Does Craig Levein deserve the criticism he receives?

It’s widely been regarded as a crazy journey since Craig Levein took over the Scotland manager post in December 2009. From a promising 1-0 victory over the Czechs on his national debut, to that 4-6-0 formation in the competitive return, Levein has inspired arguments and debate across the country.  As Scotland prepares to valiantly fail to qualify for another major tournament, Thierry Ennui asks: has Levein really done anything so bad?

Levein inherited a squad from George Burley that battled bravely to qualify for South Africa 2010, but were let down by two bad matches against a distinctly average Norway side. The 0-0 home tie will long be remembered for Chris “The Miss” Iwelumo’s goal-line clearance at the wrong end, and the return that saw Gary Caldwell’s characteristic red card allow Norway to crush Scotland 0-4. There were personnel problems, from the self-exiled (and self-important) Kris Boyd to disgraced captain Barry Ferguson, banned for displaying the maturity of a particularly childish 12-year-old.

Next week, Barry would ring the SFA’s doorbell, then run away.

Track Record
BBC Sport suggested that a “stats cloud” was gathering for Levein, and certainly some of them don’t make for pretty reading. Pundits were quick to point out that the Burley era, and more surprisingly Berti Vogts’ spell in charge, both apparently yielded more points in their opening games than Levein’s. However, this meant focusing only on competitive matches, and ignoring the disastrously morale-sapping hammerings that the teams took in friendly outings. Friendlies which still count towards FIFA Rankings, and therefore to future qualification hopes. Looking at the track records of the last five Scotland managers in all matches, Levein is not doing too badly at all:

Hampden is becoming a tough place to visit again.

As you can see from the graph above, Levein is the only manager other than Alex McLeish to win more than half of his home matches. Furthermore, he has a better away record than George Burley or Berti Vogts (NB – neutral matches are recorded as “Away” for the purposes of the table). Levein has failed to emulate the on-the-road heroics of the Alex McLeish and Walter Smith eras, but as Burley’s reign shows, they were a hard act to follow. McLeish’s outfit was bursting with young promising players, blooded by Smith in the Kirin Cup, who were yet to watch their potential succumb to injuries, prima donna strops, or the classic Scottish pastime of hedonism. Indeed, without these youngsters bursting onto the scene with the 5-1 demolition of Bulgaria and 6-0 rout of the Faroes, Smith’s track record looks significantly less impressive on paper. So what, apart from never fielding a 4-6-0 again, does Levein need to do to win over the boo-boys?

Complaint #1: “Scotland Need Two Forwards”
Why? What Levein along with most other tactically-astute managers knows is that deploying two forwards reduces your options in midfield. Scotland would typically expect to play with a back four, meaning that options are limited to variations on a 4-4-2. This formation will typically lose out in midfield battles against the in-vogue formations of 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-3 and the like: for evidence, see England’s fairly dreadful World Cup campaign of 2010, most notably the hiding they took off Germany. The fact of the matter is this: Scotland lacks an abundance of international-class strikers at the moment. Kenny Miller takes much bar-room stick for his track record internationally, but the fact remains that he is one of the few Scottish strikers who has plied his trade at the highest levels, and is professional, fit and committed. Five years ago, the future of Scottish attacking football looked quite bright, with Miller and James McFadden supported by Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Kris Boyd and Chris Burke. Flash-forward half a decade, there are cocaine and booze allegations, fitness issues and obscurity beckoning for all but Miller.
Steven Naismith has demonstrated hustle and movement that suggests he is arriving as a top player, but he still needs to be tested outside the bounds of the SPL, which has never been in so shabby a state: Celtic are raiding the Championship for star players, while Rangers have staggered into first place for two years running with a shoestring best-of-the-rest squad. Scotland does, however, have a variety of midfielders playing Premiership football, in Darren Fletcher, James Morrison, Charlie Adam and Barry Bannan – is it so very unreasonable of Levein to use players who are semi-regularly pitting themselves against, or training alongside, Champions’ League-quality players?

Complaint #2: “Scotland’s Goalscoring Record is Poor Under Levein”
Not so. Sadly for the Tartan Army, this has often been the case. The glut of goals that heralded the promise mentioned earlier generally came in friendlies like the Kirin Cup, or against minnow opposition. As their record stands, Levein’s Scotland at Hampden have only scored less than two goals in two matches – the 1-0 friendly victory over the Czechs, and the 1-0 win over Lithuania last month. In terms of scoring, Levein’s 4-5-1 Scotland is only narrowly behind Smith and McLeish’s scoring rate (average 0.14 goals per game less).

Work needed on away goals.

Levein’s record is arguably one of the healthier ones. With the line at 1.0 reflecting each opponent’s goal scored, the table shows that Vogts was outgunned home and away, and Burley’s travelling goals record is the worst, scoring just one to every five opposition goals. McLeish and Smith excelled at Hampden, McLeish gave as good as he got on the road, and Smith’s Scotland look even better, unless you ignore the 5-1 thrashing of Bulgaria in the Kirin Cup. Levein has pointed the team in a decent direction. One major problem exists – and we may see it later today:

Complaint #3 “Scotland Have Failed to Score a Competitive Away Goal Since Levein Took Charge”
This is clearly a significant failing for any team that wishes to qualify for a major tournament. With that record, unless you can bore-draw your way around Europe, then you’re not going to be in Brazil in 2014. However this is not Levein’s problem alone: Scotland haven’t scored a competitive away goal in over three years, since September 2008 when Kirk Broadfoot and James McFadden handed Scotland a 2-1 victory over Iceland. Before that? Another year back to September 2007, for McFadden’s Parc des Princes wonder-strike. The formation that day? 4-5-1.

Levein’s record isn’t really poor,  it is just overshadowed by a sensational campaign in 06-07, run by more experienced managers who had bigger things to do as soon as the opportunities presented themselves. He has a vision of a national team that plays attractive possession football; more importantly, he has the backing of the players. At 46, he is still young and learning his craft. Thierry Ennui would hope that the Scottish public can put aside tribal rivalry and the mistake of the 4-6-0, and give him a chance to see out his project. And pray for that first competitive away goal this afternoon…