PAUL Dixon must have wondered what he had let himself in for. Not only was he asked to make his international debut in the opening match of a World Cup qualifying campaign, he woke up yesterday morning to discover that he had been singled out as a weakness to be exploited by his Serbian opponents.
In a classic pre-match tale of tactical intrigue, a sheet of paper had been left on the Hampden turf the night before, detailing Serbian plans to target Scotland’s fifth-choice left-back by overloading him with marauding wingers. As masterplans go, it wasn’t the most sophisticated but it was a test of Dixon’s character.
As it happened, the Huddersfield Town player rose to the challenge, making light of what Craig Levein, the Scotland coach, had described as an “unprecedented” shortage of players in that position. In his days with Dundee United, they used to say that defending was not his strongest point, but he was effective enough to be named man of the match here.
Levein likes Dixon, with whom he worked at Tannadice, but this was a big game for any player in which to take his international bow. Phil Bardsley, Charlie Mulgrew, Steven Whittaker, Danny Fox and Lee Wallace were all declared unavailable for one reason or another, leaving Scotland to rely upon a full-back who hadn’t represented his country since he was in the under-21s.
Dixon, who swapped United for Huddersfield in the summer, is a fun player to watch, an eager, boyish left-back who likes nothing better than to dash up the wing and curve in a wicked cross, but he also did well in defence yesterday. His most eye-catching challenge was a sliding tackle that denied the advancing Zoran Tosic, when the slightest misjudgment would have resulted in a penalty.
Not only that, his much-maligned defensive colleagues were solid also. Alan Hutton is out of favour with Aston Villa, Andy Webster was making his first competitive international appearance in seven years, and Christophe Berra, transfer-listed at Wolverhampton Wanderers, was perhaps not the ideal choice to play inside Dixon, but none of the aforementioned let Scotland down.
Serbia’s tactics didn’t appear to work but the jury also is out on those of Levein. What the Scotland coach did get right was his decision to play Gary Caldwell in a midfield anchor role. The Wigan player’s job was to protect the back four – which he did well – and free up his more attack-minded team-mates to go and play. This has been Levein’s preferred strategy lately but, on this occasion, the midfielders did not fulfil their part of the bargain.
Having the security of Caldwell worked against Australia at Easter Road last month, when Charlie Adam took advantage, but this time the Stoke City player was finding it more difficult. The inswinging cross that seeks out a glancing header is handy as an alternative, but it seemed to be Scotland’s only option on the right, where the left-footed Snodgrass was deployed.
Snodgrass had been lively enough but he made way for James Forrest midway through the second half, as Scotland’s need for a goal grew more urgent. They had been getting closer, thanks in part to the otherwise pedestrian James Morrison, who twice set up Kenny Miller in the box, only for the striker to fluff his chance.
Levein, who is still castigated for his notorious 4-6-0 formation in Prague, has long argued that there is no need for two strikers when you have creative midfielders supporting the lone forward. Steven Naismith had the chance to prove him right when he chased down a Caldwell pass but his flick over the goalkeeper slipped wide.
That miss, together with one or two others, meant that the phone-ins were jammed last night with complaints about Levein’s negativity but, had just one of those opportunities been converted, he would have been entitled to argue that he got it right. Was it his fault that his players lacked composure at the moment of truth?
By the time Miller was misdirecting a header in the box, the Scotland fans were chanting for Jordan Rhodes. Just when you thought that Levein, as is his wont, would resist the popular option, on came the Huddersfield striker, with Jamie Mackie thrown in for good measure.
It was the high-risk strategy that the fans had been demanding. By Levein’s own admission, he might have tried it a few minutes earlier, but, even when he did, it nearly cost him all three points as Allan McGregor blocked a last-minute shot by Dusan Tadic. Then, with the game stretched, it almost paid off for the Scotland coach when Forrest was denied by the Serbian goalkeeper. Such are the fine lines between tactical genius and managerial ineptitude.