Levein La Vida Loca

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?

History
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…

Analysis: Benfica 1 – 1 Man Utd

This was always going to be a close encounter, with Benfica undefeated domestically and on a run of seven consecutive home wins in Europe. Manchester United have also been on fearsome form, scoring 16 goals in 3 matches. This therefore had potential to be a case of irresistible force against unmoveable object.

The home side lined up resembling a 4-1-2-3, with two attacking midfielders – Gaitan and Ruben Amorim – playing wide roles, and Javi Garcia occupying a holding role behind central midfielders Axel Witsel and Aimar. United by contrast had two deeper-lying central midfielders in Carrick and Fletcher, with Giggs linking play ahead of them. Park Ji-Sung played a left-sided midfield role, while Valencia played down the right in his usual industrious winger role. Of front men, the powerful Cardozo occupied the target-man role for the hosts, while at the other end, Rooney could be said to be operating in a ‘false nine’ role, as a lone forward who would frequently drop deep to collect the ball in midfield.

Early formations.

United’s midfield not so Clever(-ley)

The injury to Tom Cleverley on Saturday meant a return to the first eleven for Carrick – who had only featured off the bench so far this season – alongside Fletcher who has only featured for Scotland competitively since the summer. The slightly rusty presence of these two more defensive midfielders lent a certain immobility to the United middle that was exploited by aggressive Benfica hustling. Their pressing forced Carrick and Fletcher into too many direct passes to Rooney, who was competently negated aerially by Benfica captain Luisao. On top of this, Valencia, as the only recognised winger on the pitch, was generally well-matched by Emerson, and Fabio was unable to offer effective support very often for fear of leaving Gaitan available for a counter attack. As a result, Manchester United dominated possession, yet created few chances, sitting at 62% after 36′. By this time, they were already 1-0 down with less shots on goal. A counter-attack saw Gaitan’s exquisite outside-of-the-foot cross magnificently chested down and steered past a wrong-footed Evans by Cardozo, who curled the ball beyond Lindegaard’s outstretched hand and just inside the post on 24′. As Benfica smelled blood and United looked rattled, the home side pressed further up the pitch, meaning that Lindegaard (along with Carrick and Fletcher) was frequently forced to punt the ball long, at which point Luisao continued to give Rooney no change whatsoever.

Luisao dominant

The big captain rarely put a foot wrong all evening. He had the beating of Rooney in the air and on the ground, stepping in to intercept or challenge with apparent ease. When Rooney dropped deep to collect, he too often found scant options for passes, and a bank of three Benfica midfielders retreating to recover possession. Park would periodically drift in from the left, often allowing Giggs to push wide in response but in general the movements were well tracked, with the exception of two Giggs attempts on goal.

The one significant split-second of indecision Luisao showed was during the Giggs equaliser on 42′. As the left-sided Giggs cut in from the right channel, Rooney made an adjacent run that gave Luisao pause for thought for a moment. With Garay tracking the diagonal run into the left channel by Park, and Maxi Pereira hesitating in the D, temporarily neglecting to close down Giggs, by the time Luisao realised that Giggs was the primary threat and that Rooney was offside, Giggs was in the process of arrowing a sweetly-struck ball into the top right-corner. Beyond this moment the Benfica captain did an admirable job as defensive stopper, with Garay practically acting as a sweeper. By contrast Smalling handled Cardozo well, but Evans struggled with his physicality at times.

Full backs kept busy

There were interesting clashes down both flanks, Fabio-Valencia versus Gaitan-Emerson, and Evra-Park versus Amorim-Pereira. Park and Amorim’s movement gave their opposite numbers some headaches. Park allowed Giggs to either go wide or press forward, meaning Maxi had to be wary of movement and getting caught in advanced positions. Similarly utility-player Amorim was happy to drop into central midfield, allowing playmaker Aimar to push forward into the hole. After 55′, the right-footed Nolito came on as an inverted left winger, with Gaitan switching to the right flank. Now Fabio’s attacking sensibilities left United slightly exposed to counter-attacks down the left, presumably leading to his replacement by Phil Jones in the later stages. Nolito was lively and liked to drive at the United defence, while Gaitan and Pereira proved an increasing handful for Evra. By this stage, Fletcher had been hooked for Javier Hernandez, and Valencia for Nani; Rooney dropped deeper into midfield, United then approximating a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. Hernandez however got very little joy out of the outstanding Luisao.

Formations later in the game.

