This article appeared in The Herald
When Barcelona beat Celtic 3-2 at Parkhead two years ago, Gordon Strachan simply couldn’t believe the visitors had made a total of 700 passes. No amount of previous experience in European campaigns or fraught encounters with their domestic rivals in Old Firm matches had prepared his side for an opponent so utterly in control, not only of possession, but of the rhythm of the game.
Inter Milan may not have not won this year’s Champions League by playing the kind of free-flowing, expressive football Barca specialise in, but in last month’s final against Bayern Munich they showed a similar kind of mastery in their ability to control the game’s rhythm and tempo. Indeed, it was such that their manager, Jose Mourinho, said afterwards that he knew the game was over when his side went 2-0 up, despite the fact that 20 minutes remained.
Forget, for a moment, the quality of players at Barcelona’s and Inter’s disposal. In Scotland it is almost an article of faith that we play fast-paced football, but rarely do we think about how our teams might dictate or vary the tempo of a match. We may wish we could do this or that differently, but the high intensity of our game is something we tend to put store in. Year on year we hear claims that signings from abroad have struggled to adjust or will take time to adjust to the pace of the game here.
It is unlikely that homegrown players are really any fitter than their team-mates from elsewhere, however. And it is with some confidence that we can state that the majority of Scottish players would find it doubly difficult to adjust to the more controlled version of the game played in Spain, say. One might even conclude that the frantic pace at which Scots have traditionally learned to play football – make a tackle, win the ball, get it away – mitigates against the nurturing of a greater technical skill level.
Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager, and since 1994 UEFA Technical Director, does not believe that assessment to be entirely fair. “Coaches have to play football the best they can with what they’ve got, and in the conditions they’re given,” he says. “There are aspects which work against Scottish players, whether it’s the surfaces we play on, or the weather, or the facilities to train on. And there’s also the competitive element of a small league, which puts its own pressure on teams.”
He does believe, however, that the Scottish understanding of tempo is somewhat incomplete. “Scottish football is hectic – it’s all about power-running,” he says. “If you watch a Scottish league match, you see the ball getting played forward quickly and people racing in to pressure the ball, but that’s only part of the game. It’s not a simple equation. There are also a whole other raft of considerations – explosive power, speed of thought, the ability to pass the ball at speed. Teams like Barcelona and Arsenal are not only busy about the pitch, their passing speed is phenomenal.”
Roxburgh’s job is one that puts him in regular contact with the continent’s top coaches and managers. In anyone else, the roll-call of figures – Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi, Juande Ramos – whose views he can quote from personal conversations might seem like name-dropping, but it’s clear that he is simply immersed in thinking about the beautiful game.
“You can talk about a game being hectic, everyone clattering in with tackles and so on, and it’s quite hard to live with that if you’re not used to it,” he adds. “But foreign players may be more used to a change-of-rhythm type of game, which is something our players find it very difficult to play against. They have you chasing all over the place.
“If you watch the top sides in Europe, transition speed is a key thing. When you’ve lost the ball, you quickly reform and immediately press the ball, but also when you’ve just won the ball back, it’s about the ability to go from defence into attack, to immediately run with the ball or find the right pass. That transition speed is not necessarily something we’re good at in Scotland – possession might change very quickly, but there’s not the same transition into a very controlled fast break. So it’s not just running, but also the speed of the ball and the speed at which you react to winning the ball – a quickness of perception, and then the ability to interpret that. I spoke to Zinedine Zidane recently about this, and he said the first place players are now fast is in their head, the ability to see situations quickly, and then to have the technical ability to implement the answer very quickly.”
It is often argued that English football has seen a “coming together” of styles in recent years, that under the influence of continental managers the traditional British way of playing – a basic 4-4-2 with wingers haring it down the flanks – has become diluted. Does this mean that the English game is less hectic or physical than it used to be? “Well, Fabio Capello has been successful with the national team in varying things; it’s not just quick-quick. And in English football generally, teams have become better at controlling the tempo. But the ball speed is phenomenal if you look at the top sides, and they’re also very good at exploiting space on the counter-attack.”
Roxburgh adds that this is something Scottish teams have never been particularly good at – “We were always at our best in Scotland playing off a tackle. A Scottish player gets a ball in a lot of space in he’s never quite sure what to do with it” – but he is not, by and large, a pessimist. Scotland can still breed and nurture gifted players, he says. Our football culture can still adapt and evolve.
“You can’t change it at the top level overnight; it has to be over a period of time. I think we do still have players with technical ability in Scotland, and we’ve always had them. I used to say when I was managing Scotland that guys like Gary McAllister and Paul McStay and Pat Nevin could easily play in the Italian league, just from a purely technical point of view. But since the Bosman ruling we’ve tended to look for that technical quality elsewhere, instead of on our own doorstep. I think now there is a swing back, but it takes time.”
Over the next four weeks, managers will pit competing football philosophies and their own tactical wits against one another on international football’s most prestigious stage; but the sides who reach the latter stages of the World Cup are likely to have certain things in common – among them the ability circulate the ball well, control the tempo of a game and attack quickly from “the depths”.
The current Scotland manager, Craig Levein, has many people’s confidence that he will make a decent fist of things with the squad available to him when qualification for the next major tournament, Euro 2012, begins later this summer. But if Scottish football does not, collectively, ask important questions about what it would rather its players were able to do and how it would like them to play, then the odds on us competing at the highest level will only lengthen.