So on Sunday, I began to analyse (slowly – those on Twitter may bear witness to my 4am post-match drunken tweets) and write up my Match Review of our latest on-the-road defeat to Real Salt Lake. Then, Merritt Paulson sacked John Spencer on Monday morning. So in the first pre-post editorial manoeuvre #RCTID has seen, I scrapped what I had, and frantically began to rewrite my version of this weekend’s events. (There’s a perfect summation of events pre-Spennygate over at sliderulepass.net, I implore you to divulge).
My reaction on Sunday morning, was that I couldn’t quite believe I’d side-stepped one of my famously pathetic hangovers. When I finally sat at the laptop and began putting spreadsheets together, I realised that’s twice we’d come off the back of a gritty 2-1 home win, only to be decapitated 3-0 on the road. What’s more annoying than stubbing the same toe twice on the same fucking table leg? I was angry and disappointed with the way the 2ndhalf went down in Salt Lake City. But, I wasn’t feeling aggressive and ready to point the finger of blame, no. I was angry and disappointed in the same way my Mum was when she first saw me drunk. You know that look they give you? “I thought you were better than this, you were certainly raised better than this.” I didn’t feel aggressive; I wasn’t baying for blood… disappointment reigned as King. Honestly, I think that’s the feeling Merritt had towards Spencer. The problem is, in Football, you don’t get the opportunity to forgive. Its results we’re after.
”We’ve been trying to put our finger on it for a while, what exactly it is to get us going. We’ve tried a lot of different things. I think it’s just a matter of us, as a group, coming together and saying hey, it’s not good enough. We’re a better team than we are playing on the road. It can’t just be at home when the crowd is behind us, and it is easy in that sense. We’ve got to be able to create our own energy on the field whether it’s home or away.”
Jack Jewsbury – post-Colorado
I initially missed this quote from Spencer’s BBF. Because it’s coming from Lifetime Captain, its subtext is deafening. Whether Jewsbury meant it or not, he’d admitted defeat. He’s acknowledged the fact that the players are lifted at Jeld-Wen, so much so that they’re transformed from seemingly one of the worst teams in the MLS, to becoming the David to “Wondo and his Merry Band of Conference Toppers” Goliath. He’s also pointed out that for a while they’ve been trying to work out why they’re poor on the road. Ladies and Gentlemen, here lies the biggest downfall to the Spencer regime. They don’t know why they’re playing so bad away from home. Now, I don’t particularly know either, I can only give my uneducated opinion. John Spencer and his coaching staff, however, should know.
“We’ll concentrate on what went wrong today, for our game next week versus LA”
John Spencer – post-Real Salt Lake defeat
I was furious when I first read this. How insightful. But in hindsight, it was the final words of a dead man walking. Paulson (and by all accounts, Gavin Wilkinson) focused on what went wrong, and the answer was – far too much. Spencer was a highly-rated Coach when he came to Portland. But he was untested as a Manager. He tried different formations, different systems, swapping personnel, and against Real Salt Lake, he tried it all, and got it spectacularly wrong. He threw everything he possibly could at the problem, in a last ditch attempt at getting it right. In fact, he did the exact opposite to what he believed to be the correct way of playing – he’d ditched his principals. That’s one of the reasons why I believe Paulson took the decision to to sack him now.
I watched the press conference last night, like many others. I’ve never witnessed a press conference like that in all my years following Football. Merritt Paulson, as a man, went up in my estimation ten fold. Much like Andy Murray did after the Wimbledon final. In a world of sport obsessed with trades and figures, it was a relief to see the human side of the game. To see Paulson choke up in the way he did made me seek out a bit more of the Stateside John Spencer, opposed to the average, bit-part player I’d seen in England, and now the uninspiring manager of my adopted Club. It’s a shame it hasn’t worked out for Spencer in Portland, he’s outwardly everything you’d need in a Manager. I saw the video of his induction to the Colorado HoF, he looked fantastic. I’ve seen the Alaska Airlines advert. But it counts for nothing, unless you get results and reaction from players. In my eyes…. this is why it went wrong…
Spencer’s Swansong – an homage to trying your damnedest
The away form is the first thing that attributed to Spencer’s downfall. We’ve only scored 2 goals away from home all season. We’ve conceded 14. Those two goals came from draws. We’ve picked up 2 points, no wins, and lost the rest. To be honest, breaking down the specific reasons to those statistics is something I don’t think I can do. I don’t have the time or data to analyse it. I can, however, use some of the examples from the performance in Salt Lake to highlight the trends in Spencer’s Timbers.