With Aimar being replaced by the burly Matic, Benfica now had a formidable and physical midfield three. The understated and fairly flawless Javi Garcia tracked Rooney well, and so most of the late attacking play was Benfica’s, coming down the flanks. Their two most significant attempts were from Gaitan cutting in from the right, to produce a camera-friendly save from Lindegaard, and Nolito somehow wriggling through a scrum of United defenders only to scuff his shot into the side-netting under pressure from a sliding Evans. The draw was probably just about the fair result, but Benfica impressed; although they will have to do so at Old Trafford too, after dropping points at home in a game where they made more chances.

Conclusion: United control possession early, but gradually forced back by aggressive wingers and dominance of Benfica’s defensive stopper. Ferguson will take a point away from home, as Liverpool and Everton have lost at the Stadium of Light in the past, but will hope that the shock of going behind has dusted off some mental cobwebs.

Fun Fact: Although it could be suggested that he was slightly lax for Cardozo’s goal, Johnny Evans completed a remarkable 98% of passes this evening (courtesy of OptaJoe).

Fun Fact 2: United’s 4 shots on goal was their joint fewest in 6 years, along with the 2011 CL final against Barcelona. (courtesy of OptaJoao).

Analysis: Scotland 1-0 Lithuania

This game was a “must-win” for both sides, teetering on the brink of mathematical elimination and also had the additional incentive of co-efficient bragging rights, with 55th-placed Scotland sitting directly above 56th-placed Lithuania. Several of the visitors had a point to prove after stalled careers in Scotland, and the Scottish support made their remembrance of one returnee’s gamesmanship felt with choruses of booing. The Lithuanians have struggled at Hampden in the past, and for all that it was a “must-win” game, they respected the Scots enough to go out with a fairly conservative 4-2-3-1, utilising Tadas Labukas as a lone striker. As Labukas has never scored an international goal for Lithuania in his 12 caps, we can presume he was to be used as a physical presence, to hold the ball up for the slighter Mikoliunas and Sernas. Scotland put out a 4-5-1/4-3-3 that raised some eyebrows: David Goodwillie was deployed as a lone striker after only 14 minutes of international football, while Don Cowie and Barry Bannan made competitive debuts. The teams started out roughly as follows:

Lithuania afford Scotland some respect

Scotland huff and puff…

Lithuania often allowed Scotland on to them, with Bannan as the main creative outlet. James Morrison and Steven Whittaker made several forays down the right flank as Scotland attempted to implement Craig Levein’s passing game. Whittaker, for all his commitment, is not Alan Hutton, and he failed to deliver final balls or make incisive enough runs to trouble the left flank of the Lithuania defence. There was a palpable sense of hesitancy about the Scots,  heavy touches and often a lack of midfield movement that allowed the well-organised Lithuanians to maintain shape. Without creating many chances, Lithuania’s forwards pressed high up the field, and the result was more lofted balls than Levein would probably have liked towards Goodwillie. The two imposing centre halves, Zaliukas and Kijanskis, maintained a good command of the area, allowing Scotland few chances in the first half except from set-pieces and shots from range. The notable exception was when a Naismith knock-down was prodded into the path of an onrushing Don Cowie by Goodwillie, however the Lithuanian centre halves did enough to put off both the tee-up and the shot.

Lithuania’s best chances came from Gary Caldwell errors. First, when his scuffed clearance allowed Radavicius to put a cross in for Labukas, whose header wide was as much change as he would get from Berra all evening. Second, when Caldwell’s wayward lay-off allowed Sembras in down the left-flank. Three-on-one, with the lone Whittaker jockeying well, the defensive midfielder inexplicably failed to pass to two team-mates in yards of space, and a chance went begging as the ball was cleared. This would ultimately lead to Scotland’s penalty, as Goodwillie’s hustle in the left channel lead to the free kick that Labukas inexplicably handled –  his most significant contribution to the game. Fletcher’s resultant miss was the first evidence that he may not have been at 100% for the qualifying matches, but keeper Karcemarskas did guess well and dive early.

Scottish movement the key

Naismith and Bannan as “inverted wingers” were more than willing to drift in-field or even switch flanks, while their opposite numbers Mikoliunas and Radavicius tended to stay right and left respectively. Naismith gave former Hearts winger Cesnauskis – now masquerading as a right-back – some difficulties at the back, while Bannan’s movement meant that Klimavicius was a rare sight in the Scottish half. By contrast Cesnauskis was allowed more freedom by the more attack-minded Naismith, meaning that many of Lithuania’s attacks came down their right side. James Morrisson was the more aggressive attacking players of Scotland’s two central midfielders, but Cowie made several late runs into several good positions. For Lithuania, Sernas played too high and left Semberas and Pilibiatis outnumbered when Bannan dropped deep or Fletcher advanced. Until Labutka was hooked at half-time, Sernas was restricted to one wickedly curving shot all half. Of the two lone strikers, Goodwillie worked the channels and even went out wide, while Labukas was fairly static and ineffective.

