For all the focus on where Gordon Strachan’s Scotland went wrong, it’s worth remembering the obvious: they need a replacement who will have a strategy in place to help solve their problems.
To give some background, Scotland haven’t qualified for a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup and look no closer to discovering how to do so. They are in a strange place right now. Their tried-and-tested route-one formula of bypassing the midfield and relying on loose balls is at odds with Brendan Rodgers’ revolution at Celtic, and seems at best a perverse strategy against opponents they’re expected to beat anyway. The confusion over how to integrate Celtic’s central spine has led to prolific Celtic scorer Leigh Griffiths being left out for much of the qualifying campaign for not being physical enough. Others, such as left-back Kieran Tierney who was played at right-back, and fleeting wingers James Forrest and Callum McGregor, have felt like square pegs in round holes.
Ultimately, following the 2-2 draw against Slovenia, ruling them out of the 2018 World Cup, Strachan left by mutual consent. Frustration rang again. They finished that game with just 33% possession; lower than Celtic managed even in their 3-0 defeat to European heavyweights Bayern Munich. In itself, this isn’t evidence of a flawed strategy, but merely that it is unorthodox to their central spine of players. Like asking them the square root of something.
This isn’t all of Strachan’s doing though. Failure is a term often solely attributed to managers for their team’s performance. By common wisdom, if results are not up to the expected level over a given period, it’s evident that someone has failed their duties and needs to leave. Suggesting otherwise involves making excuses or accepting mediocrity. This line of thinking creates a problem where it’s hard to learn from mistakes and make strategic improvements after the culprit is put out of his misery. After all, the mistakes are unequivocal failures on that person’s track record and the responsibility is entirely on them rather than the overriding strategy. 99 times out of 100, that person is the manager; perhaps fairly considering they usually make every key tactical decision.
Back to the point, it’s obvious that the Scottish Football Association need to either heavily evolve their existing strategy, or create an entirely new one. When they last qualified for an international tournament in 1998, many of the current European powerhouses had not evolved into the teams they are today. Spain failed to qualify from a group containing Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria, while Belgium failed to win a single game in their slightly more competitive group involving the Netherlands, Mexico and South Korea. In Javier Clemente, Spain had a manager known for being authoritarian and defensive, according to El Pais (in Spanish)! Since then, while other more successful nations have had an enriching learning experience, Scotland seem to believe it’s a genetic problem that’s holding them back. As recently as 2015, it was deemed perfectly acceptable for the Under-19s staff to “not see enough” of ex-Real Madrid starlet Jack Harper because his lack of height meant “he can be a luxury sometimes” according to ex-manager Ricky Sbragia.
David Moyes has been heavily recommended as Strachan’s replacement. He has personally told BBC Sport of his interest, while he also comes heavily recommended by former England boss Sam Allardyce. He’s Scottish, has almost two decades of experience managing in English leagues and has played in Scottish ones. He knows the rough-and-tumble required. In other words, he’s a proper football man. But it’s worth remembering that Gordon Strachan was hired on a similar basis. “I know Gordon’s been out the game for a little while but he knows the scene up here,” Pat Nevin said, according to the same website. “Time will tell if he is the right man but I think it is a great appointment for Scotland. It gives everyone a lift.”
In short, coming from the nation in which you are managing is a highly overrated quality. Let me explain. In an ideal world, everyone involved in a national team should be from that nation. After all, the essence of these matches is putting one country’s footballing resources and nous against another’s. However, it should go without saying that a position as crucial as national team manager should be based on pragmatism and calculation rather than idealism. If the manager is not the best man for the job, then why should they be picked based on another person’s vision of what the job should be?
This is underselling the argument though. There’s another, more reasonable, school of thought suggesting someone from the nation is likely to know the players, staff and federation’s vision better than any overseas candidate. That probably explains why most nations, including the most successful ones, end up hiring domestic candidates. Nonetheless, as we’ve established, the Scottish Football Association’s existing strategy is not the way forward. Unless there’s a Scottish candidate who knows the players better than any overseas candidate, would embark on a new strategy and can create a tactical game-plan to beat most opponents, there’s no clear advantage to hiring one.
Moyes does not appear to be that candidate. A lack of adaptation to his new environments has been a common point of criticism since the beleaguered manager became Manchester United manager all the way back in 2013. Back then, he passed up signing nimble Spaniard Thiago Alcantara and ended up paying over the odds to get his bulky former player in Marouane Fellaini. In addition, according to The Telegraph, ex-Manchester United centre-back Rio Ferdinand has spoke out about how “the whole approach was alien”, adding “Moyes’s innovations mostly led to negativity and confusion. The biggest confusion was over how he wanted us to move the ball forward. Some players felt they kicked the ball long more than at any time in their career.” That theme has been consistent at Real Sociedad and Sunderland since. At the former club, Moyes “didn’t learn a word of Spanish” according to Carlos Martinez and only learned how good Andres Iniesta was in 2015 when managing against him. Last season, he took the latter club down, amassing only 24 points from 38 games, despite having the joint 12th highest wage bill. Out of the 11 players Sunderland brought in during the transfer market, a staggering six were directly from Moyes’ former clubs. Darron Gibson, Bryan Oviedo and Steven Pienaar from Everton; Paddy McNair, Donald Love and Adnan Januzaj from Manchester United. His main reflections on that experience concerned their need for ‘Britishness’ and how no-one would have kept them up!
Scotland have suffered in the last two decades from cherry picking the same types of managers from a limited shortlist. Being Scottish itself is overrated when the institution and its values is in such pressing need of reform, while the development of Moyes’ career since the Manchester United debacle is about as inspiring as the track record of Owen Coyle.