Ian Cathro’s short-term reign at Hearts was another flash-point in an ongoing discussion around the attitude towards progressive ideas and tactical applications inside Scottish football and the media covering it. One of the main contributors to the debate is Stevie Grieve, a young but experienced Scottish coach who has worked within both football clubs and the media on three different continents. Christian Wulff speaks to him about the current state of tactical knowledge and the attitudes towards it both fields and what he would do to improve it.
Stevie Grieve feels passionately about many things, but he gets an extra spring in his step when talking about how tactics are represented and discussed on football highlight shows and generally in the UK media.
‘The biggest issue with tactical analysis is a genuine lack of understanding of what is important to show, even the basic aspects of what has happened and why. Many can’t explain why something is significant. Why is positioning between the lines, or the positioning between two players in the midfield line, important? Some pundits might have the understanding but not the ability to explain why.’
While he has seen some improvement, he feels the level of competence and knowledge is generally far from acceptable.
‘There has been more of an effort to make analysis a feature within programmes, but in most cases it’s done poorly. You can tell if the pundit has picked out the clips, or even seen them before they go live, or if it’s been done by a production assistant. A prime example is delaying between clips: if the pundit has to delay, watch it, tell you what’s going on – they’ve not picked it out or even seen it beforehand. The level of analysis is as low as it can get.’
So within the current environment of match highlights shows in England and Scotland, where ex-players are expected to fill the majority of pundit roles, how can the tactical analysis on such shows be improved? It’s an area where Stevie not only has strong opinions, but where he can point to an actual body of work. Originally from Perth, after working within youth football at several different Scottish clubs, Stevie has held roles as a coach and technical director in Switzerland, India and Canada. Accredited with a UEFA A-license, he’s also an active media participant with articles in national newspapers as well as podcasts, including hosting a dedicated tactics pod on the World Football Index network. His main body of media work came in India where he was a tactical analyst for Champions League games for the Ten Sports Network and then a major part of Mind Games, Asia’s first show dedicated to in-depth tactical football analysis.
From this experience, Stevie is in no doubt that it’s about hiring people with the necessary competence. Not necessarily to be the face in front of the camera, but also to facilitate the discussion behind it.
‘Shows like Match of the Day and Sportscene can hire consultants with the required competence – I include myself in that category. They would be able to use software like PIERO to make diagrams over things to highlight, and then essentially provide a script to feed the pundit. It still might come off as artificial in terms of the pundit’s understanding, so a better approach is to place tactical analysis segments between general chat.
When I was a match analyst for the Champions League games on Ten Sport in India the host – RK Sreenivasan – was good at placing tactical analysis between periods of general chat, which broke up the show quite well. You go to an analyst who will do 2-3 minutes of analysis, go back to studio for more general discussion around the game and then from there you make it a feature, work on improving the content, graphics, information. It would work well both for viewers who are not essentially interested in the tactical side, as it breaks up the programme and keeps it fresh, while also creating interesting enough content for those who want to be informed about the tactical side. This generation of football fans is a demographic that is just going to grow in the future, as they have grown up with a lot more tactical and statistical information around football, especially on social media.’
This generation, who consume more and more detailed tactical analysis than ever before, in addition to the rapidly evolving area of advanced statistics in football, is often seen to clash with an ‘older guard’ of football journalists, coaches and ex-players who still hold the most visible positions within football punditry in the UK. An accusation often levelled towards this new generation is that too many try to overcomplicate tactics in order to ‘invest a depth or a complex science where not a lot exists’, as claimed by the Scottish journalist Graham Spiers. Instead, he said on Twitter, tactics really just come down to the shape and tempo of a team.
Unsurprisingly, Stevie vehemently disagrees:
‘Tactics have evolved so much in the last 10 years it’s scary. New innovations, new ways to press, new ways to build up, new ways to break lines or create superiority; it’s like watching a different game. I recently watched a Real Madrid v Galatasaray match from the past and it was like a completely different sport; so much space, defending was not organised and attacking was nowhere near as positional and deliberate as it is now.
Is Mr Spiers a tactical expert? No he isn’t. Could he do a show like Mindgame? No, he could not. He knows the Scottish game as well as anyone, but we’ve been terrible for years so our ‘tactics’ can be discarded pretty quickly.
Mr Spiers offers his tactical opinion on various managers and how they set up; Caixinha, Rodgers, Levein, Smith, Cathro, etc. Is he claiming that the difference between all of these coaches comes down to how quickly they move the ball and the basic shape they play in?
He’s a good journalist and a well-respected man, but possibly one who at a certain point grew tired of the ‘laptop brigade’ telling him tactics is the be-all and end-all, which it isn’t. It’s a part of the bigger jigsaw of coaching but it’s a massively important aspect of it – with the most variables – and it’s often the difference between winning and losing.’