This would all come to fruition early in the second half, as Goodwillie chased down a loose ball he had scrapped for on the left flank, and recycled play when he could have let Lithuania have a throw-in. From this moment, Scotland retained play until Naismith scored, which in itself was fine example in attacking movement:

Cesnauskis found wanting again
Inverted wingers reap rewards

Goodwillie (below blue dot) picks up a deflected cross from Bardsley (3). Unwisely, both centre-backs (green dots) press him, and he lays off to Bannan (purple). Cesnauskis (red) has to cover because Kijanskas (grey) jockeys Bannan, unwittingly playing Naismith onside. Goodwillie then bursts into the area, dragging both centre-backs with him. Too late, Kijanskas presses, and Bannan dinks a reverse pass over the back-line. Possibly relaxing due to cover from the retreating Pilibiatis, Cesnauskis displays his lack of defensive savvy by ball-watching, and Naismith rolls off his back at the right time to score.

Same old Scotland…

This was presumably exactly the type of football that Craig Levein wants to see. Unfortunately for him, despite several more decently-crafted chances, Scotland began to revert to type as no more goals materialised. Arvydas Novikovas, on at half time, started providing Lithuania with the movement they needed, while Serna was pushed up front, providing a trickier prospect for Scotland’s centre-backs. With the further addition of top-scorer Tomas Danilevicius, on for a defender, then Ricardas Beniusis for the largely ineffectual (and heavily booed) Saulias Mikoliunas, Lithuania increasingly opted for more direct balls to the large front men, and wing-play largely involving Novikovas.

At this point, Scotland flirted with Levein’s possession-based philosophy, but nerves meant that Caldwell and Berra continuously sat too deep – much to Levein’s audible disapproval – and the team began hurriedly clearing balls up to the front line. In particular, Allan McGregor’s repeated insistence on kicked clearances over short throws meant that there was little respite for the Scotland fans, as the ball kept rapidly returning to Scotland’s final third. Having enjoyed little aerial success all night, Goodwillie looked too tired for that battle later on. Lithuania forged a series of half-chances, and the hosts failed to keep the ball away from their area. When they finally succeeded, an attempt at keep-ball between Dorrans and Naismith resulted in one of them being caught offside at the corner flag – another needless loss of possession – and Levein and the Tartan Army were visibly relieved when the final whistle sounded at last.

Conclusion: a nervy win for a youthful Scotland side – Levein’s much-maligned tactics worked well in the main. On tonight’s evidence, the problems for Scotland do not lie at the front so much as at the back, where nerves, slack passing and rash challenges produced too many goalscoring oppotunities. Better opponents would have punished such mistakes. Barry Bannan was a clear man-of-the-match.

Fun Fact: to add a little perspective, Liechtenstein’s head-to-head record against Lithuania in this campaign was better than Scotland’s, recording a 2-0 aggregate victory against Scotland’s 1-0.

Scotland: Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker, Phil Bardsley (Stephen Crainey 70′), Christophe Berra, Gary Caldwell, Don Cowie, Darren Fletcher, Barry Bannan (Robert Snodgrass 84′), David Goodwillie, James Morrison (Graham Dorrans 79′), Steven Naismith.

Lithuania: Zydrunas Karcemarskas, Deividas Semberas, Ramunas Radavicius, Tadas Kijanskas (Tomas Danilevicius 61′), Marius Zaliukas, Darvydas Sernas, Saulias Mikoliunas (Ricardas Beniusis 77′), Linas Pilibaitis, Arunas Klimavicius, Deividas Cesnauskis, Tadas Labukas (Arvydas Novikovas 46′).

The Arteta Transfer: Thoughts

Another transfer window creaked shut, and what most sports journos were falling over themselves to hype was the apparent controversy of the last-minute transfer requests of Mikel Arteta and Raul Mereiles. These two transactions apparently justified the paradoxical suggestion by many sports writers that Deadline Day was both “disappointing” and yet “exciting”. Now that the hype is (hopefully) dissipating, and we can focus on groundless speculation of the future, Thierry Ennui would like to consider the mechanics of the Arteta transfer.

