Over the past few weeks there has been much speculation regarding the future of Craig Levein as the SFA are set to meet the Scotland boss (after a few delayed meetings) to discuss whether or not he will remain in his current post. Scotland fans have voiced their belief that Levein should have been dismissed by now after a failed 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, but it seems Scottish football’s governing body has much more to consider before a decision is made.
The biggest issue fans have faced throughout Levein’s reign as Scotland coach has been the complete lack of understanding as to what his and the SFA’s plan is. Not only does the Tartan Army have no idea as to what style he is trying to play with this team, they have no idea what expectations there were or what the ambitions were heading into this World Cup qualifying campaign.
Scotland approached the qualifiers with optimism, cautious optimism, but optimism nonetheless. Although the nation recognised the potency of Belgium, Serbia, Croatia and an improving Wales side, it was thought the lack of a giant of world football in the group gave the boys in blue as good a chance as anyone else and the feeling that this might actually be Scotland’s time to qualify spread through the country.
But draws against a Serbia side, which was there for the taking, and a Macedonia team which took the lead in the first half and played infinitely more attractive football made the arduous task of qualifying incredibly difficult. Then a lead was surrendered to Wales before Belgium sauntered through the Scotland defence to place Levein’s men bottom of the group after four matches.
This current Scotland team looks as, if not more, capable of qualifying for a major tournament than any other since 1998 when you consider the calibre of player in the squad. What’s more is that it is a team which is more capable of playing attacking football than any they have had since 1998, too. Yet the focus of Levein’s style seems to be on defending, which, if that is the case, poses the question as to why his side cannot defend? (See Macedonia’s goal in matchday two)
Approaching the match against Belgium, the expectations were less than minimal, but it was perhaps the most revealing about the ex-Hearts player’s reign as Scotland manager. After the 2-0 defeat, Craig Gordon (on Scottish television), Allan McGregor and Levein himself in their post-match interviews, all insisted that Scotland cannot go out to attack such teams, that their defensive tactic was the right way to go. But if Scotland cannot attack these teams then what can they do? It’s clear that they can’t defend against them, so why not play to their strengths and attack?
The main reason fans are so critical of the former Dundee United boss is that there is no clarity as to what the aim of this campaign was.
It has been insisted by the Scotland manager that he has seen improvements over the weeks leading up to the trip to Belgium. However, it was never revealed where he saw these improvements. If he meant in the performances of the team, then he was the only one in the country who saw them, but if he meant outside of the squad and instead in the SFA’s structural changes and in looking to the future then that’s something completely different.
If the 48-year-old and the SFA wanted to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and the coach’s sole responsibility was to ensure this happened, then it has failed so dramatically that he should be removed. If the aim all along has been to build a young team for future tournaments beyond that in Brazil with no real desire to qualify this time around then much more consideration has to be given.
Levein has more power within the SFA than any previous Scotland coach to ensure he can work with Mark Wotte to make changes to the youth systems in Scotland and the association’s infrastructure, which suggests that the future has indeed been main focus of the SFA all along.
This scenario raises further questions, however.
As I said, the current team is one which looked capable of qualifying for this tournament, but if those in charge had no intention of doing so with the current coach then they have sacrificed the progress of a very talented team to plan for the future and, many believe, wasted their best opportunity to date to qualify for a tournament since the 1998 World Cup.
It would be different if there was evidence that, throughout these qualifiers, Levein was bringing youngsters in via the Under 21 side, but this hasn’t been happening as Scotland are far behind other nations pursuing a similar tactic. The Netherlands are a country looking to build for the future under new coach Louis van Gaal after a disastrous Euro 2012. The former Ajax and Barcelona manager has brought plenty of youngsters into the senior squad as he looks to build a team for the next World Cup and beyond. Comparing the progress of players of both countries when the Under 21 sides saw out a goalless draw at St. Mirren Park in February this year, it is not difficult to see how effective the Dutch idea has flourished, whilst Scotland has fallen behind.
Of that Netherlands U21 team who featured in that match in Paisley, Bruno Martins Indi, Adam Maher and Leroy Fer have all been called up to the first-team, whilst goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet and 19-year-old midfielder Marco van Ginkel have been included in the squads but are yet to make an appearance. Add to that that 21-year-old Feyenoord midfielder Jordy Clasie, Luciano Narsingh (22) and right back Ricardo van Rhijn (21) have all stepped up recently then the vision of the KNVB is clear. Meanwhile, from the Scotland Under 21 side which faced the Jong Oranje, Jordan Rhodes and James Forrest are the only players to receive caps, whilst Johnny Russell has been called up and Matt Phillips has come into the team via the England U20 side.
This lack of injection of youth into the senior Scotland squad is a cause for concern. If Scotland weren’t looking to qualify for the World Cup 2014, yet they haven’t been building a team for competitions beyond it by bringing youth into the team then why was Craig Levein in charge of the senior side?
A role within the SFA to make the desired changes for the future and work closely with Wotte without the pressures and distractions of first-team duties would have surely been a better option, whilst another coach looked to utilise the talents present in the current squad and qualify for Brazil.
Instead, Levein was thrust into coaching a team which he either had no intention of qualifying with, thus wasting a great opportunity to compete and qualify for a major tournament, or, he in fact did wish to qualify and has failed miserably at his job.
The lack of decisiveness by the SFA regarding the coach’s future has been abysmal, there is no reason as to why it should take so long to decide whether or not Levien will remain as Scotland boss, but just as ridiculous has been the secrecy regarding the SFA’s plan heading into this qualifying campaign.
As far as Scotland fans know, they were supposed to qualify for this tournament, which justifies the anger towards the national team and its coach, but if there is another plan in the works, they must be told.
The SFA need the support of the fans who recognise that changes to the national team, leagues and youth football must be made, but how can one back a plan it has no idea exists?