The first thing that went wrong, in my eyes, was not introducing Mosquera back into the starting lineup. We’d conceded 11 in 7 games on our travels. Point number one is this.
Know when to stick, know when to twist.
Futty and Horst were the central pairing of choice. They were awful against Colorado, and they showed momentary and unpunished lapses in concentration against San Jose. For me, Mosquera has been our strongest defender thus far. His omission from the team had not been of form or injury, it was because of ill-discipline. Against San Jose, Horst and Futty performed admirably. But they didn’t keep a clean sheet. In fact, they conceded 5 goals in the 3 games before RSL. So, in the 4 games they deputised, they concede an unhealthy 8 goals. Now, I bashed Futty against Colorado. I felt bad for that, but it was justified. Let me prefix this next analysis by stating – I think both players play a big part in our squad. However. Horst and Danso have only played 43 top flight games between them. Hanyer Mosquera has started only a handful MLS games, but has played over double the amount of top-flight games in Colombia than Futty and Horst combined, weighing in with 108 appearances for Deportes Quindio and La Equidad.
As a manager, it’s your job to know when to cash in your chips. This game was always going to be one we had to keep concentration for the full 90 – RSL kept the ball, as promised. David Horst would’ve been the man to drop to the bench in this instance. He has yet to display the discipline required to face ball-retaining teams such as RSL and Colorado Rapids.
He’s started the last 4 games, and you can see there’s a slight pattern emerging. He strays from his position regularly. Horst’s either trying to do too much or compensating for a lack of midfield protection; he’s definitely displaying a lack of discipline and patience required of a center back. In Salt Lake, against a team desperate for a win, who are more than comfortable on the ball, playing against a team devoid of confidence on the road… we needed a player who would keep his head for the full 90. The first goal, whilst not directly his fault, was typical of a defence who’d taken too much pressure and finally buckled. Alexander jumped into a tackle, a hopeful cross was lofted in, and a soft header was scored. A more experienced back four would’ve been drilled in coping with this.
Now, when I first saw these, my initial reaction explained above was actually tempered. Futty and Horst were under attack. Yes, I think a more experienced defence would’ve coped better, but look at the balance of play. You can see from the above, exactly how the game went. The Real Salt Lake back four barely stepped into their own 18 yard box, whilst our boys pretty much played the full game there. If further comparison is required, then look at the time on the ball each center back pairing had. Futty and Horst actually did OK in pass completion rates – averaging 81% success. But this came from only 54 passes made together, in total. Compared to Borchers and Olave however, the difference is startling. The Salt Lake center backs attempted 96 passes between them. Only 3 of which were unsuccessful, giving them a combined success rate of 97%. Borchers misplaced 1 pass, completing 98% of his passes alone. Either Real Salt Lake gave their back four the protection required to allow for them to move the ball freely, or there was a distinct lack of pressing and pressure applied to them by our Midfield and Forwards. Or, they were just better than us.
Now, it’s easy for me to sit at my laptop and destroy our defence. It’s easy for me to point out our positional disadvantage and criticise the back four in the manner they defended. It’s not the full picture though. I’d be an idiot to suggest it was. Kosuke Kimura actually had a solid, uneventful game. Where I’d like to spend time dissecting his debut, unfortunately his biggest contribution was that of spinning the positional merry-go-round. Kimura’s inclusion essentially ‘unleashed’ Jack Jewsbury from full-back and back into the Midfield engine alongside Diego Chara. Where his manager and teammates have heaped superlatives onto Jewsbury’s performances at Right-back, the whole affair only served to highlight the disparity in what belief Spencer had in his system and the understanding his players actually had of it.
