CRAIG Levein has not been short of critics these past few days. The Scotland boss has been savaged in the wake of defeats to both Wales and Belgium.
Punters and newspapers demanded his swift dismissal, while pundits have claimed he does not have the gravitas to command respect in the dressing room, and accused him of being deluded when it comes to assessing his own abilities as a player and a manager.
The majority of the criticism has been described as “nonsensical” by a clearly irked Steven Pressley. The Falkirk manager says people need to get off the Scotland manager’s back and wake up to the realities of the task in hand.
The response to the first four games of the Rio 2014 qualifying campaign has been acerbic. But, with the SFA board deliberating whether to accede to fans’ demands to sack Levein or give him more time to see out a campaign in which they could yet finish higher than their initial group seeding, the tide has turned slightly. Players have been lining up to emphasise the depth of their trust in Levein as the man to take them forward. And several managers have insisted that sacking him would be no solution to all that ails the national game.
“We have tried that before,” said Pressley, who was also the Hearts captain while Levein managed there. “What would be the benefits in getting rid of him now? None at all. I was there [as a player] during Berti Vogts’ reign and then the Walter Smith reign. During the Berti reign, although there were some highs, there were some very difficult periods and Walter came in and all that Walter did was make us, as a team, difficult to beat and that helped us gain a little confidence and we ground out a few good results. But the reality is we still didn’t qualify and as a footballing nation we never really progressed. He was just there a short period of time but all he did was paper over cracks. We were not any more of a footballing force under Walter, we were just harder to beat. We had a far more defensive structure than we have now and the fact is you have to have far more than that to become a top team.”
One of the biggest criticisms levelled at Levein is that he has been too negative with his tactics. But Pressley is adamant that betrays a lack of tactical and football nous on the part of those slating Levein.
“Everybody is missing the point about why we are not doing well. I hear and read about people clamouring for two strikers, I hear supporters talking about negative football, but you could play six strikers and it wouldn’t make a difference. It’s not about the strikers and how many we play – the Spanish played with no strikers at the Euros and most European teams play with one striker – but the difference is the control of the game and the retention of the ball to allow you to promote players forward. As a country we never control a game enough and we don’t have enough ball retention. As a consequence, we don’t get bodies forward enough at times.
“That’s to do with passing and movement, not whether we have one, two, four or six strikers. Play too many up front, and if we can’t keep the ball, can’t get the supply of passes to them, then we are simply isolating more players and inviting the opposition back on to the defence time and time again.
“It’s a nonsense and it’s people who don’t understand football [who say it]. All the top teams are about ball retention and pressing the game high and the reason they can do that is that the whole teams shifts with the ball. If you just go back to front the defenders can never get in touch with your midfielders and they can never get in touch with the strikers and then you can’t apply immediate pressure on loss of the ball. The whole European game is related, in terms of the defensive aspects and quick pressure applied, [it’s] all connected to ball retention and until we address these issues the game will never move on a level.”
Having been part of the Scotland set up in the past, as a player and on the coaching side of things, Pressley knows the difficulties associated with raising Scotland to the next level. He has also worked with other names being linked with the Scotland post, should Levein be shown the door. But while refusing to compare the merits of different managers, he said anyone tasked with getting Scotland to a major finals would struggle.
“Change managers and the same situation could happen again. I believe the players are truly behind Craig and if we are looking at things properly, the removal of Craig is not the problem here because he is a first class manager, detailed, considered, caring, intelligent, demanding, all the things you want. The problem is not the manager. We have good players in this country but not top level players. That is not a slight on the players. Some of the players I have played alongside – and I have the greatest of respect for them – but I think even they would admit, we don’t have top-level players, we have committed and hard working players.”
Pressley says that good young players are coming through the ranks but at the full international level, key areas are still lacking the necessary quality. But, now that Steven Fletcher is back in the Scotland fold, Pressley says people will be hard pushed to find any gems who are fit and available but who have failed to be selected for squads. But still there is the feeling that Levein’s position is now untenable. Pressley says that is not the case provided the board and, more importantly, the players, remain behind the manager.
“It infuriates me, even at club level, when people start talking about statistics like a manager’s win percentage. It’s like comparing apples with oranges when it comes to that. It would only be relevant if you gave every manager the same budget, the same opportunities, etc but we don’t. Managers have to work within certain parameters and it is the same with national team management. In fact it is perhaps even more difficult because he doesn’t work with them on a day-to-day basis, he can’t buy a better player in, he is stuck with what he has. I’m not sure what a new manager could do to change that.”
Pressley says the only way that will change is through reconstructing the league game, more club managers and youth coaches buying into a European philosophy and better grassroots development.
“If we invested much more energy into those things instead of just talking about them and then forgetting about them and calling for the Scotland manager’s head every few years then we might stand a change of progressing.”
It has been suggested that, regardless of those constraints, the Scotland boss is still failing to get the best out of players he continues to insist are good enough but Pressley says a manager cannot be seen to undermine the quality of his players in public if he is ever to get the best response from them. And he dismisses claims from some pundits that Levein does not have the experience or CV to command the respect of the squad.
“He was an exceptional player but it doesn’t matter if you are a top player or an average player because Walter Smith, who people have had the utmost respect for, was not a top player. Alex Ferguson was not a top player. Jose Mourinho wasn’t a player! That’s what makes that kind of statement ludicrous.
“The way you gain respect of your players is by the treatment of them, your game knowledge and convincing them to buy into your philosophy, not your playing CV. That’s irrelevant when it comes to management.”
The players may have bought into that but when it comes to the wider public, the perception is that Levein may be falling short.