What’s wrong with Scotland

If you are reading this expecting some blinding insights into why, yet again, Scotland have failed to qualify for the final stages of a competition, then sorry to let you down, but you will have to look elsewhere for answers. This is just a few thoughts on where we might start to look for questions, for unless we start asking the right questions – and in more detail than “why have we failed again to qualify?” – we will never come up with the right answers.

However, this is a particularly apt time to start to look for the “right” questions, as surely now the SFA must be shamed into a genuine root and branch change and reform to the game. If they cannot be shamed by being the only “home” country in the UK to qualify then they must not only have a brass neck but be utterly without shame. As well as England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland might go with them, if they can negotiate a play-off.

The most likely focus, particularly after taking six off Gibralter (slightly more than their average of 5.4 goals per game) on where we are going wrong is likely to be initially at least on Thursday’s game with Poland, which with seconds to go, and winning 2-1, we managed to blow it again, ending up drawing 2-2 (though we have form in this respect, as in 1965 with five minutes to go and one goal up, we managed to lose 2-1 to Poland at Hampden). Complaints will no doubt be made about the selection, the formation, etc, but the fact is that in this campaign we have arguably done OK in playing the “big countries”. We have a better head to head with the Republic, having drawn in Dublin after winning in Glasgow. If the ref hadn’t played four minutes (where did he get four minutes from by the way?) we would have had a better head to head against the Poles, since we drew with them in Poland. Whilst it can be said with justice that we gave a good account of ourselves against Germany – who are, after all, only the World Champions – we lost both games. This is in contrast to the Poles and the Republic who both beat them at home.

But the real damage was done against one of the two “minnows”, Georgia, who only won three games – both their games against Gibraltar, and their home game with us. In fact if we had won that game, it would have put us level on points with the Republic and looking at a play-off spot as our head to head to them was in our favour.

Ifs and buts though are Scotland’s stock-in-trade. What is more important is that in every attempt to qualify since 2002 we haven’t even got out of the qualifying group (in 2000 we did get out the qualifying group, but lost in a play-off to England). That is eight attempts. We might not be lucky, but THAT unlucky?

Another argument is that we have been unlucky in the countries whose groups we get drawn into. It does have to be said that Germany, Poland and the Republic, with no more than three to qualify is never going to be easy. Look at Wales. OK they drew Belgium, but also Israel, Cyprus, Bosnia and Andorra. Northern Ireland had to cope with the majesty of Romania, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Finland and Greece (whose national team seems to have about as many misfortunes as their government). Why don’t we get it that easy?

Well one reason is that if you don’t qualify, with seeded groups, you drop down the seedings and you have to be lucky to get a notionally better team that is on the slide. So the two – our inability to qualify and drawing good teams – tend to go together. And can we really say we have been unlucky eight times on the bounce?

In the 1970s – 1990s it didn’t matter, as we qualified more often than we didn’t, at least for the World Cup. That also rather undermines the “generational argument” – that, particularly as a small nation, we will often not have strength in depth in the way a larger country will have. England can draw on something like 50 million people while we have about 10% of that. But 40 years ago, that didn’t matter – we kept qualifying (though we were always home before the postcards!, but at least we got there).

If we look at the team that started last night, there are six playing in the English Premiership, though none for any of the really top teams playing in the Champions League. Of the 25 players used in qualifying, 10 of them play in the Premiership, but that is no worse than the regular Welsh squad as half of them don’t play in the Premiership either, though one of their squad does play for Real Madrid. The rest are playing in the Championship or even the SPL. Meantime in Northern Ireland, some 18 of the 27 players they have used in qualifying, don’t play in the Premiership – indeed seven of them play in Scotland. We might not have the superstars of the English Premiership that England can call upon (Hart, Rooney etc), but our players are playing at a level similar to most of the Welsh and Northern Ireland teams, which both qualified.

So if it’s not poor players (as measured by how many of your squad play in the English Premiership), or how often we have to use the “that’s a hard group” excuse, then what is the problem?

As mentioned, surely the SFA will be so utterly shamed by the fact that every single Home Nation has qualified for these European Championships except us that they will treat this as a crisis. You can bet your life the press pack will be making noises of that type over the next few days and weeks (though the wagons seem to be circling for Gordon Strachan from players and managers/ former managers). In that respect, it seems to me that we are in a simlar position as Germany were in 2000 and 2004, when they had – in their terms –disastrous European Championships, failing at the second group stage both times. In 2004, as Raphael Honigstein puts it in Das Reboot, “To call Hitzfeld’s decision [not to take the job offered to him to become Germany’s coach, following Rudi Voller’s resignation after the defeat by the Czechs] a surprise didn’t begin to get close to the cataclysmic effect it had on a footballing nation that lay curled up on the floor after the second traumatic group stage fiasco in as many European Championships” (Raphael Honigstein “Das Reboot”, pp. 13-14).

