HOW Craig Levein could desperately do with sending out a Scotland side in an adventurously-perceived 4-4-2 formation and be rewarded with a swashbuckling performance and a 4-0 win against Macedonia tonight.
The embattled national team manager is in serious need of some sort of respite from the baying masses. Defeat tonight and he will be given the full Steve Kean treatment, with calls for his head intensifying to the point where his paymasters will find it hard to ignore.
To this observer, the criticism heading in the manager’s direction is way over the top, but nonetheless, the fact is a significant chunk of his public have long since lost faith in him. Levein said the other day that managing Scotland isn’t a popularity contest, and he is right. However, despite his bullish stance, some of the criticism has been so intense that it is in danger of eroding at team morale, while also ensuring an awkward atmosphere at Hampden tonight, if and when things get the tiniest bit fraught on the park. Some semblance of feel-good factor needs restored.
In attempting to do this, Levein finds himself between a rock and a hard place. The calls for 4-4-2, complete with Jordan Rhodes in the attack, are deafening. Yet, despite the popular belief that this is the way forward, there is little evidence from the past decade or so to suggest that it will actually pay dividends. Indeed, the last time Levein played two up front resulted in the worst display of his reign, at home to Liechtenstein.
Arguably the only Scotland managers who have shown any genuine attacking intent in recent memory were Berti Vogts and George Burley – two of our least-successful bosses. Burley actually played a three-pronged attack of Kenny Miller, Steven Fletcher and James McFadden the last time Macedonia came to Hampden three years ago and his side were duly booed off at half-time after being outplayed by the Balkan outfit. The Scots improved after the break and went on to record a 2-0 win but it was anything but convincing.
By contrast, Alex McLeish, a man perceived as relatively attacking in his time as Scotland manager, only actually played more than one man up front when facing the smaller nations. And this seemingly more ambitious formation certainly didn’t ensure straightforward wins. At home to Lithuania, a side of inferior quality to Macedonia, Scotland were reliant on two goals in the last 13 minutes to secure victory, while they needed an 89th-minute Craig Beattie winner to see off Georgia in the same campaign.
McLeish’s two flagship results were both achieved with only one striker. McFadden led the line alone on that famous 2007 night of backs-to-the-wall glory in Paris, while a month later, Kenny Miller spearheaded the team against Ukraine with McFadden and Lee McCulloch playing wide of a five-man midfield. The Serbs on Saturday were roughly of a similar standard to that Ukraine team, albeit Sinisa Mihajlovic’s team were better defensively.
Indeed, McLeish said he would have picked the same team as Levein on Saturday. The fundamental difference between these two games is that the Scots’ attack-minded players played to their potential against Ukraine five years ago, while, on Saturday, key men such as Steven Naismith, James Morrison, Charlie Adam and Kenny Miller were all some way off their best. Had they been sharper, Scotland would surely have won and the formation wouldn’t have been an issue. The main problem regarding the manager is that he didn’t recognise earlier that these players were toiling and inject fresh impetus from the subs’ bench around the hour mark, at a time when the game was meandering aimlessly towards stalemate.
In short, changing the system is unlikely to make a great deal of difference, aside from appeasing the fans. But Levein has to somehow find a way of ensuring the performance is more rousing than the bulk of his competitive games so far. He will be mindful, for instance, of the fact that the 1-0 win at home to Lithuania last year still saw him come under heavy criticism in some quarters for the uninspiring nature of the performance.
He doesn’t necessarily have to go for two up front, but if Levein can somehow fathom a semi-uplifting victory with a few fresh faces in the starting XI tonight and possibly even move the team joint top of the group, his predicament will look a hell of a lot safer than it does at present. On the other hand, failure to win could well see him run out of town.