In particular, the three most interesting factors are that:

  • The initial £10 million offer was rejected, but the second was accepted after David Moyes learned Arteta wanted the move.
  • Arteta takes a £20,000 per week wage cut to £55k, having been Everton’s most expensive player at £75k.
  • Everton accepted the bid despite clearly having no time whatsoever to secure a replacement.

Now, in the first instance, it has become clear that Moyes did not want to keep an unsettled player at the club, even though the player’s decision was a sudden one. Harry Redknapp  had a similar situation with playmaker Luka Modric, but Tottenham’s decision was to bench the player briefly and allow the window to play itself out, regardless of what the player wanted. The difference? Modric is key to Spurs’ ambitions, while Arteta is (or was) simply a significant player in a squad team. At 29, Arteta has arguably played his finest football, in an Everton shirt at least, and in allowing Arteta to leave Moyes both makes some money for his squad and maintains his club philosophy. As displayed before, Moyes has never stood in the way of a player who wants to move on – Rooney, Lescott, Pienaar – and although he was happy to hold on to Arteta when there was no unrest, allowing him to leave generates £10 million and strikes the most significant wage cost off the bill.

Arteta’s willingness to take a wage cut, and his justifying statements, surely suggests that he himself was aware that there was a staleness about his Everton performances of late: “It is a big challenge, a different challenge, fresh for me and I want to see myself on the biggest stage, the Champions League. I am 29 years old so I haven’t got much time left to take a chance like this one. I think I have done my best for Everton” (emphasis added).

Arguably, his best for Everton came some five seasons ago. Nagging fitness issues would hamper his performance the following season, then a serious knee ligament injury ended his 2008-09 campaign and delayed his contribution in 2009-10 significantly. His return last season saw him feature frequently but unusually quietly.

(Blue area represents Everton's relative Premiership finish out of 20, from the top)

Everton, meanwhile, have simply gotten on with playing. Players such as Jack Rodwell, Steven Pienaar, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman have impressed in the absence of Arteta, and therein lies the beauty of Moyes’ squad. For all that there is a possible lack of world-class talent, he has a squad that is blessed with depth of Premiership quality in all but the front-line. For the last two seasons, they have periodically been lacking an Arteta, a Pienaar, a Tim Cahill or a recognised striker; yet still delivered results to a competent enough degree that they post finishes in the upper half of the league, despite injury crises. This, I believe, is why Arteta was allowed to leave at the last hour. In Rodwell, Cahill, Coleman, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Marouane Fellaini, the criminally under-rated Leon Osman, and the emerging talent of Ross Barkley, Moyes has faith in a squad that will continue to deliver results without Arteta’s creativity. That’s before the deadline day arrivals. Royston Drenthe is convinced his style suits the EPL, and gut feeling says will build a good partnership down the left with Baines. A lot for Everton hinges on the unknown quantity of Denis Straqualursi, who looks like a bustling striker who can head a ball well, but is untested at Premiership level.

This move may perhaps represent the closest to a win-win-win that I have seen in recent months: Everton get their hands on some cash and deploy some hungrier talent, Arteta gets a shot at rejuvenating his slightly-stalled career, and Arsenal get a player who will produce some of the flair that their recently-departed ex-captain posessed. Like Fabregas, Arteta is a boyhood fan of Pep Guardiola, a set-piece taker, and a playmaker. Arteta even brings some vitally-needed experience and knowledge of defensive roles to the midfield. The only problem I can envision has been mentioned in a wry Tweet that “Arteta as Fabregas replacement is basically like-for-like: both will spend 3months/year on the treatment table”. Fabregas’ fitness suffered from his essential role in Wenger-ball, and I am unsure that Arteta is up to the rigours of a full season. That, and Arsenal still need a quality defensive midfielder. This signing may just do enough to keep Arsenal’s status as a top-six club, but I’m not convinced.

Feel free to disagree below, I’ll justify my beliefs in another article…

Wenger Has Forgotten His “Invisible Men”

Don’t let the monicker fool you, I’m not a Gooner. In fact, Thierry Ennui has been known to be a vocal critic of Arsene Wenger for several years. Aside from his public whining about injuries and criticisms of the style of football that other teams have played, my major gripe has been that he seems to have forgotten how he won trophies in the first place.

Arsenal fans have been waiting for the departure of Fabregas for years, and now that he has gone with Nasri rushing out the door after him, they are already lining up a succession of speculative replacements; from Juan Mata – before Chelsea swooped in with a  serious bid – to Joao Moutinho and Marvin Martin.  Yet Thierry Ennui contends that the problems were never a shortage of lightweight creative players: what Wenger has forgotten is that his best sides compete with a spine of sluggers.