When there is a discussion around tactical appreciation and modern coaching in Scotland, it usually doesn’t take long before Ian Cathro’s name is mentioned. Stevie knows Cathro very well from various coaching courses and feel there are plenty of mitigating circumstances in regards to his reign at Hearts and that it will turn out to be an invaluable experience for him.
‘I felt that in the game versus Dundee where they were 2-0 up but lost 3-2 was such a crucial moment. The pressure really intensified and accusations of lack of ‘character’ and ‘leadership’ were pointed at him unfairly. Had Hearts won that game, followed up with a 4-0 win over Kilmarnock, I think the media and fans would’ve left him to it and he had been given some support and more time. It’s very fine margins.
When you lose your main attacking weapon (Paterson), your best centre-back (Rossi), the main left back (Rherras), Muirhead going to MK Dons and with Oshaniwa and Sammon earning loads but doing nothing, you’re going to have difficulty stamping your own identity on the team because he was having to rebuild it almost straightaway. There was a clear lack of balance in the squad which needed to be fixed but that takes time, especially when you want to play in a positional possession style.
I think that he wanted to build an attractive, attacking team similar to Celtic, which would have benefitted the league as a whole, but when you need to rebuild your team twice in six months? It’s an impossible task for anyone, no matter how experienced.
I firmly believe when he is given another opportunity he will have learned so much from this experience and grown from it, and will be a success in the future.’
An accusation that is often levelled towards Scottish football as a whole is that it seems much more resistant to new ideas and tactical appreciation than maybe most other countries. It’s something Stevie very much agrees with but has no good answer for why.
‘I think that there are a lot of people within Scottish football who want to embrace progressive ideas and develop more of an appreciation for tactics throughout the game, but the media, many supporters, chairmen and board members are all older guys who come from a certain generation. They seem to act and think like it is still the 1970s and that football doesn’t need to evolve – or have changed – from that time. They seem to yearn back for that time where all their points of references are from.’
I would love to see Matthew Benham buy a club, let’s say St Johnstone, and go down the Brentford/Midtjylland route of working heavily in data and use it to gain advantages, with higher emphasis on intelligent recruitment and developing a playing style to showcase players to sell.’
This tendency to live in the past and sticking with what seems familiar and safe often ends up influencing which coaches are offered jobs within football. In an interview with this magazine last year, former Rangers player Maurice Ross, who has coached throughout the Nordic countries the last few years, said he thinks that Scottish football needs to stop pigeon-holing people in terms of their playing background and do a more proper due diligence when hiring managers. For Stevie, who knows Maurice from being on the same UEFA training courses, it’s a sentiment that resonates.
‘ Personally I’m more ready to be a head coach than many appointments made in Scottish football, but it’s the same stuff; since the chairman liked you as a player or person, you get hired for the most important role in the whole club regardless of how suited you might be for the job. And then they wonder why it doesn’t go well!? Maybe Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany are places where as a young coach you would prefer to go to start.
The way players and coaches are still recruited, there seems to still be a real lack of gathering insightful information before a decision is made. The way a squad is built is still done in a very old fashioned way, yet we complain when players don’t develop, clubs stagnate and there’s a lack of cash in our game despite doing the same things as 10 years ago. We’re falling further behind but making no changes to the processes. It’s insanity.
Incidentally, Maurice is a fantastic coach who I felt would’ve been great for either the Dundee or Dundee United jobs in the recent past, but unfortunately if you’re not in the Scottish football bubble, people forget about you.’
Stevie has worked as a coach for 15 years, and a large part of his time has been spent in youth football. Outside of Celtic, the lack of European club success and the national team’s 20-year absence from a major tournament has led to a lot of discussion around what needs to be done to improve youth development in Scottish football. With what many see as a reticence towards modern tactical ideas at the top level of football in Scotland and in the media, the status of tactical coaching inside youth football has been a hot topic. It’s one that is closely linked to how coaches are educated within Scotland. Having taken all levels of UEFA accredited badges up to the ‘A’ license through the SFA, Stevie has plenty of insight on the matter.
‘Coaching education is an incredibly complex part of football and it’s very difficult to create a plan which works for everyone. Especially in terms of the B and A licences, you have a very broad mix of experience, ability and background knowledge. That, together with the playing level the coach is working at, has a big impact on what people look for and think about to help their current players, which again affects their own development as a coach.
Despite the doom and gloom attitude we seem to have in Scotland, I’m aware that there’s an openness from a lot of the guys at the top to make things better. If we look at the clubs and performance schools, there’s a lot of really good work going on in Scottish football, which people don’t seem to realise and won’t support until we reach the World Cup and it’s bang in their faces.
It’s often a 10-15 year process and knowing what is working is just as important as knowing what needs changed.
With all that being said, I did feel that there was something missing around directing coaches on how to do more learning in their own time; they often don’t know what to look for or who to discuss new ideas with and learn new things from. It’s not just a Scottish thing, many countries lack this and it’s a gap that really needs filled.’