Honigstein relates the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as coach of the German national team in 2004, and the changes he put in place during his time in charge, and then the subsequent progression of these ideas by Jogi Low, who had initially been his assistant but took over when Klinsmann resigned two years later, culminating in 2014 by Germany being the first non-South American team to win the World Cup in South America.

From the perspective of Business Theory – and in particular Strategic Management – none of Klinsmann’s ideas were dazzlingly original. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, prior to his appointment, Klinsmann was scathing not only of the players (Germany didn’t have players who could play at the highest tempo, Philip Lamm apart, lacking players who could go past opponents with the ball); that other countries were playing attacking football while Germany played sideways. More pertinently why were they chasing all manner of high profile coaches without defining the specifications, the skill needs of the job, which is something fairly standard in business practice; that there was a lack of vision – where did they want the national team to be in six to eight years? Again that is not an uncommon business practice. Klinsman called for a ‘revolution’ – the whole training regime needed reform; specialists needed to be brought in, including sport psychologists. There needed to be a ten-year plan with everything “x-rayed down to the youth team“. He concluded “the whole shop needs to be taken apart“.

However the notion of review, setting aims and putting in place plans to achieve those aims is common in business, but when suggested for football it met with opposition. On Klinsmann’s appointment, the Schalke coach, Rudi Assauer, said “Klinsmann has never coached. Bierhoff [who became the team manager, while Klinsmann was coach] has never coached or managed. Low (Jogi Low, who became assistant coach) has experience for sure, but he’s only the assistant. These three are supposed to take German football forward. I find that hard to believe” (quoted in Honigstein, pg 48).

Klinsmann’s ideas were also seen by some as a thinly veiled attack on their own practices. For instance Michael Meier, General Manager at Borussia Dortmund said he would support Klinsmann, “But he has to stop questioning everything” (Honigstein, pg. 48). Thomas Hitzelberger, who played for Aston Villa for a time, writes of being given training programmes by Klinsmann and Low to follow when they returned to their clubs, “Our coaches tried to talk to the club managers; some agreed, some didn’t because they felt it wasn’t the German FA’s business” (Honigstein, pg 99).

An attack on the dominant paradigm – or culture in the Deal & Kennedy “this is the way we do things around here” way – will usually call forth a strong response. In Social Science the paradigm shift to Keynesianism from the 1930s was acrimonious .According to John Kenneth Galbraith, Say’s Law had dominated economic thought prior to Keynes for over a century. Economists who contradicted Say’s Law, which implied that underemployment and underinvestment (coupled with oversaving) were virtually impossible as the price level would adjust to compensate, risked losing their careers. That kind of response to a challenge to the dominant paradigm is something that should be considered normal.

What Klinsmann argued for, and what Scottish football might profit from, at least from the attitude if not the specifics, is his observation that “We have to question all rituals and habits, not just in football. That’s nothing to be afraid of. Reform is not a process that happens in episodes. Reform has to become a permanent state” (Honigstein, pg.57).

What were the outcomes of this footballing-version of permanent revolution? There were several that we should contemplate

  1. The appreciation that football is increasingly not just a physical game, but a mind game. Players have to be able to change formation and system four or five times during a game at almost any level, whether its first team or development squad. This increases, exponentially the mental demands on players as they have to be able to play in several different positions, understand what these differences entail, and have the patience to have their mistakes explained to them in many routine sessions using video analysis. In other words, that football is about more than learning physical skills – kicking, heading, controlling or passing a ball. In an important sense football takes place in the head just as much as on the ground. As Volker Kersting (Mainz 05 Youth Director ) puts it “I always say that the brain is the most important thing a footballer possesses. What doesn’t happen upstairs can’t happen down below at the feet either. You can be technically perfect on the ball but that in itself won’t do at the highest level. You’ll have to go and play Futsal indoors or free style football instead” (Kersting quoted in Honigstein, pg 139).

