It is the job of the manager to look at what’s going right and what is going wrong and to find the invisible line that goes from one to the other. Ange is not daft. He knows that there’s an explanation for some of the more egregious stats in relation to our European performances so far. He calls it the need for experience. He’s almost certainly correct.
Someone told me last night that we’ve had 30 shots on target in the three European matches and we’ve scored twice. Here, domestically, we’ve been rattling the ball into the net on a regular basis.
In Europe we’re making chances … but something is going wrong in that final third.
Take even one third of them and the Group table looks very different.
When Ange says experience, he’s talking about an amalgam of things at the root of which is this; when this team starts realising it is here on merit and that football comes down to the same basic principles in this tournament, and in Europe as a whole, as it does in Scotland, they will be better off for it.
I said last season this team needed to become champions to fully feel like they were as good as we knew they could be … they need some measure of success in Europe before they will start to believe that great things can be achieved.
This is not about quality; this team has the quality. This is about mentality. This about taking that extra second to place a shot or get a header on target.
It’s about Callum being calm and composed enough to get that pass to a Celtic player tonight instead of rushing it. It’s Joe Hart getting the ball passed back to him too many times by nervous defenders and his own composure being so shot that he takes a risky pass instead of doing it right.
It’s as if these guys get in front of goal – or see opposing players run at them – and start thinking about the global TV audience, and the stage they are on, and the pressure of the moment. There’s actually a movie moment for this, and I think of it often.
In Oliver Stone’s magnificent Any Given Sunday – one of the most under-rated sports movies of all time (and the only film, and I swear this is true, that I’ve ever watched four times in a single day) – Willie Beamen is the third string quarterback for the Miami Sharks.
His manager, played by the ever awesome Al Pacino, is forced to throw him into a game after the two quarterbacks in front of him get injured during the match.
And although Beamen has a huge talent (it’s explained that he was signed on a naff contract because a previous coach played him in the wrong position, and he got injured) he is as nervous as Hell out on the pitch. He even vomits in the huddle, and for the first couple of plays he is almost paralysed by the sheer terror he feels.
Pacino pulls him aside and calms his nerves by reminding him that the game is simple, that it’s played the same way whether he’s on the streets at home or in a stadium. He tells him to forget the lights, forget the crowd and focus on simply playing ball.
That’s what our boys need to do. This is about what’s in their heads, not what they can do with their feet. These guys have the talent and the skill … but not, yet, the composure. I read last night that eight of the eleven starters have never played in the Champions League before this season … that’s not in the least bit surprising when you see how they played.
Three of them were playing in the J League. This time last year, Matt O’Riley was in League One. Jenz was warming a bench. Jota had been a Benfica sub in this tournament. That’s how inexperienced we were out there last night … at this level anyway.
And you can tell these guys are somewhat affected by that.
The trouble is, at that level you need to learn fast or you’re going to sink like a stone. Ange was angry last night, but these guys should take that as a net positive. He wouldn’t be if he didn’t think they were capable of so much more. He slammed them for playing with fear because he knows if they play without it they have nothing to worry about at all.
It will come. It will all come to these guys, because they do belong at that level, and they are good enough to play there.
When they start to believe it, they will do big things.