Scottish improvement: players or manager?
27 March ~ Anyone who endured the excruciating horror show that was Scotland’s performance against Liechtenstein six months ago should be viewing today's match against Brazil with deep trepidation. Yet recent matches have caused a rising level of quiet confidence to the extent the SFA actually agreed to a match against the South Americans. How much of Scotland’s improvement over the intervening period, firstly with an inspiring performance against Spain and then two 3-0 victories against the Faroe Islands and Northern Ireland, is down to manager Craig Levein rather than the seemingly sudden appearance of a group of international-class players is a moot point.
It is fair to say that Levein’s cautious nature has caused him to make a fair few mistakes in his first year as an international manager, most famously in the 4-6-0 formation against a Czech Republic team who had just lost 1-0 at home to Lithuania. Against Liechtenstein, he picked the international experience of three Middlesbrough players over Charlie Adam, James Morrison, Christophe Berra and Graham Dorrans. In fact Adam, who has been available all season, has only played 45 minutes of the European Championship qualifiers as Levein felt he hadn’t hit his stride early season.
His wish to depend on experience has stretched to the recall of players discarded during the Craig Burley era – David Weir and Lee McCulloch, whose international retirement was not mourned by many. The argument for picking Weir is that there are no alternatives, but his lack of pace determines the shape of the rest of the team detrimentally. Meanwhile Berra, in his second season in the Premier League regularly playing against world-class strikers, is restricted to friendlies or last-minute appearances. While he hasn’t exactly set the heather on fire in a blue shirt, neither has he been able to gain the experience to develop at this level.
However Levein is developing a "club" atmosphere, with a group of players who genuinely want to turn out for a friendly in Aberdeen against the Faroes in November, something which wasn’t always the case; witness the drop in the number of call-offs before games. He has also been lucky enough to benefit from the sharp improvement in the quality of the players he can select. Alongside the mercurial rise of Adam, Stephen Naismith has finally overcome injury to justify the hype surrounding him as a teenager and Phil Bardsley has suddenly realised he is Scottish. These are all international class players, while Barry Bannan, Danny Wilson and Robert Snodgrass soon could be.
If Stephen Fletcher’s name could be added to that list the potential would be greater, however the Wolves striker has retired from international football – a grand gesture from someone who can’t hold down a first-team place for a relegation-threatened club. Fletcher's frustration at not being picked caused him to speak out about the 4-6-0 formation. Levein dropped him over this while at the same time courting players such as Barry Ferguson who had no intention of playing for Scotland again. Fletcher claims Levein hadn't spoken to him in months when perhaps a paternal hand on the shoulder would have encouraged him to stay in the squad.
While it is far too early to jump to any conclusions about Levein’s reign, with 15 Scots playing in the English Premier League, there is a fear that his conservatism might limit the potential of Scotland’s best group of players for a couple of decades. Gordon Cairns
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