When you don't have the players you once had, do you go for cutting cloth accordingly or biting the bullet and tackling the root of the problem. Rangers have made a choice, and the Scottish national side are following suit. Robin Cowan despairs at Scottish 'anti-football'.
Tuesday’s defeat to Spain at Hampden drew the ubiquitous media go-to’s of “plucky” and “spirited” so often used to describe performances by the Scottish national team. It was a game initially billed as the bringing together of the antithesis of football styles. Spain’s “Tiki Taka”, a fast-paced, intricate passing technique of retaining possession for large periods, against Craig Levein’s dour, negative Scotland. Once proud as a small country that, while hopeless at defending, produced skilful technical players, the likes of Jimmy Johnstone, Archie Gemmill, Pat Nevin and Kenny Dalglish, is now a nation labelled as the purveyors of “anti-football”.
Previous decades saw the Scots a regular qualifier at major tournaments as well as players representing at some of Europe’s top clubs. Drawing a linear graph showing respective fortunes of Scotland & Spain, with the vertical axis being the tendency to play attacking football, the horizontal showing, in years each country’s relative successes. The graph would resemble a lop-sided St. Andrew’s cross, with Scotland’s achievements, ranking and performances descending sharply in the last twenty years, while Spain’s stock rocketing skywards. The point of the two passing could be plotted in 1988.
Johan Cruyff returned to Barcelona as manager in this year. Just as a player, Cruyff brought with him a strong dedication to the “Total Football” philosophy. Flowing football practised by intelligent and technically gifted artisans. The Cruyff era that saw arrivals of highly technical players such as, Michael Laudrop and Txiki Begiristain, resulting in the Catalans to collecting eleven trophies in six seasons.
By 1988 Scotland striker Kenny Dalglish had been three years into his player-manager role at Liverpool and was also enjoying a time winning trophies at England’s most successful club. Having been instrumental as a player in three of Liverpool’s European Cup triumphs, he had by the time Cruyff arrived as coach at Barca, added two league titles as manager. Dalglish a keen advocate of the Liverpool boot room’s “pass and move” style would add another league and two FA cups by the time he resigned in 1991.
In 1985, as King Kenny’s coronation as manager, compatriot and Liverpool teammate, Graham Souness had left for Italy. As a player Souness had always been the muscle complementing the more expressive players at Anfield, In 1986 he would bring his steel and hard man qualities, returning to Scotland as player-manager of Rangers. As well as himself, he packed his team with intimidating names, warriors like Terry Butcher and Richard Gough. Rangers would go on to over-power and dominate the more delicate and decorative Celtic for nine consecutive seasons. While the former Celt Dalglish, remaining in England had no significant disciples at Liverpool; Souness’ number two at Rangers was a young Walter Smith.
Domestically, Spain and Scotland have in common, two powerhouse clubs that have dominated their leagues for decades. Teams characterised by their contrasting football Ideologies, Celtic, like Barcelona historically like to play a more idealist brand of football, favouring more attack-minded and skilful players. While rivals Rangers and Real Madrid represent the more pragmatic side to the coin, powerful and dominating. With each pair being synonymous with their respective nations, the playing style of the national team is often a reflection of which side of the rivalry is more dominant. Spain fielded seven Catalans in the world cup final, their famed Tiki Taka, a direct descendant of Cryuff’s Total Football. Walter Smith, in his brief spell as Scotland coach would mould his team around mister Rangers, Barry Fergusson.
Smith’s successor at Scotland was also a former hier at Rangers, Alex McLeish. While Big Eck, changing virtually nothing during his time in charge, Uncle Walter, answering the call of Rangers, left Scotland, returning to undo Paul Le Guen’s failed attempt to revolutionise deep-set football traditions at Ibrox. Although this time, in an age of austerity at Rangers, he didn’t have the investment in the playing staff, which saw names like Laudrup, Gascoigne, De Boer and Gattuso arrive in Govan. Walter Smith, ever the pragmatist, measured his ambitions accordingly.
It was Lionel Messi who popularised the term “anti-football”, referring to his frustrations in breaking through a Rangers team with absolutely no attacking intentions. The 0-0 draw in Glasgow wasn’t enough to see Rangers through to the last sixteen, but lessons learned served as a platform for The Gers as they went on to reach the 2008 Uefa Cup final. Being frugal with goals, scoring just five times in the whole competition.
Shortly after, McLeish would leave Scotland for Birmingham after failing to qualify for Euro 2008. The appointment of George Burley would see a Rangers revolt. Burley had himself attempted to install a more progressive style to Scotland’s game saw Kris Boyd and Lee McCulloch withdraw themselves from selection. While Barry Fergusson and Alan McGregor would demonstrate what they thought of the new management by going on an all-nighter prior to a qualifier, then gesturing childishly at the cameras of what they thought of being dropped for it. Actions that resulted in their inevitable suspensions from the squad. Burley himself didn’t last much longer.
Getting back to basics, Craig Levein has returned to Walter’s Scotland blueprint. Taking Rangers as inspiration, Scotland play a dour, Calvinist football. Three of the four Rangers rebels have declared themselves available for their country again. Levein treated a 7,000 strong Tartan Army to a 4-6-0 formation, in the Czech Republic, to the bemusement and later amusement of the Czechs. The performance a carbon copy of Walter Smith’s tactics for Rangers’ clash at Old Trafford in the Champions League a month earlier.
Rangers will once again be Scotland’s representatives in Europe as they take on Valencia in the Champions League on Wednesday. No doubt that this match-up between Scotland and Spain will see the a game plan that won’t stretch far beyond sitting deep and stifling Valencia’s creative players. With this, his final season before retirement, leaving behind him a legacy of “anti-football”. When it comes to tactics, Walter, unlike Cruyff is not for turning.
Robin is a regular contributor to IBWM and you can follow him on Twitter @RobinCowan.