I’m beginning to understand what it’s like to be a Portland Timbers fan.
I was worried coming into this game. I honestly thought the landslide would pick up speed. We talked about the need to gather momentum after the win against Seattle, but we looked a completely different team against Colorado. There were defensive errors I picked up on (Futty’s performance in particular), that I felt were fundamental. Against Seattle, the mistakes made were just cracks in the asphalt. The slip (and resulting widespread panic) by Horst in the lead-up to Johnson’s goal being the most noticeable error. In the week between, it was as if the winter freeze had come, prised open the cracks, and created gaping chasms of no-return.
Like I said, I was worried. Those in the stands of Jeld-Wen Field, however, were not. There was, as there always is, a bouncingly positive atmosphere when the teams took to the pitch. Maybe it was just the broadcast I watched, but there wasn’t one iota of stress or anxiety felt during the build up. I should maybe attribute that to the night time kick-off, ample time for a jar or few? Anyway, I guess I’m just not used to the rabid loyalty shown in the MLS. It’s taking a while for my English cynicism to wash off. There was an overwhelming feeling of “Portland Timbers don’t lose at home at home”. A performance devoid of passion, ideas and confidence a mere 3 days previous was apparently a point of disregard. The defensive frailties displayed in Colorado were surely to be questioned today; more so given that Futty and Horst were to line-up against the fruitful partnership of Wondolowski and Gordon.
Now, I don’t feel like the world needs another Match Report. We know the score, we know what happened. This has already been done at other blogs, the excellent sliderulepass in particular. I’d like to try and address some of the observations I’ve previously discussed over the last couple of weeks. Firstly, and highest on the agenda, is that of our overall system – tactically and operationally. Secondly, there’s a recurring theme of defensive duty – see my rant on our full-backs v LA, or my brutal indictment of Futty v Colorado. Thirdly, the progression and continued insistence on using Darlington Nagbe in a position he’s not ready for – the #8, the playmaker.
Sticking with the (far too) familiar 4-4-2 ‘diamond’ formation, John Spencer was forced into making three changes. ‘One’ Lovel (#face)Palmer came in for the ‘Suspended for being too much of a boss’, ‘The Real Man’s Man’ – Diego Chara. Danny Mwanga got a start ahead of the benched Mike Fajita and Eric Alexander took the place of Zizzo, switching flanks with Franck Songo’o in the process.
The most interesting change, for me at least, was the inclusion of Eric Alexander. Not necessarily for his role, but more to outline the butterfly effect on the rest of the team. I felt this change was pivotal in proving that playing two from the choice of Alhassan, Songo’o and Zizzo is naïve, ineffectual and at best, a luxury. The aforementioned are out-and-out wingers. They’re quick and relatively tricky, but on the whole, quite one-dimensional. You know what you’re going to get from them. The opposition know what they’re going to get from them. For me, this is the biggest problem we’ve had, especially on the road. Teams know exactly how to exploit our system. To a well-versed and well-drilled side, we’re an open book.
The Main Protagonist.
Credit where it’s due, instead of benching Franck Songo’o and punishing him further, Spencer took a surprisingly different approach and switched him to the right wing. I felt that the loss to Colorado was attributed to the battle, or lack thereof, Midfield. Colorado set out to pack the midfield, control the tempo, win the ball in the middle and, most importantly, pressure our hugely exposed full-backs. When Songo’o was playing on the left and Zizzo on the right, our full-backs were getting blitzed, time and time again. Brian Mullan and the oft-overlapping full-back Hunter Freeman combined, doubled-up against Steve Smith and exploited this weakness to full effect. Songo’o came off against Colorado, but the killer 2 goals had already been conceded at that time. Too little too late.
Thankfully, we can see the difference a game makes. I expect this was the desired effect from hauling him off 7 minutes before half-time. The above heat maps highlight the frankly (excuse the pun) awful display by Songo’o in Commerce City. Playing through the full 90 against San Jose, we can see the increase in effort. I’d like to think this was a dividend from the personnel changes, a change in the way we set out to play, coupled with a few strong words from his manager.
The Supporting Cast.
To address what I mean about the ‘butterfly effect’ this then has on the team, look at how a lack of cover for Steve Smith dragged David Horst out of position in the game against Colorado. I didn’t notice before, but this is quite obviously part of the reason Futty and Jack Jewsbury looked so exposed for both of Colorado’s first 2 goals. Horst wasn’t there because he was doing the work for Songo’o.
The difference in position is plain to see. Against Colorado, Horst barely touched the ball in his own box. Now, I’m not saying that he played a blinder against the Earthquakes, but his overall coverage area was much more central, and inside his own box. We both know that Horst and Futty had a nightmare against Colorado, but they’ve made life a lot harder for Gordon, Wando and co. by staying central and dealing with what was thrown down that channel.
