WORRYING times for Scotland’s Craig Levein, who last night became the first international manager to deploy tactics pioneered by the late Peter Cook.
In late 1993, just over a year before his death, Cook appeared on Clive Anderson Talks Back as the gibberish-spouting Northern manager Alan Latchley in one of the greatest football-related comedy routines ever shown on television.
Latchley tells of his early start in management (“I was made manager of Scunthorpe when I was 16-and-a-half. I was a boy. I knew nothing. So I went home and read a book”), his two-week stint at Hartlepool (“I’m a Scunny man, and they don’t like Scunny men in Hartlepool”) and later spell in charge of Manchester City (“My aim was to bring every player down to the same level”).
He also reveals the secret of his management technique (“the three Ms: motivation, motivation, motivation”) along with his greatest tactical innovation – the Escapini, a 10-man defensive unit. As Latchley puts it: “I have them stood on each other’s shoulders in the goalmouth with their backs to the opposing team, and they just stay there and rely on rebounds.”
Of course, the idea of playing 10 defenders and no strikers is ridiculous. Isn’t it?
Levein’s interview with BBC Radio Scotland after his side narrowly avoided humiliation at home to Liechtenstein in last month’s Euro 2012 qualifier is well worth seeking out.
The interviewer asks a series of entirely reasonable questions along the lines of: “We really shouldn’t be leaving it until the seventh minute of stoppage time to beat Liechtenstein, should we?” And Levein responds to each question with a variation of: “There’s no point me talking about what would have happened if we hadn’t beaten Liechtenstein, because we did.”
With a testing trip to the Czech Republic to follow, Levein decided on a different tactical approach. He dropped Kenny Miller, brought in QPR striker Jamie Mackie, and played him on the right-hand side of a six-man midfield. In front of four defenders. This revolutionary 4-6-0 formation prompted the Czech coach Michal Bilek to speculate that Scotland might now be less adventurous away from home than Liechtenstein.
(It’s still not the oddest formation ever to be deployed in a game involving Scotland, though. That honour goes to Estonia, who went with a daring 0-0-0 line-up against them in a World Cup qualifier in Tallinn 14 years ago by not turning up.)
Scotland have not scored a goal away from home for two years, so perhaps Levein’s tactics were grounded in some kind of pragmatism. Unfortunately, Scotland lost 1-0 (at which point, Levein put on two strikers). So having narrowly avoided becoming the manager who failed to beat Liechtenstein, Levein will instead be forever known as the manager who faced a team 37th in the FIFA rankings with no forwards.
It suddenly seems a very long time since Scotland were beating France home and away in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Levein, at least, has promised to field some strikers against Spain at Hampden Park on Tuesday night.
Levein said afterwards he had no regrets about starting with a 4-6-0 line-up. As Cook’s creation Latchley said: “I can look myself in the mirror and the morning and say: There is a man.”