There are of course institutional failures. There has been issues at the highest level for a number of years, similar to just about every other footballing country in the world. It has not stopped Croatia, Republic of Ireland and the likes qualifying for major tournaments. As well as incessant discussion, there needs to be action from the bottom to the top and vice-versa.
Yet, on the footballing level, Gordon Strachan has failed. He needs to move on or be moved on. He failed to lead Scotland to a top-three place in qualification for the European Championships, and he has failed to lead Scotland forward in qualification for the 2018 World Cup. The national team sit second-bottom of the group on four points. The same number of points garnered by Faroe Islands, two less than Wales, three less than Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan. Six less than the Republic of Ireland.
Four of the next five fixtures are at Hampden Park. Still a chance? Not one, going on what has gone on before. The fortunate home draw with Lithuania was arguably worse than the successive 3-0 defeats in Slovakia and England.
Since the 1-0 defeat of Martin O’Neill’s side, competitive victories have come against Gibraltar and Malta. Strachan simply hasn’t got the best out of his players. The talent available to him is not of a great standard, and it is concentrated in certain areas, but has he made the team more than the sum of its parts? No.
His tenure has only heightened the issues the country has when it comes to the national game, but those should not be used as an excuse for his failure. Friends in the media and witty retorts can only get you so far. He can’t live on for the next round of games, let alone a third campaign. His attitude and certain comments suggests he doesn’t even need it. However, such are the noises coming out of the corridors of power, Strachan would have to take it in his own hands, and depart in a similar way to which he did at Middlesbrough.
It is understandable that he will have trust in his own abilities to still achieve with Scotland but this is the opportune moment, with four months until the next fixture, to move on. Move forward. Move for a man who has been there and done it. Move for a man unsullied by the past, or Scottish football. That man is Sweden’s Lars Lagerback.
The case has been made by Alan Pattullo for Michael O’Neill, and a persuasive one at that. But why would he want to leave Northern Ireland in what would be little more than a sideways step at this juncture? He has the country positioned behind Germany in qualification for the World Cup. They have disposed of Azerbaijan and San Marino comfortably at Windsor Park, while earning a commendable draw in the Czech Republic, the only blip a 2-0 defeat in Germany. He is primed for a enticing job in England.
Yes, he lives in Edinburgh. Yes, he spent a large part of his playing career in Scotland. Yes, he has a Scottish assistant manager in Austin McPhee. Yes, he would be quite the coup. But despite the suggestion that he would be open to the possibility, surely his the next progression in his career is back into club management.
Which brings us back to Lagerback. Currently an advisor to Sweden’s national team manager Janne Andersson, the 68-year-old has a substantial CV to quieten any dissenting voices. In nine years as manager and joint-manager he led the Swedes to five consecutive tournaments. He then took Nigeria to the 2010 World Cup, before the apogee of his career. Just to take Iceland to the brink of qualification for tournament, as he did for the 2014 World Cup when they were defeated in the play-offs, would be a noteworthy accomplishment. But to then take the island of 330,000 inhabitants to the European Championships ahead of Netherlands is a career-defining moment. Going one further he took them as far as the quarter-finals. A scarcely believable feat.
This is a coach who the Scottish FA should have broken their back to appoint in the summer. If that meant unceremoniously ridding themselves of Strachan then so be it. Now it is a no-brainer.
He has operated on the international stage as a manager for 16 years, take into account his work with Sweden’s younger age groups it becomes 26 years. He understands the mechanisms of the level. Setting up teams to be difficult to beat, organised and efficient; familiar with the structure and limited time available to work with players; knowing the mental aspect of playing for your country.
Lagerback, who labels himself a “realistic optimist”, told the Independent recently: “You have to do a very realistic analysis of what you have and look for the strength that the team you’re playing against has and then try to find your way of playing.
“For a long time many coaches have looked at Barcelona and Spain... but if you don’t have the best players you have to find another way.
“For me with a small country – and I suppose it’s a little similar in Scotland – you need to have a really well organised team and they have to work hard for each other and if you do that you always have a chance to win. I also think when you don’t have the best players individually too many managers today look to the 45 seconds when the player has the ball. Football is 89 minutes without the ball for every player.”
This is a man who grasps the importance of organisation at international level. First and foremost you make sure the team is a solid unit, with a sturdy foundation to then allow the team to build, while exploiting the use of set-pieces – a crucial method for goals on the international stage. All this was on display as Iceland shocked, surprised and enthralled neutrals during the summer.
Both through his coaching of on-field concepts and comprehension of the mental side of the game he is able to extract the maximum from his players so they become more than the sum of their parts. It is a simple question on the playing front, would he improve Scotland? The educated answer would be most certainly.
The performance director role has become the proverbial poisoned chalice. So poisoned we don’t currently have one and appear no closer to appointing one. Lagerback could be a two birds one stone appointment. Allow him to come in, tapping into his experience from Sweden and Iceland, two countries we have looked at enviously in the past years, and investigate and scrutinize what has gone on before. An all-encompassing role would see Lagerback become the strand which links the different aspects of Scottish football, from the board to the national team to grassroots.
Quite the responsibility for one man? Well, given time, allow Lagerback to recruit a younger manager or coach, one he sees potential in, to assist him in national team affairs to the point it could become a dual-management team. Akin to Iceland and the set-up with Heimir Hallgrimsson. Hallgrimsson assisted Lagerback before stepping up to the joint-role. Now he is leading Iceland on his own, three points off the top of their World Cup qualification group.
This would offer Scotland continuation and dare it be said, a plan.
Defeat on Friday all but ensured that it will be 22 years at least before Scotland make it back to an international tournament. Who better to solve it than a man who has taken three modest footballing nations to a seven tournaments in 16 years.