When the Serbia manager played for Red Star Belgrade in the 1991 European Cup final against Olympique de Marseille, he and his team-mates were told by his coach, Ljupko Petrovic: "If we attack them then we'll leave ourselves open to counter-attack."
"So what will we do?," asked a young Mihajlovic.
"When you get the ball give it back to them," replied Petrovic. Red Star won on penalties.
This tale testifies to two truths. The first is that possession statistics only give one view of the game, admittedly an often telling one. The second is that football is not only about keeping the ball but using it to maximum effect, namely putting it in the back of the opponents' net.
This all sounds as if this correspondent is rehearsing for his definitive dissertation for his PhD on the blindingly obvious but it has strong resonance when reflecting on Scotland's calamitous goalless draw with Serbia on Saturday. One must, first, take a moment to consider the extent of the damage caused by dropping two points to the Serbs. It can be summarised thus: Mihajlovic's team will not win the group so a home draw against them is a very poor result.
The performance, though, raised points about possession that indict both the manager and a generation of Scottish underachievement. Craig Levein can not be blamed if professional footballers can not pass regularly to someone in the same shirt. But it was his failure to recognise this obvious shortcoming that grated on Saturday.
There will be those who argue that Levein had at his disposal players who earn millions of pounds a year in the Barclays Premier League. This is undeniable, but so did Roy Hodgson at the European Championship and he had to watch while Italy passed around them for most of the match, and nicked the ball from his players quickly and without fuss. Wales, too, had eight Premier League players in Chris Coleman's team on Friday but Belgium dominated possession.
Scotland faced substantially poorer foes than Italy or Belgium on Saturday yet could not keep the ball for sustained periods. This reality should have been addressed at half-time at the latest. The most effective riposte to a lack of possession is to use pace on the break. Scotland were increasingly laboured as the match wore on. Levein's side had 44% of possession in the first half and 41% in the second. One out of every four passes failed to find a team-mate.
These are extremely poor figures for a home side charged with winning a match. There had to be a realisation that if Scotland could not keep the ball – and a generation has given strong evidence in support of that assertion – then the team had to make devastating use of limited opportunity. Levein therefore should have started the match with the pace of James Forrest and Jamie Mackie. If he deemed this a tad bold, he must have realised that one of them had to come on at half-time. Instead, Forrest was given 20 minutes in which he forced Vladimir Stojkovic into his best save of the match. Mackie was put on with nine minutes to go and immediately raised both the crowd and discomfited the Serbian defence.
However, the problem extends far beyond managerial choice. Few pre-match would have argued against the inclusion of such as James Morrison and Charlie Adam but both were wilfully extravagant in possession. Morrison had a bad day but Adam must accept that not every pass has to be spectacular. There is a time to spring the lock with a ball that may drop as low in chance as 50-50 in terms of finding a mate but this almost certainly only applies in the opponents' final third.
Serbia sensed early that Scotland were not comfortable in possession and pressed eagerly. They were mildly surprised, however, by the relaxed air, bordering on contempt, with which the Scots surrendered possession. This can be addressed as the qualification campaign continues but it would be folly to expect major improvements. There is a culture in Europe that the ball is all. It does not exist among British players.
The good news is the issue has been identified. The bad news is do not expect Scotland to resemble Spain tomorrow night against Macedonia. A £25m national performance academy is on the way and, more importantly, it will be run on the principle that the ball is all-important, it should be caressed and kept rather than blootered away.
Mark Wotte, the Scottish Football Association's performance director, has made strong representations over the style of Scottish football and has found strong support in Stewart Regan, the chief executive of the SFA, who backs the moves to change the landscape of the game with the aim of improving the technique and mindset of players and coaches. The process of identifying a site for the academy is at an advanced stage and the prospectus for change has been largely agreed. It has to be put into operation, though, and there will have to be patience as the process encounters difficulties before providing results.
Wotte's best guess is that major improvement can be achieved by 2020, according to an interview earlier this year. Scotland are, of course, playing for a spot in the World Cup of 2014. Levein, then, must learn to bend his ideas to what seems obvious. The Tartan Army must show patience. The likelihood of both occurring will attract very long odds.
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