All-powerful Spain dismantled Scotland on Tuesday night, breaking the withering hearts of a hopeful Tartan Army. The hosts didn’t even require the illustrious talents of Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta or Xabi Alonso. Iker Casillas shunned the chance to play, reportedly loath to let the unsophisticated Scotch sully his 100th international cap.
Alicante wasn’t just foreign land to Craig Levein’s troops – Spain played football straight from another planet. As if the minds of David Silva, Villa and co were connected to a transcendent being, waiting impetuously for that signal to dispatch the uncouth, ancient beast writhing on the floor, grasping for mercy.
From the kick off, Spain kept the ball, kept the ball, kept th—
The next night I hit the gym. Not to let off steam – Scotland’s inability to qualify was emotionally absorbed after the earlier 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic. In fact, the thought of competing in a major tournament is nothing more than a pipe dream; France ’98 a forgotten memory. It’s been a turgid decade consisting of seven failed campaigns; disheartening spells under Craig Brown, Berti Vogts and latterly George Burley contrasting the cruel “glorious failures” of Walter Smith and Alex McLeish.
Between the changing rooms and treadmill, I stopped at an internal window. Below, on the artificial pitch, I was drawn to (what turned out to be) the second half of an under-13, 11-a-side match.
I watched as possession was turned over time and time again. Not through lack of technique – some of the players had exquisite first touch and awareness under pressure – but through mentality. Like rugby in reverse, a palpable sense of outrage if someone imprudently ran out of options and passed the ball backwards – the recipient blasting the ball into space and pleading Why? Why put me under that kind of pressure!? The goal is *that* way!
Every player, from centre-back to targetman had a steely obsession: first touch to control, the second to split the defence. The game jolted from end to end, the quick turnovers punctuated by scrappy fouls. At this age it’s not really a surprise: everyone wants to be a game-breaker, everyone wants to star immediately. As if the kids are equally influenced by the starry flair of Leo Messi, the “Roy of the Rovers” egotism of Steven Gerrard, while unwittingly hexed by Charles Reep.
I thought of Scotland’s qualifying attempt. Against the Czech’s, at Hampden the baying fans demanded attack! attack! attack! At 2-1 up, we needed to hoard possession, run it into inconsequential areas, and turn back if required – patience, a thick-skin and confidence. Instead an ill-fated forward foray allowed for a Czech counter-attack, which ultimately led to our own demise.
Admittedly, the kids I watched can hardly be classed as a veritable research sample. But how many boxes do Scotland tick? The stereotypes, no, let’s face it, the majority of our greatest players fall into distinctive, instinctive categories: goalkeepers, no-nonsense defenders, tricky wingers and threatening target-men and poachers. Systems to fulfil 4-4-2’s and 4-2-4’s – get it down the flanks and whip it into the mixer – the bullies or the wily will turn it in. There are ball-playing exceptions – Jim Baxter, Archie Gemmell or Paul McStay good examples of that class with the ball at feet, yet still Scotland’s football factory has always had a damning deficit in “play-makers”.
Historically, some of Scotland’s finest are, well, greedy. 5 of the top 6 all-time highest scoring U.K. players are Scottish. And in more modern times, think Kenny Dalglish, Ally McCoist, John Robertson or (most recently) Kris Boyd. Strictly speaking game-winners, yes – they get the final touch and enter immortal Scotsport montage history. But the game was won elsewhere.
Craig Levein’s capitulating 4-6-0 formation utilised in Prague, bizarrely, is an extreme step (vaguely) in the right direction. A first step towards Scottish footballing Nirvana that triggered a bear-trap… but a step all the same. Forgetting about goals is a start and it will take a lobotomy of the Scottish psyche to get there.
His infamous formation erringly trod the logical path that more players in defence and midfield equals more possession. But doing away with strikers altogether is counter-productive. The quest for possession is valid, but not at the total expense of attacking threat or ball-retention in the final third.
Let’s cut Scotland’s highest level: the disease has spread too far, it is terminal. “Leave us – save yourselves!” The idea of Gary Caldwell, Christophe Berra, or <insert generic Scottish defender here> confidently maintaining possession is optimism on a ludicrous scale. Scotland needs to purge it’s unhealthy “at any cost” obsession with propelling the ball towards the opposition goal. Using a mortar to crack a nut.
Curing this terminal illness starts from the bottom. Back to the schools, gyms and training grounds – back to grass roots: Let’s abolish goals.
Scotland will always produce top-class strikers – the term “instinctive goal-scorer” is not a whimsical buzz-term. James McGrory, Dalglish and McCoist are prime examples. Similarly, as international coaching and ideas converge, technique and fitness approaches a respective equilibrium. As always, we have fantastic goalkeepers (McGregor, Gordon), fantastic ball-players (Adam, Bannan) industrious battlers (Caldwell, Fletcher) and poachers. We will always produce quality players – it’s our mentality that must change.
In a hypothetical mini-competition, the referee will hold a stop-watch. Upon kick-off, every second that passes for a team in possession will work towards a 2 minute threshold. When 2 minutes of uninterrupted passing is achieved, the team in possession has 1 phase of power-play to make an attempt on goal (which also explains why goalkeepers are still required). The 2 minutes can be extended depending on the group of players.
This will encourage passing from left to right, front to back, nurturing confidence in possession and movement off the ball. Equally, the defending side will learn to chase down the ball with Catalan urgency.
I appreciate that this exercise in some form or another already exists in the Scottish training handbook. But evidently, it’s not practiced enough (or rigorously enough). A youth side could take the idea further in a super-extreme example – play for a 0-0 draw in an actual competitive match – keep possession at all costs, with shooting actively discouraged. A reasonably effective side might even find themselves winning.
Referring to the greatest manager of all, contradictorily a Scot in fact, Sir Alex Ferguson explains the glory of possession: “I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match.” The manager of the greatest team in the world – Pep Guardiola – said earlier in the year that “possession is the best form of defence”.
This link to Barcelona, and back to Spain aptly takes this argument full-circle. Untouchable, infeasibly invincible, Barcelona and Spain are not deities to be feared but something to aspire to. Possession is everything. Let’s abolish goals to learn that lesson.