For the first 100 years or so of football’s history, there were very few tactics, and most of these revolved around the 2-3-5 formation. In the 1950s, the success of the Marvellous Magyars from Hungary, followed by the 1960s success of Alf Ramsay’s wingless wonders at club and country level saw a revolution in tactical formations. Since then we have had 4-4-2, 4-2-4, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-1-2-1-2, 3-5-2, 5-3-2, Christmas Tree formations, sweeper systems, men in ‘the hole’ behind the forward(s) or ahead of the defence, but tonight in Prague saw the unveiling of what may be the world’s first strikeless formation, as Scotland manager Craig Levein unleashed his 5-5-0 strategy on the world. For those that did not watch, Scotland line up with Allan McGregor in goal, Alan Hutton, Stephen McManus, David Weir, Gary Caldwell and Steven Whittaker in defence, and James Morrison, Graham Dorrans, Darren Fletcher, Steven Naismith and Jamie Mackie in midfield. Although Fletcher is playing so deep, it might as well be 6-4-0.
This might have been an adequate tactic for one of the international minnows, against a nation with a great strikeforce, but the Czech Republic’s squad does not contain Milan Baros, who has two goals a game for the home side, nor Jan Koller, who has retired from the international scene. Instead, the forwards in their squad have just seven international goals in twenty caps between them, and on the night they start with Tomas Necid (6 in 17 games) and Lukas Magera, who is yet to score in his three caps, and has averaged less than six goals a season throughout his career. Meanwhile, the main goal threat in midfield is Tomas Rosicky, who has almost a goal every four games at this level, but he usually plays a much withdrawn role for the Czech republic these days, and his only international goals in the seventeen appearances he has made since the 2006 World Cup have been against Slovenia and San Marino.
As strategies go, it sets the stall out for what Scotland are trying to do. Try and stop the Czech Republic from scoring – and as if to emphasise how defensive Levein is today, the defence are playing about as deep as possible. But in doing so, it invites pressure on the defence, because as soon as you have the ball, you have two options – pass it out of defence, or try the aimless hoof. In both situations, you need some sort of attacking outlet, in order to hold the ball up, and bring others into play, and while both Mackie and Dorrans are attack minded players, Mackie is a winger/striker, who relies on others to hold the ball up for him, and Dorrans is the sort of attacking midfielder who needs a striker (or two) to pull a defence apart to create a gap for him to run into. Longer balls, and especially goal kicks are most likely to end up with the Czechs, and coming straight back.
As the game begins, Mackie, Morrison and Whittaker all try to release a “forward” only to find that there are no players there. It is frustrating the players, none of whom will have used this system before. It allows no chance for a genuine counter-attack, and more importantly, it is giving the defence little to no respite. As a result, the Czechs are creating a lot of chances, and despite the lack of strong forwards, the home side look capable of scoring. Roman Hubnik has a chance from a flick on that McGregor is equal to, and Necid’s goalbound shot is blocked by a combination of McGregor and McManus. Tomas Rosicky tries to con the referee from a minor push in the box, but he is unimpressed. It takes almost thirty minutes for Scotland to have their first attack. As they approach the penalty area, the ball goes wide, (because there are no yellow shirts anywhere else to aim for), and the attack breaks down, with no main striker in there. Mackie has been on great form for Queens Park Rangers this season, but every time a cross comes in, it is Mackie who is delivering the ball, and even with little threats from the Scottish “attack”, the home defence looks a little shaky. You can certainly see how they lost 1-0 at home to Lithuania last month, and why Levein has not tried to replicate their counter-attacking formation is anyone’s guess.
About the only upside in the way that Levein has set his team out tonight, is that he does have two forwards on the bench. While all the focus in the build-up surrounded Kenny Miller, it is Chris Iwelumo who would be ideal up front tonight. While his most memorable contribution in a Scotland shirt was that miss on his debut against Norway, Iwelumo is an effective target man, and would be ideal bringing others into play, and could be an effective focus of Mackie’s deliveries – he would also provide an effective marker at corners, where the Czechs have four effective aerial threats (Hubnik, Tomas Hubschmann, Nacid and Magera), compared to just three for Scotland (McManus, Weir and Caldwell).
A Scottish freekick in the 52nd minute ends up in the Czech net, but Naismith is offside as he flicks the ball on to Dorrans, who is even further offside. It’s their most likely avenue of a goal, but that it’s taken this long to create a chance has to be a worry, and ten minutes later McManus takes a wild swing from 30 yards out that goes high and wide, but this is as good as it gets from an attacking perspective. The Czechs have responded by pushing the two fullbacks forward, and we’re effectively watching 5-5-0 against 2-6-2, which I haven’t seen since I was at school. Allan McGregor makes fine saves from headers by Michal Kadlec and Jan Polak, and for all the defensiveness that the formation provides, it’s McGregor that is preventing the deadlock from being broken. On 69 minutes, there are appeals for a penalty as the ball rebounds off Alan Hutton’s arm for a corner kick, but any Cezech complaints are short lived, as McGregor’s resistance is broken, and Levein needs a Plan B. The corner comes in from Rosicky, substiture Roman Bednar flicks the ball on, and Hubnik runs into a gap and flicks the ball past Allan McGregor. 1-0
Levein tries moving the personnel, seeing Morrison and Nasmith move into a more forward role, but the Scots need a natural striker, and Levein is in no hurry to bring one on. In the six minutes between the goal and the substitution, Roman Bednar almost doubles the lead, only to fire wide. Finally, Kenny Miller and Chris Iwelumo come on for Mackie and Gary Caldwell, which takes away the one player that have looked most likely to create anything for a forward, had one existed in the previous 75 minutes, that is. It makes little difference to the game, as while Scotland now have an attacking outlet, they have no one to get him the ball effectively. Barry Robson comes on for Morrison, and it takes until the four minutes of injury time for Scotland to look threatening in the penalty area, but Iwelumo cannot get the ball under control, and the attack breaks down. The game ends with the twelfth corner kick of the game (all to the home side), and Scotland get what they deserve.
In laying out the formation the way they did, Levein handed the initiative to the home side, had no attacking outlet within the starting team, and a combination of Scottish tiredness and inviting the Czechs to attack was the undoing of the Scottish team tonight. At best, the tactics were naive, at worst they were a shameful admission that Levein felt he could not put a side out, good enough to match a very mediocre Czech side on their own terms. Lets not forget, that Scotland are a middle order team, and at the moment, so are the Czech Republic, but Levein set the team out as though they were San Marino facing Spain. The Czechs dominated any real possession in the match, without having any real quality other than Rosicky in midfield (around 65%-35% in the home sides favour), and without Allan McGregor, the scoreline could have been disastrous. How Scotland will cope against Spain on Tuesday night is going to be a major headache for Levein, but if he makes many more tactical errors like tonight, then Scotland need to change the man in charge sooner, rather than later.