Giving coaches the tools and opportunity to develop further, especially outwith the official coaching courses, is an area that Stevie decided to get directly involved with. Over the last three years he’s been developing his own e-learning course for coaches, which is continually being developed and added to.
‘I had the idea while going through my UEFA B-licence training and doing Mind Game on TV in India. I could see that a lot of people didn’t really understand how to structure the game; basic positional ideas, how to create superiority, how to build up – quite simple things that would really help make the game easier for players and enable them to be more successful.
Stevie is designing online training courses for coaches and others interested in football tactics
I started putting together new ways to run the course, how to change the ‘themes’ to concepts, how to explain it and get into the real detail, which I did in practice with my staff in India. It grew from there to where it is now; a lot more refined and pushing towards creating the simplicity of breaking down high-level detail to make it as easy to understand and analyse as possible.’
Stevie thinks it’s a course that can not only be useful for all levels of coaching, but also for anyone with an interest in football such as analysts, volunteers and journalists.
‘Coaches who have minimal experience will have their eyes opened, while people working at an UEFA A-licence level will find that it helps them break down the game more clearly and gives them a better direction of putting things together, improving the information they give to players on the field and in meetings, while improving through their own methods of analysis.
The ultimate plan for it is to be the best online independent learning resource for football tactics, and for clubs, associations and universities to use it as part of their in-house coaching education, which will continually evolve and improve as time passes.’
Stevie’s coaching and his tactical outlook have been shaped by the footballing cultures and countries he’s been working in throughout his life. It’s a path he always wanted to take and that he wants to continue in but it also has its challenges and dilemmas.
‘Obviously you don’t see your family or mates as often as you’d like and as we’re getting older people have their own life and you have to accept that you’ll lose some of that regular contact. But I like living away. Seeing new things and modern technology lets you be a part of people’s lives in a different way even when you’re far away. I always wanted to live abroad and to go travelling, and it has helped shape where I now want my career to go; working within a first-team environment and eventually becoming a head coach in a top league. My ideal choice would be Italy as I’ve always wanted to work there but as long as I’m challenged, productive, paid enough and my wife is happy I’m always open to an offer.’
Stevie has held coaching roles within the youth set-ups at Dundee, East Fife and Raith Rovers before, but a return to Scotland isn’t necessarily on the cards.
‘Coming home hasn’t really been on the agenda for me, unless in exceptional circumstances. Although I’m really fortunate that there are people in Scottish football that have faith in me, would vouch for me and put me in touch with people who make those decisions. That’s something I’m incredibly thankful for and I hope I can repay them in the future. So there have been a couple of opportunities in Scotland that have been interesting, but financially it didn’t add up. Real life kicks in and while there are things I would have done for free in the past I just can’t justify that now when I make good money elsewhere.
I’ve been in talks with clubs in the SPFL around roles within their first teams but they have fell through because of various reasons, which was disappointing as I felt I could’ve made an impact and helped the clubs. I’m a believer that if you work hard, good things will eventually come in the future, whether that’s in Scotland or elsewhere. I’m ready to make that step up into the first team and help make a difference.’
Scotland means a lot to Stevie, also in political and patriotic ways.
‘When I was finishing school I was offered a college scholarship in USA and my chosen subject was international politics. I didn’t go in the end but I’ve always had a keen interest in geography and geopolitics.
Politics might be seen as boring but it has an effect on everyone’s lives, despite most people not caring because they feel like they can’t make a difference. And that’s exactly how governments want you to feel like. Disillusionment causes cognitive dissonance, then decisions that people who care would never allow, are allowed to pass onto an unsuspecting, ignorant populace.’
This interest in politics has always sparked an outspoken support for Scottish independence.
‘Supporting Independence is a little about being a proud Scottish man, but more importantly it’s about self-determination. Can Scottish people really hold the UK government to account if we don’t like its policies? Are the best interests of Scottish people being looked after by UK government?
If Scotland is to progress as a culture, a society and to become a real country that makes a difference in the world, we need to be able to decide what to do ourselves, and if it fails, we know who is accountable.
Right now, there’s a democratic deficit which will never benefit Scotland, who are effectively a really rich region of Northern England with a Parliament which is effectively a token gesture to appease the public which has essentially no impact on policy decisions taken in England.
September 19, 2014 was probably the saddest, most numbing day of my life. The shame I felt on that day will never leave me. I to this day do not sing along with Flower of Scotland because the words mean nothing now and are basically hypocritical.
So within Scottish football I guess it’s me and Michael Stewart being outspoken proponents of independence. It caused a few laughs at the St. Johnstone – Hearts match when I refused to give Ricky Foster any stick even though he was having a shocker, just because he’s a yes voter! Petty, I know.
But people are so proud to be Scottish when the football is on and when we reach the next major tournament it’ll be one of the proudest, happiest moments in many people’s lives for a long, long time. If Scotland voted to be independent I think it would spur a similar lifelong feeling for the next generation of people who will benefit from it.’