The story of “Lifetime Captain” Jack Jewsbury and the “Easiest Position on the Park”
The quote at the beginning of this piece just underlines the naivety shown by both John Spencer and his Captain. A truly uninspiring quote undermining Spencer, and giving a damning insight into the current mentality of the Portland Timbers locker room. The fact that Kris Boyd has banned a reporter because of a Tweet in regards to Spencer’s firing, doesn’t exactly bode well for his potential readership of this very blog, but it also shows a player too bothered about what the press are saying about him and his team. A confident player wouldn’t give a shit. To be fair, this is Kris Boyd, record-breaking goalscorer extraordinaire who once withdrew himself for all International games because he was on the bench during a 0-0 draw. Anyway. Jewsbury and the midfield.
You know, I actually think the importance of the Captain is diminishing in this era of Football. So maybe heaping a bunch of the blame on Jewsbury himself is harsh. Really, I don’t feel like Spencer’s sacking was particularly his fault. In performances at least, association… possibly. He was poor at right-back, yes. But it was Spencer who played him there. I also don’t really know who else could’ve played there. The question is, why was Kimura (or just another Right Back) brought in earlier? I do question his choice as Captain, even with the little impact I believe it has on the team. I don’t think there are any other stand-out choices, which is why I believe Troy Perkins to be the much better option. I think, overall, Jewsbury hardly fills me with confidence. I’m very indifferent to his performances, and I’m very indifferent to what he has to say pre or post-match. Spencer rewarded an average player with a mantle that the players at least, hold in high regard. Why reward a player who offers little in most aspects of the game with the moniker of “Best Boy”.
Away from the rhetoric, it was believed that Kimura’s inclusion and Jewsbury subsequent addition to the midfield would bring extra bite and balance to the team. In my preview, I in my eternal optimism thought so anyway. It really, really didn’t. Thankfully, for my own reputation at least, I picked out Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales as the axis of RSL.
The defence had been inadequately protected by only Diego Chara recently. It’d taken Spencer too long to figure that out though. Akin to a man flapping his arms whilst falling from a plane, Spencer overcompensated in a last ditch attempt at survival. He threw not just 2 defence-minded midfielders at the problem, not even 3… but he included a whopping 4 central midfielders in the starting line up – Chara, Jewsbury, Palmer and Alexander. Given that against Colorado we lined up with only Chara as a recognised central midfielder, it was quite the departure. The sad thing was, he actually got the midfield balance right against San Jose.
Jewsbury should’ve started alongside Chara with Nagbe pushed out to the right. Eric Alexander should’ve played the role he played against San Jose down the left, and Fucito should’ve been the man dropping deep whilst Mwanga or Boyd played up top. Hindsight is twenty:twenty, and I apologise for preaching what “should’ve been done”. But, I think it highlights Spencer’s internal struggle between delivering praise and reward and what is actually the right thing to do. He obviously thought Palmer and Alexander did well against San Jose – which they did, all things considering. He also didn’t want to drop his Captain now there was a more suitable replacement at right-back. I think Spencer had lost sight of his goals, which is to pick the right team and system for that occasion.
Too many cooks – the lack of a playmaker.
Kyle Beckerman alone completed more passes (80) than Chara, Jewsbury, Alexander and Palmer combined (75). He also won 6 tackles. Chara, Jewsbury, Alexander and Palmer… made two. Between them. Let’s add Javier Morales into that mix, and you get an added 63 successful passes, 6 of which were key passes, 13 attempted crosses (albeit only 2 were successful), 6 successful dribbles, 5 fouls won and a shot on target. Quite tellingly, our whole team didn’t manage a single shot on target. Couple this domination of the midfield, seemingly between only 2 of their players, there was an 15 minute period in the second half where Diego Chara didn’t put one successful pass together. Rather unsurprisingly, within this period, he made 2 unsuccessful passes and picked up his first yellow in what was an outburst obvious frustration. To illustrate the point, the below diagram shows successful passes made in the first 15 minutes of the second half – essentially in the time leading up to the first goal – between Jewsbury/Chara vs. Beckerman/Morales.
