Do Portland create the “right” chances?

Image from Mitchell Dyer Photography

We’re on a 5 game losing streak. We’re still without a win under Gavin Wilkinson. Our last goal came over 300 minutes ago, a Kris Boyd free-kick deflected into LA’s Josh Saunders’ net. In those last 5 games, we’ve conceded an unhealthy 15 goals and only scored 3. Those goals all came in the same game.

Very, very poor reading. Apart from questioning the interim manager, the main debate between Timbers fans has been that of chance creation versus conversion. Is it fair enough to say that against Chivas, Kris Boyd didn’t perform when he’s been starved of service? Or should our DP be converting the chances he’s being paid to convert?

What Types of Chances Should We Create?
I don’t think it’s in dispute that Kris Boyd is our focal point in attack. He sits atop our scoring chart with 7 goals this season. To emphasise how important his goals have been, that’s 39% of all our goals. For the 4 ½ years Boyd played for Rangers, he contributed with 35% of all their goals. He’s actually carrying more of the burden for us than he did for Rangers – when he was crowned the SPL top scorer of all time. In 193 games (40 sub appearances) he scored 128 goals and 28 of them were penalties. Quite a large amount, in fact 22% of his Rangers goals were penalties. If you were to sit and watch Boyd’s goals, you’ll understand that he’s an in-the-box poacher. Give him a half-chance, and an inch of space, and he’ll find the net. Walter Smith said of him:

“He is one of those boys who will be your top goal scorer in a good team. But the team has to support him a great deal of the time”

Don’t forget, Walter Smith was Kris Boyd’s main beneficiary; he knew how to play him, how to supply him. Without getting too bogged down in trying to persuade you of the type of player Boyd is (watch the videos on youtube), let’s look at the types of goals he’s scored for Portland.

Philadelphia (H) ’66 – Alhassan near post cross, Boyd headers across goal to far post.
Chivas (H) ’16 – Hopeful, high cross from the right spilled by Chivas keeper, Boyd side-foots it in.
LA (A) ’33 – Through ball is played by Eric Alexander behind the back, of defence. There’s a hint of offside, but Boyd runs onto it and side-foots it past the keeper.
Vancouver (H) ’67 – Some pressure from wing, crossed in, keeper spills, Boyd turns it in at back post.
Seattle (H) ’16 – Early cross from Steve Smith catches Seattle defence out, Boyd turns it past keeper.
LA (H) ‘3 – Early cross from Alhassan to near post, turned in by Boyd
LA (H) ’70 – Driven free-kick takes slight deflection and bounces in bottom corner.

Aside from his last goal, the free-kick against LA, and the goal he scored in the 3-1 loss to LA at the Home Depot Center – all of Boyd’s goals have come from chances emanating from the wing. In fact, all but the opening goal in the 2-1 win over Seattle came from the right-wing. Boyd scored 2 scrappy goals where the Keeper could’ve done better, proving his positional nous. The other 2 goals came from very similar crosses from Kalif Alhassan, aimed toward the near post.

Kris Boyd thrives off getting the ball in the box. He prefers it in the area outside of the 6 yard box, before the penalty spot – preferably on the near post. If we’re going to utilise him effectively, we need to get the ball to him in that area. But how?

Chance Creation
Before we dive into the analysis, here is the definition on one of the statistics I’ve been looking at:

Key Pass – The final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal without scoring.

Without going as far to calling the statement shallow, “not creating enough chances” has to be looked at within context. In other words, what type of chances should our players be creating against what we actually are, and are we set out to maximise our goal-scoring potential?

To begin with, let’s look at the 11 players who’ve started the most of our last 5 games:

Out of those players, only two have scored in the last 5 games (Kris Boyd & Kosuke Kimura v LA), and four over the whole season (Boyd 7, Nagbe 3, Jewsbury & Alhassan 1 each). Six of those players have contributed assists (Alexander 4, Alhassan 2, Jewsbury 2, Boyd 1, Mosquera 1, Smith 1).

Firstly, we’re predominantly lining up with 1 man up front. In only one of the games where Boyd’s scored did he do it without a partner – in the 5-3 defeat to LA. Against Philadelphia and Vancouver, he was partnered by Perlaza, against LA (away 1-3) and Chivas USA (home 1-2) he was partnered by Nagbe and against Seattle (home 2-1), he was partnered by Mike Fucito. We’re utilising Kris Boyd completely and utterly wrong. He scores goals when he plays with a 2nd supporting Striker.

Nagbe, the man who regularly sits behind Kris Boyd in our attacking-midfield position has not even registered 1 assist this season. To reiterate, Nagbe has contributed with no assists all season. In fact, over the last 5 games, Nagbe has only contributed with 3 key passes. He has, however, scored 3 goals this season – 1 whilst partnering Boyd (as a sub) against FC Dallas and 2 against RSL where he started on the right-wing. The deployment of Nagbe is a different article in itself, but it’s plain to see that playing him centrally in midfield does not work.

