As is well documented within this blog and as is common knowledge, Scotland have a recently woeful record of qualifying for Major Tournaments such as the World Cup or European Championships. Reasons behind this including bad managers, bad players, bad luck, lack of investment, lack of youth development and even the break up of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia have all, probably viably, been cited as contributing factors behind this downward trend that Scotland finds itself in on the international stage. But what about tactical innovation, could a revolution or alteration in the tactical set up of the team be what is required to progress?
As mentioned in previous blogs, Scotland teams of the last 20 years have more often than not favoured the 4-5-1 formation, nominally becoming a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 when Scotland have the ball. This set up have become a universal favourite across the world, offering the defensive stability of a back four, with further stability in the middle of the park and numbers, if not quality, in advanced midfield positions to support what is usually a lone striker from wide positions and centrally. These more attack minded players add a pinch of sparkle and flair to what is generally a robust and functional set up for Scotland, designed to limit damage and create a solid base to work from.
Throughout football and football tactics, those who find ways of improving, altering or expanding tactical rigidity have been heralded as visionaries or certainly held in a higher esteem as “great tacticians” or revered coaches. Thinking back over the last 20 years however, Scotland have not had any sort of visionary or alternative tactical approach to speak of – yes, it could be argued that the quality of player is not there to experiment, or indeed that experimenting with tactical innovation is time consuming and in the pressurised environment of football management, there is simply no flexibility for this – see Ian Cathro at Hearts for example, players, pundits and ultimately fans and management grew frustrated over the lack of immediate progress and wished to revert back to a more solid football base with a hard fought 0-1 defeat preferable to an experimental, tactically fluid 0-1 defeat.
Scotland Managers by in large have stuck with the tried and tested on the majority of occasions, be it Strachan, Burley, McLeish, Smith or even Wee Berti. Functional, solid football is the order of the day with even the more gifted or flair players tasked with providing a function first and foremost and thereafter being afforded a licence to offer a semblance of creativity. This is what the management and ultimately fans want to see, wingers tracking back and tackling, following their man, working, sweating and bleeding for the shirt before all else. I include myself in all of this, the amount of times I have been in the stand at Hampden screaming at the likes of Snodgrass, Forrest or Naismith to track back is beyond recollection – so it is clearly ingrained in our mindset as Scottish Football fans, the lack of outrageous ability must be compensated for by an increased work rate.
Tactics stand out and are generally considered successful when, ultimately they allow teams to out-smart and out-manoeuvre opponents. If you follow football tactics through the ages, every development whether it be the creation of a back four, the use of wingers or the employment of a “false nine” has been a move to out-wit opponents and become harder for the more functional, defensive side of the oppositions tactics to pick up or counter.
What is telling is that great football nations like Italy or Argentina – neither of whom is averse to a bit of defensive stability of course – have identified and provided platforms for certain players in unusual positions to shine. Effectively, playing “between the lines” is the most simple way to describe this kind of tactical innovation – if you imagine a standard 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 laid out on a board, well the gaps between the 4-4, the 5-1 or the 4-5 are where teams aim to exploit and take advantage – firstly by finding space and then also by moving opposition players out of position and disrupting any defensive solidity or functionality (for example forcing a central defender or a midfielder to advance or drop away from their respective formation line to address or pick up). Positions such as the “Regista”, the “Trequartista”, the “Enganche” and even the “Libero” have evolved from this sort of tactical innovation, providing platforms for the best players to work from. Of course, Scotland has never produced players who would define such positions such as Pirlo, Xavi, Zidane or Beckenbauer, indeed some of the above don’t really translate at all well into English (language) let along English or Scottish Football. The best effort at translating would be a “playmaker” for a Regista, Enganche or Trequartista or “sweeper” for a Libero – even then the translations don’t give justice to the intricacies or invention behind these positions.
The “Regista” position is best defined in modern times by Andrea Pirlo, clearly world class and beyond anything Scotland have produced of course, but a deep lying playmaker who circulates the ball, picks passes, shifts entire opposition teams around the pitch trying to counter, anticipate or deal with a sublime mixture of vision, speed of thought and execution. Essentially though, paying in a pocket of space behind the midfield line but in front of the defence to allow more space and time to pick passes, a better position from where to orchestrate and also to force the opposition to make a decision – address directly by tackling and break ranks, creating spaces elsewhere or sit back and hope that the runs and movement of players ahead can be matched and stopped. The basic premise, as above, is playing within the lines to disrupt any solidity as set out by the opposition. Trequartista and Enganche style players would ordinarily be more advanced playmakers, a “number 10” style player in behind the striker but ahead of the midfield – again causing issue with space and having to pick up. A Libero would be more of a sweeper, but again with time and space with which to use the ball and begin attacks – as opposed to a dedicated defender as Scottish or even British teams would interpret such a role as.
Again, Scotland have perhaps not had any players who could fulfil such roles or at least, it has always been preferred to play in a defined formation rather than having a player in a free-er role to try to create something, or conversely leave a gap elsewhere. However what is clearly telling is the fact that the above are all variations led and promoted in different cultures, the translations not quite matching up owing to the evolution of the game elsewhere. I am struggling to think of a tactical innovation that has been led by Scotland, or a Scottish manager since the much heralded Scottish Passing Game of the 1800’s. The Italian and Argentine examples above do demonstrate that these advances do not come at the cost of defensive stability also, but do require a more fluid tactical approach.
Perhaps Scottish football as a whole is set in its ways, with players only able to perform in certain positions – for example a sitting midfielder only doing that job, good at short passes and tackling, but not for example proficient in dropping into a Regista role to circulate the ball and orchestrate the entire team from this position. Attacking midfielders again are maybe seen as a luxury or pushed wider to maintain a solid, workmanlike core with flair and creativity in wider, less congested areas of the pitch. Tactical awareness and ability for other players to adapt around these specialised positions is also perhaps lacking – an partner central midfielder not able to adapt their game to accommodate a playmaker, instead requiring an all hands to the pump, each player carrying defensive weight type of approach. A recent example of Oliver Burke (Scottish international but came through the Nottisham Forest youth set up) moving to Germany where he was described as having an empty hard drive in terms of tactical knowledge perhaps emphasises my point – the lack of education in this, instead teaching how to play a solid 4-5-1 well, rather than allowing for innovation is potentially holding Scotland back and proving a hindrance on the international stage.
The issue may run deeper than the Scotland first team, but it should not be an idea discounted simply because success may not be immediate – no qualification for 20 years, something has to change. So allowing for innovation and leading from the front, adopting the principles of a system to incorporate a Regista or an Enganche or some alternative style of tactical innovation is perhaps a way forward. There are other “smaller” nations who incorporate such players – Sigurdsson for Iceland, Eriksen for Denmark for example. Both teams manage to include creativity without diminishing solidity. It could be argued that these tactical innovations have been driven by the availability of top quality players who have forced the issue, Pirlo’s ability forced Italy to adopt a formation to get the best out of him, Eriksen in a similar fashion for Denmark. But it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for Scotland to try and incorporate this type of approach back to front, try to play for example Scott Brown as a Regista as opposed to midfield warrior, or John McGinn as an Enganche as opposed to an all action central player. Innovate and experiment, future generations can learn from these examples and educate themselves and teammates in how to incorporate innovative tactical approaches.
Perhaps this idea is a bit adventurous, but progress is very seldom made by standing still – it is possibly what is needed.