After the embarrassing display that led to a 1:5 defeat against Serbia, what must Macedonia do to build a respectable national team?
Over the past couple of years, the Macedonian national team has not achieved many victories, but they have rarely been uncompetitive and disoriented as was the case in the Serbia game. It was a complete annihilation and the players, coaches and federation leadership must look in the mirror after such an unacceptable performance. Playing for a national team, regardless if its Macedonia or Spain, should be a privilege, not a right. It appears some players have become too comfortable with their spots on the team and something must be done to send a message.
After the Serbia debacle, there is no way that Zoran Stratev should be kept on as permanent manager for the next qualifying cycle. The players did not respond to Stratev and looked out of sorts in both games. After the Serbia game, Stratev additionally said that Agim Ibraimi asked to be substituted at the halftime break. He was not injured so one can only speculate about what caused Ibraimi to ask Stratev to be substituted. During the game, there were also instances of players yelling at one another and just a lack of cohesion and teamwork.
If the Football Federation of Macedonia (FFM) could afford to once pay John Toshack’s alleged 15,000 Euros per month salary, more than double what Chedomir Janevski allegedly made, then they should find the funds to offer more money to recruit a modern manager who will adapt and evolve with the game, instead of hiring a washed up coach like Toshack. FFM should look to attract sponsorship money and target other revenue streams to generate funds to be able to afford a respected manager. That kind of hire will add legitimacy which is much needed at this time for Macedonian football.
A good way to search for qualified coaching candidates would be to seek the advice of Goran Pandev, Nikolche Noveski and Tome Pachovski. Those three players have spent a number of years in Italy, Germany and Belgium, respectively, and certainly can list good managers from those respective countries who are currently without a team. The manager selection will be crucial so FFM president Ilcho Gjorgioski and sporting director Petar Miloshevski must get the hire right.
Now, in saying that, even a good manager can only do so much if the players are not up to par.
Let’s take a look at the status of each position for Macedonia:
Goalkeeper: Tome Pachovski has been solid in these qualifications and should be the keeper moving forward. Pachovski has been in good form and made a number of good saves throughout the campaign to prevent even more goals. He is 31 years old but usually keepers can sustain their good form well into their mid 30’s. The concern is that Pachovski is currently the backup at his club team Mechelen, but based on his play for Macedonia, he deserves to be the keeper for the national team. His backups on the national team are Kristijan Naumovski and Darko Tofiloski, both players in their mid 20’s who have not received much playing time for Macedonia.
Right-back: This will be an interesting position to watch since it consists of young players such as Daniel Georgievski and Stefan Ristovski. Daniel has mostly played well for the national team, but he has recently been in bad form which led to his benching with both Macedonia and Steaua București, his club team. Ristovski is considered an important player for the future, and currently plays in Italy with Serie B side Latina. Both are offensive minded and like to go forward, but can also be liabilities on defense. Daniel is faster and a better athlete, while Stefan is considered more technically gifted. They will compete for playing time at the position, or maybe one can be asked to play left-back as was the case with Ristovski for most of these qualifications.
Center-back: This is a very problematic position for the future. Nikolche Noveski is 34 years old and how long can he keep going before he retires. The other CB’s, Vanche Shikov (28), Boban Grncharov (31), Daniel Ivanovski (30), and Daniel Mojsov (soon to be 26) are similar in characteristics with Noveski in that they are all tall but very slow. Quick and smaller players give them a lot of problems. There is a lack of depth and the age is a concern with Noveski, Grncharov and Daniel Ivanovski. There is also not much help at the U21 level as the CB’s there have struggled mightily.
Left-back: This is another troubling position. Goran Popov in under contract with West Brom in England, but he is prone to many individual mistakes on defense which led to his benching by former manager Chedomir Janevski. Popov refused to apologize for causing disruption inside the locker room, and has not been called up since. Meanwhile, in England, when he spat at an opposing player last season, he immediately apologized. That kind of shows how much the national team means to him. He has chosen to be stubborn up to this point, but the new manager must still demand an apology if Popov wants to return to the national team. Other left-back options are Ezgjan Alioski, Aleksandar Lazevski, Yani Urdinov and Stefan Ashkovski. Alioski has talent but is very inexperienced as his highest level of competition in club football is the Swiss second division, Lazevski has been in bad form that has affected his playing time at Hoverla, Urdinov is an effort player who is not seen to possess much upside, while Ashkovski is currently captain of the U21 team and is very much an offensive minded player who likes to go forward.
Defensive Midfield: The position is plagued by a lack of depth and quality. Muhamed Demiri is still regaining form after a lengthy injury, while Ostoja Stjepanovikj has done okay for the most part, and plays regularly for Wisła Kraków, but he seemed very lazy in the Serbia game with his approach. Others like Nikola Gligorov and Veliche Shumulikoski are both at least 30 years old and not playing much for their club teams. The national team should move forward without counting on those two guys. Predrag Rangjelovikj can play in defensive midfield, if the coach deems he possesses the quality, and then some other younger players like Darko Micevski and/or Stefan Spirovski will need to step up and improve competition in defensive midfield.
Wingers: The current two starters are Agim Ibraimi on the right wing and Ivan Trichkovski on the left wing. Lately, Agim has become very predictable in the sense that he gathers the ball and then slows down before cutting in to his left foot. That has led to him losing the ball on countless occasions. He must improve if he wants to remain with Cagliari beyond the season. Trichkovski is currently injured (not serious and should be back before end of month) but he has started to play better for Waasland-Beveren after a disappointing season last year with Club Brugge. Behind them are players like Mirko Ivanovski, Aleksandar Trajkovski, Ferhan Hasani and Dejan Blazhevski. The problem with all the players mentioned is their lack of consistency from game to game.
Attacking midfield: This should be one of the strengths of the team with players such as Goran Pandev, Darko Tasevski and David Babunski. Pandev must play in attacking midfield as he is wasted at CF. He has never been good in the air and his strengths, like vision, dribbling and the ability to create chances with clever passes, are better suited for attacking midfield. Tasevski has those similar characteristics, although obviously not as good a player as Pandev. Both players are also alike in that they lack stamina, meaning they can’t be very effective past 65-70 minutes. Babunski is one for the future as the moment seems too big for him right now. He needs more playing time with Barcelona B to continue developing, but he has the right attributes to turn himself into a good player down the line. Another interesting option is Boban Nikolov who has been one of the top players on the U21 national team and plays regularly in Romania’s top division at only 19 years old.
Center-forward: The position will be contested between Jovan Kostovski and Adis Jahovikj, both players who are in their prime at 26 years old. Kostovski is more physical and better in the air, while Jahovikj is more skillful as was illustrated with his goal in the Serbia game when he dribbled past several players before scoring his goal.
Of course, Macedonia will need other players to emerge in order to strengthen the national team and contribute to better results. One way to do that is for the manager to be able to convince talented players with Macedonian origins, those who happen to have been born abroad or left Macedonia early, into playing for the national team. Additionally, the domestic league in Macedonia must improve in terms of quality and player development to mimic other successful models in the region like Croatia and Slovenia. In those countries, a lot of emphasis is placed on developing young players and then selling them abroad where they can take the next step, similar to what happened to Goran Pandev back in the day.
What is your plan in turning around the national team? Which coach, whether Macedonian or from abroad, would be the right person to lead the team? Tell us your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.