A CYCLICAL element seems to have set in for managing Scotland that impacts on the playing style. When the studied caution of Craig Brown stopped producing results, it gave way to the greater openness, and even greater vulnerability, endured under Berti Vogts.
The need thereafter to restore some semblance of order resulted in Walter Smith’s safety-first system that was merely tweaked by Alex McLeish mid-tournament. In turn, George Burley declared it imperative a more expansive approach be adopted to expand on the points total from the previous campaign that had fallen short. When that backfired, Scotland retreated into their shell again under Craig Levein. The grim outcome to that methodology now leaves us at the point in the cycle that suggests, as he hinted at with the expansive team shape in last month’s friendly win over Estonia, Gordon Strachan will succeed or fail on the front foot.
Yet, as he prepares to lead the country in competition for the first time with the World Cup qualifier at home to Wales on Friday, Strachan maintains his progressiveness will not be a reaction to the recent past but informed by pragmatism.
“I think you evolve as a coach,” he says. “There are ways I want to play football but I know fine well now that you take whatever you are best at and you build a team round it. And that is what we will be doing. I watched Bayern Munich playing the other week, I watch the Germans and I think that is brilliant. If someone asks me how I want to play, I want to play that way. But we have not evolved that way yet to play that system. We have to find a system that suits the players we have. We have to see what we have, which is a natural enthusiasm to try to win the ball back, so let’s do it in a style that suits us. Then when we get the ball back let’s play the way that suits us.”
On occasion, past Scotland managers appear to have attempted to push square pegs into round holes. Strachan seems determined to avoid that pitfall. And he defends his predecessors over the charge. “Perhaps Berti thought [being expansive] was our strength, perhaps Walter thought that [being cautious] is what our strengths are. You have to try to work out what the strengths are – what you have determines your strength. There is no point in me working out a system which is kind of similar to one that I have coached before because I thought that kind of worked…”
It still remains difficult to see exactly what could work to transform Scotland into genuine contenders for major finals. In forward and midfield areas, Strachan has decent players at his disposal, but not a clutch that any top international sides would envy. In defence, meanwhile, the clubs of first-choice centre-backs Gary Caldwell and Christophe Berra – Wigan and Wolves – are threatened with ejection from the English first and second tier respectively, while right-back Alan Hutton is on loan to Real Mallorca because he cannot find a permanent home at Aston Villa and left-back Charlie Mulgrew is not entrusted with that role at Celtic. To illustrate what Scotland are up against, Strachan last week cited the fact that Chelsea, Manchester City and Lyon are the clubs that provide the players who make up the back four of Serbia, who Scotland face next Tuesday.
Moreover, for all that Levein was lambasted for his negative tactics, he gave it a go with the team he sent out in Wales in November, for his second last game in charge. That night the brilliance of Gareth Bale and a bloomer from the officials over a chalked-off Scotland goal proved to be the last manager’s undoing. Yet so too did defensive frailty borne of individual errors, the most notable when Charlie Adam switched off to allow Bale to streak through for Wales’ decisive second.
“I watched on telly,” Strachan said. “I thought they put a lot of good work in, got a lot of things right and if the footballing Gods are with you, you win the game. We’re all scratching our head wondering what that [goal] decision is all about. There are times when there’s absolutely nothing you can do as a football manager. You know you can make a team better if you get time, that’s for sure, but what you can’t deal with is something like that. We all know it as well. But at the end it doesn’t really help.
“[When it comes to the Bale winner] it isn’t just on that occasion [with such a player] you need to switch on, you have to do that at all times. Sometimes you get away with a lesson like that, the shot hits the crossbar, or goes miles wide. But, as with the Scotland goal disallowed, for all we talk about tactics and all these things, most of the time it is down to players. Or a decision we cannot fathom.”
Friday’s game against Wales is one that Strachan believes both sides will think is there to be won. That in turn will give it the sort of “intensity” the former Scotland midfielder remembers from the games he played against the Welsh. Now, after six weeks in the post of manager, Strachan is easing into a role that only in the next couple of weeks will fully crank in to gear.
“It is good, different from full-time management but it allows me to do different things in my life,” he says. “Although you might not be here a couple of days a week, it is full-time thinking, full-time stress. I am looking forward to getting on the coaching field again, and we are coming up with other ideas about how to coach the lads so that everybody gets the same time and attention. So that has been good. It is just making sure we can get on the coaching field as much as we can.”
There may not be enough days in any year for the coaching required.