The team that Le Professeur inherited featured such players as Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon – not necessarily proponents of slick passing football. One of his most early appointments was that of a talented young French midfield general called Patrick Vieira, who along with Remi Garde was signed to “plug a midfield gap“. Arsenal finished an improved third, their best finish in the Premiership and best position since their title win of 90-91 season. Garde would ultimately play a supporting role in the Arsenal squad after Emmanuel Petit joined in 1997. Petit, a central defender under Wenger at Monaco, was re-modelled as a defensive midfielder, and forged a successful partnership with Vieira which culminated in Arsenal winning the Premiership and FA Cup double. Pivotal to this was the revelation by Tony Adams that “Wenger had a ‘thrash it out’ meeting [with the team] during which Adams demanded that the defence receive more protection from the midfield”. The Vieira-Petit axis was a powerful one, one that Arsenal arguably lack now. Consider also the symbolism of the goal that clinched the league title, scored by Adams and created by Bould – the dogged old guard.

The lack of an imposing leader at the back has long been the subject of media speculation, and it can be guessed that the proposed signing of the giant (6’6″) Per Mertesacker is a step in this direction. After all, “The Invincibles” of 2003-04 featured the commanding pair of Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure (as well as Lauren at right-back). However it is clearly presence in the centre of the park that Arsenal lack. Remember that The Invincibles also featured a midfield pairing of Vieira and Gilberto Silva – a man called “The Invisible Wall” in his native Brazil. Therein lies Wenger’s major problem – he has forgotten about the men that made his side tick best, the invisible men of “the Makelele role”.

In the rush to field younger players Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini, Gilberto – who was an instrumental part of the rest of Arsenal being allowed to play attacking football – was made to feel “totally useless” by Wenger. Flamini ostensibly plays the defensive midfield role too, but arguably lacked the presence of the burly, skilled hustle of Gilberto, and probably experience too. Abou Diaby was expected to be a Vieira-style replacement, but he is less defensive and more direct as a player. Since Flamini left, Arsenal have been using Alex Song in the defensive role. Examining his goal returns 2010-11, Song’s contribution of 4 league goals last season has been described warmly as his becoming “a more adventurous element” in the Arsenal midfield. Yet one could correspondingly argue that he has been neglecting his defensive duties in the holding role in favour of attacking participation, to the detriment of results.

Arsenal’s back line was consistently placed under the lens of intense scrutiny last season, and the squad overall has notably dropped points in 4-4 games where they had scored four goals first (Newcastle, 2011 and Tottenham, 2008). Pundits have suggested that youthful exuberance prevented the players from maintaining possession and running down the clock when they need to. The absence of an experienced head to tell the midfield to protect their back four – like Tony Adams did in the double-winning season – suggests a team whose philosophy has forgotten about defending, and a manager who lost his way tactically. Is it a coincidence that Arsenal didn’t win a trophy after the emergence of Fabregas? The young Spaniard became emblematic of Arsenal’s style, and yet they have failed to deliver any silverware, including the morale-sapping League Cup defeat to a Birmingham side that would later be relegated. This in turn sparked questions of a crisis that are still being asked. The signing of forward Park Chu Young – which prompted the BBC’s Phil McNulty to Tweet that Arsenal’s signing policy was looking increasingly like “a trolley dash” – is looking suspiciously like Wenger’s previous habit of overloading on forwards when trouble threatens. However, unless they find a competent defensive midfielder to sit in front of Mertesacker, someone in the mould of Petit or Gilberto, they can possibly expect more humiliations like the one handed to them by Manchester United last weekend.

APOEL: Lessons For The SPL?

So there we have it: APOEL F.C., the champions of the Cyprus, are in the Champions’ League; Shamrock Rovers have made it to the Europa, with a hard fought win over Partizan Belgrade; and Scotland boast the grand total of zero teams in Europe before September. Scotland has long suffered from an inferiority complex because theirs is smaller than England’s… population, of course. Yet we trumpet our love of the national game with such pointless stats as “per head of population, more fans go to watch games in Scotland than anybody else in Europe”. We’re small, but we’re passionate. We’re the glorious underdog! Well, good on us!

That particular nugget about “head of population” came from Neil Doncaster, a man who makes me think of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” every time I hear him, because “he talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge”. Doncaster is always quick to pull some optimistic statistic out of his businessman’s brain as we collectively watch the national game go down the tubes. I mean, his reaction to the exits of Rangers from the Champions’ League, while not optimistic, was still “that means less money for the rest of our clubs”. Spoken like a true fan of football. Yet maybe that is the way to convince him: statistics and marketing.

