GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 08: Kenny Miller of Scotland tackles Milos Ninovic of Serbia during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier at Hampden Park between Scotland and Serbia on September 8, 2012 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Progenitor of the 4-6-0, Scotland manager Craig Levein’s negative approach to football is a matter of record. After Saturday’s draw with Serbia, Scotland’s World Cup campaign needs him to step things up. Follow @SBNationSoccer
What with the film's rigorous adherence to history, it's easy to miss the cultural nuances explicated by Mel Gibson's masterful Braveheart. Amongst these, is one little insight into the Scottish character you may have missed. "Hit, run, hide, the old Highland way", says Campbell (played by bonafide Scotsman - really! - James Cosmo) at a pre-battle tactical meating. Hit. Run. Hide. Simple, really, as well as traditional, the triptych is also a pretty adequate descriptor of Scotland's footballing philosophy too*. Or at least it was. Under Craig Levein, there's been lots of running, too much hiding and almost no hitting. Saturday's 0-0 draw at home to Serbia in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup's qualifiers, was a familiar case in a contemptuous point.
*The football had glory too: of the sweet, memorable but not quite complete kind as this clip from an (actually good, yes I was being flippant about Braveheart; it's balls) Scotland-inspired film captures.
Occasionally smart - "There were 30 points to play for, we got one on Saturday and there are still 27 to play for" - often obstinate - "We have had worse starts to campaigns in the past" (how did they turn out?) - Levein will doubtless argue that his formation and selections are largely forced upon him; that Scotland are, fundamentally areactive team. There is some truth in this. In the decade and a half of non-qualification since France '98, Scotland's best results have been smash and grab - or hit and run - victories over superior opposition: England, Holland and France beaten by set-piece routines, France were beaten again in Paris by a wonder goal. Levein's Scotland, however, are not a reactive team. With the exception of half an hour or so when they worried Spain and looked like forcing a draw at Hampden, Levein's sides have been largely inactive.
The best example of this, of course, is the infamous 4-6-0 formation in which Scotland faced the Czech Republic in Prague. As I moaned at the time, this went beyond reactive football because the formation was such that it made reaction to going behind impossible. You can only react if you have the ball, which they didn't because with no one to occupy the defence, Scotland's six-man midfield still ended up being outnumbered. You can only react if you still have a bit of energy, which they didn't because they never had the ball.
Saturday's 0-0, of course, was not as bad as that. And 4-1-4-1, switching to something more like 4-4-1-1, is a far more reasonable formation - you've heard of it, after all. The problem, as is often the case with any tactical system, was with the men behind the numbers, specifically the 1s: Gary Caldwell and Kenny Miller, the defensive midfielder and the forward. If you are playing reactive football, these are the two most important positions. Without the ball, you need both to put in a shift, of course, and both Caldwell and Miller can be relied upon to do this. With the ball, though, these players have to be the platform for your reaction. The deepest midfielder has to be able to link the play. This means more than simply giving the ball to someone else. When Scotland troubled Spain it was by virtue of the space that Charlie Adam found behind his midfield, from which he was able to launch fast reactive attacks, linking defence to forwards and wingers as well as the midfield. Caldwell, a centre back, could only do the latter (although it is notable that Scotland's best chance was from his through ball to Gary Naismith
if he could do that regularly, we'd be onto something). For that to work, though, you need the other 1 to hold up the ball. Miller cannot do this.
This brings us, naturally, to the Fletcher issue; but Darren is the bigger miss than Steven. Combative and mobile, Darren Fletcher gives Adam the protection that he needs in order launch attacks from deep. Steven Fletcher, while undoubtedly possessing a better touch than Miller is also a far better finisher, but the lack of interest that Levein has shown in luring him back into the fold suggests that he is not convinced by the defensive side of the Sunderland striker's game (and consecutive relegations are not a ringing endorsement of this).
Levein, as a progenitor of inactive football, will always privilege the defensive side of a players game - which is why Darren Fletcher is replaced in the midfield by Gary Caldwell rather than Graham Dorrans, say. Against strong teams, this is fine: Caldwell, playing defensive midfield, actually scored the goal that beat Frnace at Hampden in 2006, for example. But against weaker teams, it is probably unnecessary and definitely unpopular. In any case, this is a ropey distinction where Levein is concerned. His pessimism also manifests itself as a chronic tendency to overrate opposition sides; which is why the 4-6-0 was innovated for the Czech Republic, excellent in Euro '96, and Caldwell returned to the midfield against Serbia, who were tipped as dark horses for the last World Cup (bottom of Group D).
There is no chance of him doing this tonight (surely). But the question is whether he can alter the system, and the ethos, appropriately to reflect the necessity of a win. Even Walter Smith used to play two upfront at home to lesser sides: that is reactive football, a style to which Levein is yet to prove himself open. Tonight would be a good time to change that.