It is well documented that Scotland has a woeful record of qualifying for major tournaments. Bad managers, bad players, bad luck, lack of investment, lack of youth development and even the break up of the Soviet Union have all been cited as contributing factors to Scotland’s poor performance on the international stage. But what about tactical innovation? Could a revolution or alteration in the tactical set up of the team be what is required to progress?
Scottish tactical overview
Scotland teams of the last 20 years have more often than not favoured the 4-5-1 formation, nominally becoming a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 when they have the ball. This set up has become a universal favourite across the world, offering the defensive stability of a back four, with further stability in the middle of the park and numbers in advanced midfield positions to support what is usually a lone striker. These more attack-minded players add a sparkle to what is generally a robust and functional set up for Scotland, designed for damage limitation and to create a solid base.
Throughout football history, those who find ways of improving, altering or expanding tactical rigidity have been heralded as visionaries or revered coaches. Thinking back over the last 20 years, however, Scotland has not had any sort of visionary or alternative tactical approach to speak of. Scotland Managers, by in large, have stuck with the tried and tested on the majority of occasions, be it Strachan, Burley, McLeish, Smith or even Wee Berti. Functional, solid football is the order of the day with even the more gifted or flair players. This is what the management and ultimately fans want to see, wingers tracking back and tackling, following their man, working, sweating and bleeding for the shirt before all else. I include myself in this group: I dare to remember the number of times I have been in the stands at Hampden screaming at the likes of Snodgrass, Forrest or Naismith to track back. This mentality is clearly ingrained in our mindset as Scotland fans.
Tactics are generally considered successful when they out-smart and out-manoeuvre opponents. If you follow football tactics through the ages, every development — whether it be the creation of a back four, the use of wingers or the employment of a “false nine” — has been a move to out-wit opponents and become harder for the more functional, defensive side of the opposition’s tactics to pick up or counter.
What is telling is that great football nations like Italy or Argentina – neither of whom is averse to a bit of defensive stability, of course – have identified and provided platforms for certain players in unusual positions to shine. Effectively, playing “between the lines” is the most simple way to describe this kind of tactical innovation.
Positions such as the “Regista”, the “Trequartista”, the “Enganche” and even the “Libero” have evolved from this sort of tactical innovation, providing platforms for the best players to work from. The above terms don’t really translate at all well into English (language), let alone Scottish Football. The closest translation for Regista would be “playmaker”.
The “Regista” position is best defined in modern times as a deep-lying playmaker who circulates the ball, picks passes, shifts entire opposition teams around the pitch. Playing in a pocket of space behind the midfield line but in front of the defence to allow more space and time to pick passes. A better position from where to orchestrate and also to force the opposition to make a decision. The basic premise is to play within the lines to disrupt any solidity as set out by the opposition. Trequartista and Enganche style players would ordinarily be more advanced playmakers, a “number 10” style player in behind the striker but ahead of the midfield.
How could this impact in Scotland?
Scotland has perhaps not had any players who could fulfil such roles, or at least, has always been preferred to play in a defined formation rather than having a player in a free-er role. What is telling is the fact that the above are all variations led and promoted in different cultures. There has been little tactical innovation that has been led by Scotland since the much-heralded Scottish Passing Game of the 1800’s.
Perhaps Scottish football as a whole is set in its ways, with players only able to perform in certain positions. For example, a sitting midfielder good at only short passes and tackling, but not proficient at dropping into a Regista role to circulate the ball and orchestrate the team.
The issue may run deeper than the Scotland first team, but it should not be an idea discounted simply because success may not be immediate. So allowing for innovation and leading from the front, adopting the principles of a system to incorporate a Regista or an Enganche or some alternative style of tactical innovation is perhaps a way forward. There are other “smaller” nations who incorporate such players – Sigurdsson for Iceland, Eriksen for Denmark, for example. Both teams manage to include creativity without diminishing solidity. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility for Scotland to try and incorporate this type of approach back to front and try to play, for example, Scott Brown as a Regista, as opposed to midfield warrior, or John McGinn as an Enganche, as opposed to an all-action central player.