I think this period was the turning point. We’d had a poor showing in the first half, but we’d not conceded. I’ve no doubt that Spencer would’ve tried to rally the troops, but we were undone again. Even in the 2 home games we’ve recently won against Seattle and San Jose, we’ve come out in the 2nd half and looked flat – ultimately conceding a goal. Colorado already had us beaten, but then just made it matter of fact after the restart. RSL had hammered us in the first half, and they just continued to do so in the second, until the deadlock was broken.
The way we lined up in midfield was just mystifying. The above .gif shows that the players weren’t too certain on what they were supposed to do either. I know we were short-staffed, but we had Alhassan and Zizzo on the bench. Maybe it was time for Nagbe to take a rest. He’s already been moved into the “playmaker” role which he’s getting to grips with, but still struggling in. Why put him out on the left? One of our major problems on the road has been goals. 2 goals all season outside of Jeld-Wen. Shocking. Why then stick young Mwanga up top by himself and give a non-too pacy Eric Alexander and a “What the fuck is my position now?”, out-of-sorts Darlington Nagbe the responsibility of hitting the flanks, hitting the byline and providing the cross? Asking too much from players who just aren’t going to do provide.
You can’t blame a PK – Strikers need constant service.
I’m not going to labour my last point here. We don’t provide enough support to our Strikers. Poor Danny Mwanga had statistically, the worst (or, more accurately, the least eventful) 68 minutes of Football I’ve witnessed as a Timbers fan. Here goes… he attempted 6 passes in total, 3 of which were successful. He made no tackles. He lost the ball 3 times. He attempted 0 dribbles. He and his substitute (Kris Boyd) had a grand total of… zero shots on goal. Whilst I don’t blame Mwanga entirely, we attempted 11 crosses, all of which were unsuccessful. 10 of which occurred in the first half. Leaving 1 cross attempted in the 2nd half. This just plays into the fact that over the last 3 games (RSL included), Boyd and Mwanga have only managed 3 shots on target – including the goal against San Jose. Saborio had 3 shots on target against Portland, and scored all 3. Real Salt Lake also attempted 24 crosses in the game. Only 3 were successful, however 1 was an assist for their 2nd goal.
Spencer wasn’t a striker who thrived on the ball coming to him in the box. He was a bustling, niggling player who had an explosive finish. He’d rather nick the ball off the center back and fire it in off the post than position himself in the 6 yard box. Boyd is that type of player. He needs the ball to be played into the right area. He feeds off that. Mwanga, what little I’ve seen of him in the attacking third, needs the ball played into space so he can run on to it. He obviously thrives in a counter-attacking team. Neither of these strengths have been played to effectively. Because of this, our strikers are struggling. Couple this with a lack of a goal-scoring midfielder, and we’re in trouble.
A Decision Based on Merritt.
As away form is our main problem , and using our home form (albeit heightened by the terrific Timber Army support) as the benchmark, Merritt Paulson correctly (in my eyes) diagnosed the problem sitting with John Spencer. All of the above obviously suggests I think that. Spencer’s lack of experienced shone like a beacon because of his Away Form to Home Form comparison. Portland Timbers are a team who are impressive at home, weak on the road. That tends to be the balance – teams are stronger at home. Why then, would you even consider playing the same system on the road, to the one that shows holes, but is dragged through the home games by belief and encouragement from the stands.
However, there has to be blame appropriated to the players as well. They do not perform on the road, the comparison in effort to Real Salt Lake’s midfield performance on Saturday being the proverbial icing. As much as Troy Perkins says “that locker room would put their life on the line for the guy.”, it’s simply not true. It frustrates me when footballers roll out that cliché time after time. They had ample opportunity to show that, just as much as Spencer had time to react to poor performances before he threw the kitchen sink at Real Salt Lake.
John Spencer, good luck.
On a side note, please, share with me (by commenting or on twitter @hashtagRCTID) your thoughts on Gavin Wilkinson as interim manager, or who you’d like to see installed as next FT Coach of Portland Timbers.