    Linked to this, the typical German footballer changed. At one time there would maybe be 15% of their youth teams doing their Abitur, which is both a school graduation certificate taken after the full 12 or 13 years of education, and a university entrance exam. In contrast for the wider population 50% would take their Abitur. However, more recently in the German National Youth Teams, the proportion taking their Abitur has reached 70%, and at some Bundeliga Club Academies that number has been as high as 85%. As Honigstein notes “German football has, it seems, become thoroughly middle class” (Honigstein pg. 139).

    The link between these two changes is, I hope, clear, since if the mental demands have increased, then players with the capacity to live with, and profit from, those demands becomes necessary.

  2. The German view of football management up until this time had been that “a theorist … was the opposite of a practitioner” (Ralf Rangnick, quoted in Honigstein, pg 180). Klinsmann, Honigstein argues, “was the most prominent member of the new wave of “Konzpttrainer” ….. who believed in methodology – “the systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods applied to a field of study. It comprises the theoretical analysis of the body of methods and principles associated with a branch of knowledge” (Wikipedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodology), in this case football. Of course, as above there was opposition to this, often on the basis of what was “obvious”, or “accepted practice”. For instance, Rangnick tells of wanting to appoint a Sports Psychologist during his time at Schalke – “they had told me there was no need because they had never had one before. End of conversation” (Ralf Rangnick, quoted in Honigstein, pg 193), pg 193). The most celebrated example of
    Konzpttrainer has been Jurgen Klopp, who in 2012 had achieved the German double of League and Cup, taking his team to the final of the Champions League in 2013, where the lost 1-2 to Bayern Munich. Jan Doehling, a producer at the Mainz-based state television channel ZDF, suggests Klopp’s success, having been an unexceptional player in an often unexceptional Mainz 05 team, and later viewed as the “Harry Potter of German football for his metal rimmed glasses and floppy hair, “opened up people’s eyes to the fact that football management was a vocation that could be learned, that it wasn’t a God-given skill possessed exclusively by former greats on the pitch” (Honigstein, pg 198).

    Klopp, for instance, introduced what he called “Gegenpressing” – winning the ball high up the pitch, so they would not only press the ball to stop opposition attacks, but also continue pressing after their own attack had broken down. This is an application of Rangnick’s observation that

    Football has become a completely different sport over the last ten years. The change has been brutal. The two basic elements – having the ball, not having the ball – are the same but transitions between those two states are nothing like they used to be. The highest probability of scoring a goal is within ten seconds of taking possession. The highest probability of winning the ball back is within eight seconds of losing possession. Think about those two numbers and what they mean. Everything else just follows” (Rangnick quoted in Honigstein, pg 199)

So what does this mean for Scottish football? There are for me a number of fairly obvious conclusions

  1. That football management is a vocation that can be learned, and that football managers don’t always need to be former players, though they do need the necessary preparation, experience and learning, but in particular a critical attitude to the techniques, processes and thinking they apply in their work.
  2. That Scottish football needs to become more cerebral. As we have seen the proportion of youth players in Germany doing their University entrance exam is higher than for the population as a whole. This is not to suggest that IQ has become more important than skill, but if cognitive skills are becoming more important than before then Scottish football needs to do what it can to ensure that boys with the necessary physical and skill attributes, but also the necessary cognitive abilities are not lost to the game. But perhaps the most important lesson from German football, is that “Football is always changing and we have to make sure we change with it” (Kersting, quoted in Honigstein, pg 150). Will Scottish football do this? Well the signs haven’t been good. A report about Henry McLeish and the fate of his 2010 review of Scottish football , as well as his views on more recent developments, begins “Evolution happens at a glacial pace in Scottish football” (http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/13209209.Henry_McLeish_on_football__fans_and_the_future___I_love_the_game_with_a_passion_but_we_need_to_do_more_/)

    None of this, though, should be seen as specific criticism of Gordon Strachan, who has to work with the players and the context of Scottish football as he finds it. Moreover while we need to do what we can to address our recent history of failure, at the same time we need to accept the limitations of the players we have today, while doing everything possible to ensure that those who come after have transcended as many of these restrictions as possible.

    The recent history of German football is not encouraging in that introducing the necessary practices was the subject of opposition from within the game. It is heartening though in that changes have been implemented there, and the success achieved by the Germans is a very strong encouragement to a similar attitude being introduced to Scottish football.

    While we might not win the World Cup, it would be taking our game forward for its leading coaches and managers to have a critical methodology so that their methods are considered provisional and always subject to revision and replacement.


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