If Boyd is our outlet for goals, we need to be playing to his strengths. Getting the ball behind the defence so Boyd can roll the center back, or getting the ball into the danger area in the box. Have we been pushing the ball through our outlet?

Images from MLSSoccer.com

Above is a diagram of some of the chances we created against Chivas USA last weekend. Now, Kris Boyd would’ve admitted himself that he should’ve scored in that game. A smart header front Brent Richards put him through, only to fire over. He also had a chance to pull the ball back to Chara, but fired right down the mouth of the keeper instead. Then there’s the miss-hit shot after Dan Kennedy parried an effort from Chara. Yes, these are all opportunities that Boyd should’ve taken. But, the above diagram shows that the other chances we created weren’t tailored to suit Boyd’s abilities. The majority of crosses are onto the back post, or are far too close to the keeper. If we’re to succeed, we need to be getting crosses onto the near post, across the face of goal, or passes through the middle giving Boyd one-on-one chances.

How do we do this?
We’ve tried 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 variants, we’ve played a flat 4 and a diamond midfield in a 4-4-2 formation – none of which seem to utilise our resources correctly. Me? I’d been an advocate of the 4-5-1 formation until I saw how ineffectual it leaves Kris Boyd up top. It kinda leaves me scratching my head as to how we should line up. What I can offer though, are the following suggestions…

Kris Boyd needs a partner and Darlington Nagbe is not ready to play “in the hole”.
Both players have suffered in their recent roles. Boyd as a lone striker, and Nagbe as our playmaker. If we were to partner the two up front together, I think we’d see an improvement in both players performances. Nagbe prefers to float and be creative, which you think he’d get from the position he’s been given. Either he’s too young for the role and he needs something with more definition, he’s burnt out, or it’s time for a move to another club. The other problem with pushing Nagbe further up the pitch is that you’re taking a body out of midfield. Do we have two central midfielders strong enough to support two men upfront and two men on the wing?

Eric Alexander is our assist leader – give him playing time.
He’s been in and out of the team, and not really afforded the playing time he deserves. Eric’s been played as an out-and-out left winger on the main, but his real position is that of central midfield. If we’re clever, we can utilise his economical rate of passing, tidy midfield play and ability to influence play in attack and defence. Is it time to revert back to the diamond with Alexander as the left-hand-prong?

It’s Kalif or Franck – not both.
Both players are too attack minded and haven’t provided enough assists to warrant both starting. When we start Kalif, Franck, Kris and Darlington, we’re in danger of having 4 luxury players who often see the game pass them by. Don’t get me wrong, they can turn a match. Unfortunately, those moments are all too fleeting. With both men on the wings, we need to over-compensate for their lack defensive cover by playing 5 in midfield. By doing that, we’re taking a partner away from Kris Boyd – who requires one.

If we give Boyd a partner and play two wingers, we’re going to get caught short in the middle and our full-backs will look naked. Neither Alhassan or Songo’o track back enough to warrant their inclusion. Pushed, I’d plump for Alhassan on the right, Alexander on the left (who can also help cover our current left-back confidence crisis) and I’d drop Songo’o to the bench.

Diego Chara is a key player – but in defence or in attack?
Again, in reference to my previous soapbox rants, I’ve advocated Chara as our snarling bulldog in midfield. His pass retention rate is always fantastic, and he’s able to break down opposition play effectively – after all, he is the leader in fouls committed. However, we know that Boyd likes the ball through the middle. Against Chivas, Chara’s ability to carry the ball and slip it through the channels was evident. It’s not a role we’re entirely familiar seeing him play, but he really shone last weekend. If we take Nagbe out of the hole, we can rely on Chara moving into that hole. I’m sure everyone would be happy to see that. But who fills the Chara-shaped hole at the back?

Don’t forget the hungry youth.
Here I am pondering how we fit Nagbe, Boyd, Songo’o, Alhassan, Jewsbury and Alexander into a system that yields more opportunities and, ultimately, more goals. We actually have players waiting on the fringes, quite possibly the fix to all our problems is to mix it up. I don’t want to pretend like I know our Reserve Team inside out, but what I’ve seen of Brent Richards has been encouraging. He looks energetic and direct. He set Boyd up for what should’ve been a goal on 19 minutes against Chivas – if that’d gone in, who knows what result we’d have got. He should be pushing for another start.

We’re in a bind at the moment. Do you persevere with the systems we’ve been playing in order to keep stability, or do you try something different. That “something different” could simply be returning to basics. For me, those basics are looking at your roster, and setting your stall out to play to their strengths.

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3 responses to “Do Portland create the “right” chances?

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