Blind Optimism

Doncaster also says that next year’s coefficient will mean 2 teams in the Champions’ League (CL), but if that is true, he is still playing the political economist, because the longer-term forecast is bleaker than the weather over the Edinburgh Festival. He overlooks the point, Tweeted by the ever-perceptive Zonal Marking during the qualifying draws last month, that observed how Scottish teams must do well in Europe this season. Why? Next year, Scotland (currently in 17th) loses their 2007-08 coefficient, which will reduce the total by more than half as things stand. With no European victories from a single Scottish team, the SPL’s qualifying status will plummet below the esteemed leagues of Sweden, Bulgaria and Belarus. The mighty Cyprus, already pipping Scotland by virtue of APOEL’s qualification for the CL, will edge further ahead without having to win a point.

Underdogs Trumped

Cyprus: a country with a population smaller than Edinburgh and Glasgow combined, at just over 800,000. APOEL have a ground little bigger than Hibs’ Easter Road, but have made the CL group stages twice in the last 3 years. The league boasted a total attendance of 498, 316 in 2007-08, a match average of 2,738. This compares with the SPL’s total attendance of 3.1million in 2009-10, some 6 times the size, although this included the disproportionately large support of Rangers and Celtic. The match average was 13,949, around 5 times the size. Thierry apologises for the stat bombardment, but one must engage with the only language that executives actually talk. High attendances, and match prices to rival the lowest in the English Premiership, yet still Scottish teams are in debt and struggling in Europe. Plus stats from the excellent Swiss Ramble blog show that Scottish teams, in the main, generally have half-empty stadia.

A quarter of teams fail to get 60% average attendance

Only the Old Firm and Hearts come close to packed seasons

The Problem?

Well, Thierry is a big believer in not blaming one factor for a problem, when many are evident. What can we suggest? More per head of population watching, yet half empty grounds? Yes, there’s the recession, but this attendance problem has been happening for years. One factor must be the dominance of the Old Firm. Not only do clubs fail to sell out, except against derby rivals and the Old Firm (OF), they lose regional fans to the duopoly that many other fans call “The Ugly Sisters”. Without the OF’s contribution, average attendances drops  by an astonishing 56%. Average attendance drops to just 7424, meaning Cyprus’ per head football viewing becomes nearly 3 times Scotland’s. So how much money and interest is in the game outside of Glasgow’s Big Two? Another factor, is too many teams. Edinburgh can just about sustain Hearts and Hibs in good years, but there is no way that Dundee needs two teams on the same street. A final one, that I will suggest is responsible, is resultant  fan boredom from OF dominance and repetition. Turning up to struggle against the same eleven opponents week in, week out is a trifle boring, especially if only one team goes down. Part of the drama of a poor EPL last season was the relegation Judgement Day, where any one of about 6 teams stood to go down, depending on results. It was one of the more thrilling days of the season for the neutral fanatic.

The Solution: Expansion?

You know what I’m driving at: Cyprus, with their population of 800k, and average attendances of a couple of thousand, have a top league of 14 teams. While APOEL have won 5 of the last 10 titles, the other 5 titles have been shared between 3 other teams: the familiar-sounding Euro minnows of yesteryear, AC Omonia (2), Anorthosis Famagusta (2), and Apollon Limassol. This means that they watch a lot more competitive football, between more sides, and Thierry Ennui contends that it makes sense to expand the SPL to at least 14 teams. Here’s the 5 reasons why:

  1. More Teams Means Less Fixtures.

Not only would a larger league reduce the need for 4 meetings per season, or the even more ridiculous three, but it would allow for a winter break which so many managers have been requesting. No more 4 hours trips across Scotland on skating-rink roads, only to discover that the ref has called a last-gasp inspection, and canned the match. No more fixture backlog that induces horrendous congestion as the season climaxes. And more room to start the season earlier so we can have less of the current problem of flabby squads full of new signings getting pumped out of Europe in July. Less costly postponements. Less gate receipts, true, but also less overheads and hopefully less teams being dumped out of Europe. Plus there is more money to be had elsewhere (see below).

 2. Bigger League Means More Variety (Means More Interest).

Just now, each SPL team has a total of 11 league opponents. They will play 6 of them 3 times, and 5 of them 4. Before cup matches. This can lead to teams facing each other 6 times in a season, which is i) frankly ridiculous ii) pretty unexciting and iii) practically a bleeding league in its own right! The league needs fresh blood and ideas.

