A quality-control problem: Craig Levein was unconcerned but defeat to Sweden exposed Scotland's big failing
It is entirely understandable that the Scotland coach should effect an air of nonchalance over the latest in an ever-lengthening list of inept showings on the road from understrength national line-ups this millennium. "Of all the people that are Scottish and were interested in the game, it seems that I'm the least bothered by it," was how Levein sought to dismiss a depressing display during his debriefing the other day.
That was a theme he expanded upon. "For me it was us losing a pre-season game. And normally, at a club you guys would come in and sit down and it'd be like 'who gives a shit'. But because international football comes around so infrequently there is such a spotlight that a defeat is treated like a death in the family. People have been coming up to me and saying 'oh, are you alright?'."
A theme he also later refined. "Of course we all want a sense of national pride and when something like this happens it is 'oh, what's happening to the long-term future of the game' and 'oh, no, we're in the burning Spitfire'."
All are perfectly acceptable reactions to a loss with no real cost. To Levein it is simple. His second game in charge was no more meaningful than the 1-0 friendly win over the Czech Republic with which he began his tenure. He had seven call-offs and lost a raft of crucial, experienced players. He decided to experiment. It didn't work. The game became a write-off after an early goal was lost and a back four with a paltry 17 caps between them toiled at the home of ultra-seasoned and ultra-smart opponents. It will all be different - "100 per cent better", he petitioned - when he assembles a team of first-picks for the opening game of Scotland's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign away to Lithuania in just under three weeks.
These pleas in mitigation deserve to be heard. They would, however, only have been used in evidence against the national coach if he happened not to be Levein but picked-on predecessor George Burley. The Sweden game did matter.For no other reason than to serve as a reminder that the most intractable problem remains not who picks the Scotland team, but who plays in it.
In the wake of the skittish March win over the Czechs - "we played better against Sweden but it is all black and white with winning and losing," Levein admitted - there was such a rush to declare it as all proof required that, with Burley bagged, everything was going to be different.
The new manager's pragmatism and risk-adverse approach, it was shouted out at the very least would ensure Scotland were be difficult to beat. The only difficulty in Stockholm was not losing by four or five.
The most sobering moment in Levein's post-mortem was when the issue of centre-backs being "thin on the ground" came up. "Why stop there?" was the tenor of his response. Scotland are thin on the ground in the left-back area and when it comes to strikers. And, he went on to admit, the right kind of midfielder. For his desire to play with a holding player in a variation of 4-5-1 he finds complicated by the fact that Lee McCulloch is the only obvious candidate. "Never mind Lee being a striker, a wide left player, a centre-back, he might be the closest thing we've got to a sitting midfielder," he admitted, viewing Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown as men to ferret for the ball and make tackles rather than stand off the play. "We don't have a square peg in a square hole for that job and it is a critical one in the system I want to play."
Remember, this is midfield we are talking about, ramped up as a really strong department of the national side. The very concept is bogus. "There are areas we can't afford to lose players from," Levein said. "We all know that. That's not changed in two or three years." In three years, however, the identity of the national coach has changed three times.
Mind you, there were some areas of the Scotland team in midweek even more deficient than others. Garry Kenneth and Christophe Berra at the heart of the defence could elicit only sympathy. And the fervent hope their pairing was a one-off. Levein sees Andy Webster, missing with injury in Sweden, as his banker. Gary Caldwell would be his other, but he is set to miss the double header against Lithuania and Liechtenstein following hip surgery. With Stephen McManus and Berra failing to convince in recent international outings, Levein maintains he would consider selecting David Weir and Danny Wilson. By all accounts, the hugely exciting 18-year-old was outstanding for the Under-21s in their 1-1 draw with Sweden on Wednesday in the first sighting of the composed performer since his 2 million move to Liverpool from Rangers in the summer. Weir might be 40, meanwhile, but it is rare to find a solid defence display from Scotland across the past five years that he played no part in.
"Of course, I wouldn't rule anyone out. I spoke about Davie in March.Wilson is a good player and comes into the equation because we don't have a lot of centre-backs. But please, let's not having him going from a player who has played in a couple of big games for Rangers in the Champions League to someone you rely on in a first competitive international. In the next year or two he will be introduced in a way that enables him to settle in and feel comfortable. In the arena, you are there to be criticised and it is not my job to leave an 18-year-old open to that. But if there is nobody else, yes he'll be in."
Levein has quickly realised that continuity is an illusory concept in his new environment. Each game must be treated as a single entity; not so much on its own merits as the merits of the players who turn up and declare themselves fit.
One of the reasons he remains relaxed about his competitive introduction to international football is that Sweden are on a different level to Lithuania, who lost 2-0 at home to Belarus in midweek. "Mick (Oliver, Scotland scout] saw them in midweek and says their players are of Scottish Premier League standard." So, in the main, are Scotland's, sadly.