As expected, the San Jose frontline did well in winning and keeping possession; Alan Gordon especially excelling in leading the line against his former team. He hit a 79.1% pass success rate, won 10 headers and made 3 key passes. He also had 8 goal attempts including 3 off-target headers. He obviously got their goal; however he only hit an on-target success rate of 25%. Chris Wondolowski had a much quieter game, with only 1 shot off target, a pass success rate of 73.5% and 4 headers. Where Futty and Horst excelled was at pure center back play. They made 23 clearances between them (Portland making 34 in total) as opposed to the measly 7 (14 team clearances) they notched up against Colorado. Again, this can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time, not having to stretch and cover areas of the pitch they shouldn’t have to.
To take the discussion full circle, I thought Eric Alexander did the silent job that was required of him very well. I thought he complimented our right-hand side with stability and box-to-box approach on the left. He’s most certainly not a left-winger, and in fact attempted no crosses. Not a lot of our wide-play came down the left, but it didn’t need to. Having 2 out-and-out widemen leaves the defence and midfield full of holes and points of exposure. Alexander’s assured 76.7% pass rate, 8 recovery tackles, losing the ball only 8 times, and also hitting the post with a well dug-out half chance gave the Timbers the solidity in midfield that afforded Franck Songo’o to run and attempt things that only he, in Tuesday’s starting 11 at least, can do.
The first goal was a breakaway attack like we haven’t seen in a while. Songo’o had purpose, but not only that, the team knew where they were feeding the ball – it certainly wasn’t going to be Eric Alexander scream down the left flank. Yes, Franck only hit 1 successful cross, but it led to a goal. Yes, he lost the ball 18 times in possession, but he won 3 free kicks, completed a brace of successful dribbles, made 3 key passes, 6 recovery tackles and, in most people’s eyes, earned himself a Man of the Match award. It was a marked improvement on the duties required, but mostly on his attitude.
I was pleased to see that the introduction of Alexander took the weight of Darlington Nagbe’s shoulders, and he was allowed to play with a bit more freedom. He hit a (better than most but a decrease from his usual high) pass success rate of 77.8%, 8 headers and 3 key passes, showing that he did influence the game. He also managed to throw in 8 recovery tackles.
Even though it was a well-fought win, I’m going to risk the wrath of the Timbers Army and say… I’m not so sure we really deserved it. Don’t get me wrong, we came out off the back of a demoralising defeat with our dukes up. We won 53% of the duels overall and made 19 attempts on goal, with 5 on target in comparison to San Jose’s 17 attempts, 3 on target. We did limit the 20-goal Wondo/Gordon partnership to only 3 on-target attempts and 1 goal. Don’t forget though, there was a Steven Lenhart opportunity that should’ve gone in when it was harder to miss. Futty with the slip (this time – seriously though, this happens every game?) to let him through. San Jose also had 57.8% of the possession and created 22 open-play crosses.
Although we had 19 attempts on goal, 9 of those shots were blocked by San Jose defenders, and only 2 of them came from Boyd and Mwanga. Boyd not actually registering any shots on target. Against Colorado, he only managed to get the 1 shot on target, that being a speculative free-kick drive from way out. The strikers still need better service…
How to approach the RSL.
For me, the match is going to be pinned on whether we can contain Kyle Beckerman. Maybe that’s heaping a bit too much praise on a man sporting white-man-dreads, but never the less; he’s been one of the players who has impressed me most since I’ve dipped my toes in the MLS pool. Again, whoever triumphs in the battle of midfield takes the spoils.
I think we have to look at what’s gone well, and how we can improve some of our dormant threats. I think it’s important that Mosquera and Chara return to the side – we both know they’re the best we have in their respective positions. With the bonus of the experienced Kosuke Kimura now at right-back, I believe Spencer will also look to put Cap’n Jack back in midfield. In light of that, I (personally) think we should line up something like this:
Kimura Mosquera Horst Smith
It’s a ‘contemporary’ 4-3-3 formation – one that Gary Neville believes England should play. I don’t think I’d play this at home, and I think if it doesn’t work, we run the risk of having nothing going forward due to Boyd’s general ineffective performances of late and his reliance on quality supply. However, With Chara and Jewsbury (I’d rather like to see Eric Alexander given the spot, but let’s be realistic), you have a strong, workmanlike engine room, capable of putting their foot in and getting the ball on the ground. With that foundation, you give Nagbe a bit more freedom to move forward and remove the shackles of supporting Chara.
With 3 central midfielders, you again take some pressure from Alhassan and Zizzo (replacing the injured Songo’o), allowing them to do what they need to. Instead of just looking to get past the full-backs, you’d hope they’d then mix it up, run into the space previously occupied by Mwanga or Fucito and provide Boyd with the much needed service he requires. I think it would all hinge on how Boyd leads the line though… something he has done at Rangers in the past. It begs the question though, does he still have the legs? I’m not sure…
In saying all this, I’d fully expect us to revert back to a flat-four in midfield with Nagbe being pushed out wide, if not dropped for Kalif Alhassan. Bah humbug.