I know the SPL executives parrot that “a larger league may lead to unexciting games”, but if you agree with them, hear me out here…

a) At present, we have 12 fan-bases in the league. Therefore the game is watched by 12 sets of fans live, on domestic television, and globally. It stands to reason that if we increase the number of teams, the number of fan-bases increases too, so there are suddenly 16 or 18 sets of fans watching live, on domestic TV, and globally. I know Falkirk aren’t going to add the same number of fans as Rangers, but it’s still more people to watch the product. Supporters pay at the turnstiles, supporters buy merchandise, supporters pay for satellite TV (or go down the boozer, which has paid for it). So the league is ultimately marketable to a wider audience. Wider audience, more expensive advertising. The most simple mathematics.

b) The permutations of more teams playing allow for more different matches to be televised, rather than the current 4 Old Firm games, scattering of Edinburgh and “New Firm” derbies, and, well, just the same bloody games screened year after year. You’re worried about the games not being “interesting” enough? Let the broadcaster’s hype machine deal with that. Smaller teams may let in more goals. How fans hate goals! There are more unknown quantities, with a couple of potential Blackpools or Stokes to bring in a fresh approaches, and more opponents to play each season. More teams means more players to be embroiled in scandals, more managerial jobs at risk, and more transfers to be expounded upon and speculated about ad nauseum. More teams means more interest!

c) A digression a la Thierry: why aren’t the teams in the SPL promoting their brand globally anyway? I mean, I know Celtic play on their Irish connections, just as Rangers apparently have some sort of link to Ulster, and Hearts have links with Lithuania. But that’s just the lazy connections. Form a parent/feeder link with some other teams. Twin yourselves with an MLS team, or an A-League or a Belgian or an Austrian team. Modern teams are run by marketers and executives: make them do some f—king work in their chosen field! I remember cheap beanie hats that featured Hearts & Leeds side-by-side on them, back in the Eighties, and I reckon a link that thin could encourage new fans. What, watch more football? Ok then!

 3. More Variety, More Competition.

Yes it looks like more teams are playing for nothing in a “World Without Splits”, but SPL seems to forget that there are many reasons for players to keep playing, even after they’ve been ruled out of the title race. Win bonuses, goal bonuses, future transfers, international call-ups, visiting scouts, a place in the first team, and indeed “to impress their local hairdressers” are a veritable shitstorm of reasons why teams feature players that still need to put in a shift.

“Well, yeah, but who’s going to make the fans go to a meaningless game?” I hear the critics argue. Again, I’m not the marketing branch of a sports organisation, but off the top of my educated head, I’d say: fan days (where kids / OAPs / students go free or for half normal price – NB you’ll still make money on pies and fizzy drinks – it’s Scotland). If you’re trying to run a company that uses sponsorship, then the more eyes see your hoardings, the more your hoardings are worth. It’s simple economics (not bad for a Literature major, eh?).

So players trying, fans watching: where’s the lack of interest?

Plus, my main point is that with a bigger league, you can deploy ideas such as “more than one team being relegated” or “relegation play-offs”. You could allocate a European place based on a four-way play-off between the best teams from each quarter of the season (excluding those teams already qualified, i.e. Rangers and Celtic). A play-off for Europe? Marketing gold, baby!

 4. More Competition, Better Players & Football.

The more teams are in the top-flight, the more managers in Scotland can sell their club to a prospective signing with the dream of European football. Not buying that? Well how about the promise of being on a stepping-stone to greater things (i.e. the Old Firm or English football, generally). We would all be correct in suspecting, for example, that Antonio Valencia didn’t sign for Wigan Athletic with the dream of playing football for Wigan Athletic. Now look where he is. Billy Reid made a great Hamilton squad, two stars of which now also play for Wigan, on such promises. Anthony Stokes went to both Falkirk and Hibs with such an idea in mind. The more teams who play in the top flight, the more the standard of the smaller teams can be improved with some shrewd signings or loans. If the standard is improved…

 5. Young Scots Get Tested.

When you aren’t being stomped by the Old Firm six or eight times a season, it’s a distinct possibility that you might consider blooding younger players with more regularity. They are then playing alongside, and against, the higher quality of player that has been attracted (see 4).

“A-ha!” I hear you cry, “that hasn’t worked for England’s national team!”. Of course it hasn’t, but then my main concern is not improving Scottish technique, but rather making the SPL a more marketable product, which is what makes the EPL stand out – not necessarily the quality of the football, but the standard of entertainment. Hopefully improvements will come from there. Plus, the SPL has an advantage regarding youths, with its Under 21s rule, which means that more youngsters will be in match squads than those put out down south. Plus, again, the more SPL teams are competing; the more Scottish youths are in the frame for a top-flight appearance at some stage during the season.

