup. Of Spain’s seven opponents, only Switzerland won ... by playing ultra-defensively and squeaking through with a lone counterattack goal. That seemed to “inspire” subsequent opponents -- Honduras, Portugal, Paraguay and Germany -- to adopt the same tactics. All four of them lost. None of them scored a goal. Only Chile made a game of it by playing open, attacking soccer -- they scored a goal, but went down 2-1. (I’m not including the Netherlands and their disgraceful brawling play in this topic).
The crucial point about these vastly different approaches is that the coach is the key figure. If a team plays defensively, intent on getting a tie, if it is “well-organized” and “compact” those are sure signs of the coach at work.
But one cannot be anything like as certain of the coach’s role when it comes to attacking play. In fact, it seems to me almost certain that the coach has little to do with the sort of all-out, risk-taking attacking play that the Scots indulged in for the last 30 minutes of the game against Spain. Or, treasonous thought, that he is being ignored by the players.
The Scots listened to Levein in Prague, they played an abjectly negative game, and they lost. And they took a lot of criticism. Yesterday, in front of their own fans, it looked like the same thing all over again, until something brought the team to life in the second half ... something that said, to me and I believe to the players, that this is not the way to play soccer, this is not the way that Scottish soccer should be played, this is not the way that we want to play.
I suppose it figures. At 0-2, the coach must see his job in danger, while the players likely see their honor at stake.
Losing to the world champions is no disgrace. Being too scared to take them on, that is. The Scots did not win ... and they may well fail to qualify for yet another major tournament. But they left the field with honor -- they had done their best, they had played to win ... and, for 30 minutes, they had played well.