A friendly against Luxembourg shouldn’t be a dark cloud on the Scottish footballing horizon. It should be a welcome break from the incessant frenzy of domestic football and a chance to have a look at a few new players, not to mention a comfortable victory. This week it looks little more than a further opportunity for morale-sapping embarrassment. The miserable World Cup qualifying campaign and the tortuously drawn-out circumstances of Craig Levein’s departure have Scotland fans sick to the back teeth. Ideally, the next few weeks would be spent arguing about who the new coach should be, arguing more when the new man is appointed, and eventually anticipating the next round of qualifying games with the sense of intrigue and optimism that only a new boss can bring. The last thing we need now is a game – any game. However, it does provide a convenient opportunity to discuss where Scotland go from here. The new manager, be it Gordon Strachan, Joe Jordan, Alex McLeish or any of the other names being touted, has his work cut out. So what does he have to do to bring the sinking ship back afloat? Here are a few suggestions.
Bring back the passion
The most galling thing about recent Scotland results is that they have gone down with barely a whimper. Fans can handle seeing their team lose to a better side but to watch your nation throw away points without putting up a fight is frankly unacceptable. Everyone has to take their share of the blame here. Despite the players’ public defence of him, Levein clearly couldn’t motivate them to get stuck in. The players also have to look inward and think about whether they could have done more. The fans must play their part too. They’ve been divided over Levein, distracted and polarised by the bizarre goings-on in the Scottish club game, and jaded by years of under-achievement. The Hampden roar has lost its ferocity. The first thing a new coach must do is get everyone united behind the lion rampant and bring the fire back to the national stadium - on and off the park. Re-energising the players and injecting some positivity back into the fans will require a certain type of personality. Levein’s downbeat demeanour and list of excuses failed to achieve that so let’s hope the SFA choose their new man wisely.
Build the system around the players
It’s all well and good for a club manager to have a preferred formation and recruit the right men to make it work. At international level, the pool of players is finite so it’s vital that the system suits the strengths and weaknesses of the talent available. Craig Levein played an ultra-defensive system - understandable since Scotland are technically inferior to many of the sides they meet. However, the best of Scotland’s current crop are further up the field so why not base the tactics around that? I’m not talking about cavalier football here – I’m not certifiable - but Celtic played two up front with wide midfielders at home to Barcelona and still managed to contain the rampaging Catalan forces. They also created the chances they needed to win the game. Scotland are overloaded with attacking midfielders. James Forrest, James Morrison, Barry Bannan, Kris Commons, Shaun Maloney and Steven Naismith are all among the better players in the squad and most warm the bench because Levein wanted to snuff out the opposition. You can’t play them all, obviously, but the personnel seems to lend itself to playing with more creativity. Up front, Stephen Fletcher is on fire in the Premier League and Jordan Rhodes looks exciting. Put this together and surely it adds up to 4-4-2? Levein’s Scotland had nothing in the final third because the system didn’t allow for it. Other players haven’t been utilised sensibly. When the SPL’s Player of the Year Charlie Mulgrew was finally invited to the international fold he was played at left back. Mulgrew can certainly play there, but there’s adequate cover for that berth in the likes of Steven Whittaker, Phil Bardsley and Danny Fox. Mulgrew, for all his versatility, played the majority of his award-winning season at centre-half, an area of dire need for the national side. A no-brainer? You’d have thought so. The new coach has to assess the players he thinks can do the best job and organise them in a way that plays to their strengths.
Play the youngsters
To be fair to Craig Levein, he did blood a few youngsters, but he did it with his trademark caution and continued to over-rely on the old guard even though they had failed to deliver at key moments. With the remaining qualification games effectively dead rubbers from a Scottish point of view, the new manager has a chance to thoroughly assess the likes of Rhodes, Forrest, Matt Phillips and Johnny Russell at competitive level. It’s not really a gamble, even for the optimists who believe that qualification is still possible, because they simply can’t do any worse than the current crop. Old stagers like Kenny Miller, Barry Robson and Gary Caldwell, along with perpetual fringe-men such as Don Cowie and Kevin McNaughton, should be thanked for their efforts and moved on to make way for new talent. There’s still enough experience in the likes of Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher and James Morrison to steer the youngsters through their international induction.
Lose the fear
Let’s not beat around the bush; Scotland have played like a bunch of scared schoolboys during this campaign. Opportunity knocked with a group that looked tough but not impossible but the men wearing the dark blue failed to seize the sword. The cautious draw in the opening game was not surprising. The expectation of Serbia was greater than the reality, the Scots showed them too much respect, and a win never looked likely. Macedonia was unforgivable though. A team ranked 50 places below Scotland played with swagger and verve while Scotland’s nerves were palpable. The fear grew, and against Belgium and Wales, it was as if the ball was a ticking bomb. Which it essentially was – a timebomb that counted down to the destruction of the Levein era. His successor has the unenviable task of instilling confidence into a bunch players that look like they’d rather be anywhere other than the Hampden turf. But it’s not mission impossible: this is a decent group of players – the new boss just needs to remind them of that.