If more young players get blooded, who knows, maybe the Scottish game will improve somewhere down the line? Because for all that we are not really in direct competition with England, comparison is inevitable, and Scotland is miles behind as last week’s Battle of Britain(‘s nearly-men) showed.

So, are these five points convincing, or should Thierry shut his yap and stick to pretentiously referring to himself in the 3rd person? Comments welcome below…

Vlad The Impaler Returns

The sacking of Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown today has divided opinion amongst Hearts fans and the wider public. Some have branded the decision a “disgrace”, while others have pointed to a run of 10 winless league games and decided that the exits were merited. Beyond these considerations, the decision to remove the head coaches inbetween two European fixtures is decidedly questionable.

So are the sackings a mistake? Many pundits including BBC’s Liam McLeod believed that the Jefferies-Brown axis had brought stability to Tynecastle, after years of internal strife from managerial staff citing boardroom interference to players publically criticising the running of the club. Now that stability is gone, and with it many of the fans’ beliefs that Controversial Majority Shareholder Vladimir Romanov had stopped interfering with the club, to the detriment of performances. This latest sacrifice to his personal idea of success is potentially the gravest error of his era.

That Hearts have not won in 10 league games is a fact, but this statistic (like all statistics) does not necessarily reflect the truth. In the first case, the two matches played this season were against champions Rangers, and against Dundee United just four days after a European fixture. The former was hailed as a good result, taking a point from Ibrox after having had the lead. The latter was understandable, given that the squad were not only tired, but hit by a rash of injuries, and playing against a team that finished fourth last season. Factor in the consideration that six of the eight non-wins last season were against all the other competitors in the top half of The Split (i.e. the best 5 teams in the SPL at that point) and the run starts to look understandable. There were losses to Rangers, Celtic, and Dundee United (away). The two matches that weren’t against upper Split rivals were away draws at Inverness Caley and Hibs. Inverness incidentally lost only one of their last six home league matches, to the in-form Dundee United, and also effectively ruined Celtic’s title bid at the Tulloch Stadium, prompting Neil Lennon’s angry assault on a completely innocent bottle of water. The 2-2 thriller with derby rivals Hibs was similarly a game where one would hardly demand victory, especially as Marius Zaliukas had characteristically been sent off after half an hour.

So are there any other reasons that Jefferies and Brown deserved the axe? In my SPL analysis, I admitted that Hearts “limped into third place”. However third place is still an achievement, and there is abundant evidence that this success was reached thanks to Hearts’ performances while using Kevin Kyle as a target man. Their winning streak throughout November and December featured Kyle as the focal point, and his spade work benefitted Rudi Skácel and David Templeton greatly, as demonstrated by their goal returns. Deprived of Kyle, Hearts were less impressive, as their season’s end shows. Being as Jefferies added John Sutton to the playing staff, it is clear that he identified a weakness in his squad, and moved to cover it. Jefferies’ main mistake, it would seem, is that he didn’t quite get enough cover at centre-back, given the questionable fitness of Andy Webster (and questionable disciplinary record of Zaliukas). While Eggert Jonsson or Adrian Mrowiec can deputise as centre-halves, they aren’t the complete defensive package, as the capitulation of a three-goal lead following a Webster injury showed last season.

So where now for Hearts? My season’s analysis stated that they would buck their good-season-bad-season trend of recent years and post third again, thanks to a large squad. Now, I’m increasingly tending to think that this season may well deflate into another Rix/Frail season, where a popular manager who got results is arbitrarily axed and replaced with a manager selected by Romanov’s footballing “expertise”, who will come to increasingly regret working for a despotic leader. That season, Rix was axed with the team clinging to second, and the resultant fallout increasingly poor seasons follow, finishing 4th and then 8th. One can only see something similar happening again, as insecurity and distrust grips the club.

The players will not like this development. Some – including ex-Kilmarnock players Medhi Taouil, Kevin Kyle, and Jamie Hammill – undoubtedly respect Jefferies, enough for them to follow him to a new club. The history of Romanov’s interference was tentatively thought to be a thing of the past, but the incredulous reaction from many quarters will not go unnoticed by the playing staff or supporters. Already, there are stories of fans calling for Romanov to leave the club. Such divisions can only be negative in the grand scheme of things. After a year or so of apparent stability, Vlad The Impaler is back and making brutal and unnecessary sacrifices once more. Apologists can defend his actions, but there is no way that such a destabilising action can be beneficial to the club.