The Song Remains The Same

What the multitude cannot comprehend is how victory may be produced for them out of the enemy’s own tactics.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Another week, another match, another limp home defeat as the Timbers once again heroically snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And yet, it had all started so well.

The Timbers had looked confident and comfortable on the ball early on, knocking it about with ease, probing for weakness in the two banks of Chivas players that looked set upon a game plan of frustrate, frustrate, frustrate, and then break on the counter. Kris Boyd was gifted a goal so easy that he had time to plan where he was going to put his log slice before tucking it away. Optimism was high. Portland had dominated possession and shots on goal! They’d scored first! In the first half and everything! It all looked so rosy in the Rose City.

Portland had lined up with the same diamond formation that had come so agonisingly close to beating Royal Salt Lake the previous week, but with a shuffle in personnel. Perlaza was dropped (can’t say I’m surprised even if I disagreed), Nagbe went up top alongside Boyd, with Songo’o and Alexander wide. The eyebrow raising change, for me at least, was seeing Jack Jewsbury at the point of the diamond, fulfilling the role of attacking midfielder. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of Jewsbury as that kind of player, but I guess John Spencer will point to the 1-0 lead at half-time and say it worked. Diego Chara was given the job of manning the engine room on his own, like a Colombian Scotty.

And then it all went wrong.

Two changes by Chivas USA at half-time would change the complexion of the match. First, on came Ryan Smith to play down the left-wing. It would pay dividends almost immediately.

The temptation is to go hard on Palmer for this, but that neglects the fact that it was also some good wing play from Smith. Palmer shouldn’t have tried to square up, and certainly shouldn’t have left the door wide open for Smith to get down the outside. Once Smith got a sniff he went past Palmer and swung over a beautiful cross. It was a huge warning sign.

Palmer’s best asset is his attacking and getting up and down the line. He’s never been brilliant defensively, but the change to bring on Smith put the focus squarely on Palmer. Palmer was forced to play deeper and deeper by Smith, and it neutered much of Portland’s play down the right flank. The picture below shows Palmer’s passing in the first-half (left) and second half (right)

I said at the time that something had to be done to protect Palmer. He’s simply not a good enough defender to be left in 1v1 situations against a fast, skilful winger. There’s only going to be one winner of that contest, and he ain’t wearing green. My call at the time was to put Chara out right so he would sit in front of Palmer, with Nagbe dropping back into his more natural trequarista role in the spaces behind the strikers. Chara has the pace and defensive nous to get up and down the line in front of Palmer, and give him some back-up when the ball came to Smith. As it was, injury forced Songo’o off, Alhassan came on and Palmer was left cruelly exposed.

The other change I mentioned that turned the game in Chivas’ favour was a subtle switch in midfield. In the first half, Chivas had adopted a 4-5-1 formation, with Minda sitting deep and one of LaBrocca or Zemanski getting forward from the middle. an attacking sense. At half time the Chivas head coach, Robin Fraser (an ex-teammate of Spencer’s at Colorado, coincidentally) gave BOTH LaBrocca and Zemanski license to get forward, exposing the weakness in the Timbers diamond formation. It put Chivas on the front foot, and put the Timbers under greater pressure nearer their own 18 yard line.

The central two of Zemanski and LaBrocca would bomb forward when Chivas had the ball, giving them a 2-on-1 advantage against Diego Chara as Jewsbury was left high up the park. Smith gave Chivas some attacking width that stretched the Timbers back line. Giving the outnumbering in the centre, there was a tendency for the Timbers wide players to drift inside to make up the numbers, leaving the wingers free in acres of space to take on the full-backs.

It was a smart move by Fraser. He’d identified that Jewsbury was too far up the field to be a defensive presence, and Minda would always be there to snuff out any nascent attacking threat from the Timbers captain, so he freed up his central midfielders to make their presence felt in the Timbers half.

This change in style came to horrible fruition in the second goal as the breaking midfielders both played a part in the goal – one setting Smith up for the cross, the other getting on the end of it.

Palmer is going to take a lot of the blame for both goals – and rightly so, in some cases – but he wasn’t helped here by the way the Timbers were arranged on the field by Spencer. At times the midfield was, quite frankly, a shambles with seemingly no-one entirely sure what they were supposed to be doing. Jewsbury in particular looked like someone who’d wandered in off the street and hadn’t a clue where he was.

It’s Diego Chara I feel really sorry for. Again he was all industry and efficiency (an 86% successful pass rate), but in the second half he was left wide open.

In the first half Chara was able to close down the ball in the centre of pitch, but in the second he was doing his work on the Timbers 18 yard line. Part of this was that the Timbers as a whole were pushed back by a resurgent Chivas, but it was also because he was left with two men to mark and it’s only natural that the tendency is to drop off and block off space, rather than close down and tackle when you’re faced with two guys running at you.

So another game where the Timbers are unable to make the right change at the right time.

What lessons have been learned?

Jack Jewsbury is no more an attacking midfielder than I am the Dragon King of Bhutan. He was rarely effective, and the team seemed to succeed in spite of him in the first half, rather than because. In his defence, it was always going to be difficult for someone to flourish in that role given the way Chivas were determined on sitting deep and narrow, but a good attacking midfielder at least imposes himself upon the opposition and Jewsbury simply didn’t do that. I’m pretty sure Osvaldo Minda could walk past Jack in the corridor and not recognise him.

The wider question of whether Jewsbury should be in the team at all is one many fans are debating. Yes, he’s the captain, and yes, he had a great year for (much) of last season, but does that buy him a role in the team of here and now? I’m not so sure. John Spencer seems determined to shoe-horn Jack and Chara into the same midfield, regardless of how it affects the shape and mobility of the team. The fact is that Diego Chara can do everything Jack Jewsbury can do, and do it better. Time to bench Jack, in my opinion. Though, I’ll be happy to scoff humble pie if he pulls a man of the match performance next week against LA cos, y’know, he ain’t getting dropped whatever fans say.

Darlington Nagbe has huge, undoubted, potential but he needs space to grow. He doesn’t have the physicality to knock MLS defenders off him, and he works best when he gets the ball to feet and is able to get his head up and run at them instead. He’s wasted up top.

Does Kris Boyd train with the rest of the team? I ask because it seems to me that the plan seems to be to hit it long towards him, hoping he’ll win the aerial battle. That’s not his game! Go watch his goals on YouTube – yes, he scores a few with his head, including one for the Timbers, but the vast majority are with his boot. I’m struggling to recall the last time he had a decent ball to feet in a dangerous area. It’s like no-one has noticed he’s not really that good at the whole “big target man” thing! He’s a penalty box striker who just happens to have the physique of a target man. We’re making the same mistakes as last year with Kenny Cooper.

Which brings us to John Spencer and the Timbers front office. I don’t want to be reactionary fan here, calling for sackings just because we lost. In fact, I’m not calling for sackings at all – I think Spencer is, on balance, doing a decent job and having stability is crucial for the club to grow. However, all is far for perfect. He’s been unable to set-up a team to get the best out of Kenny Cooper last season, and it seems to be the same with Boyd this year so far. At times it seems players are getting picked on the basis of reputation or standing within the squad than ability or form. And there’s a worrying tendency for matches to get away from him.

The fact is he either didn’t see how the game had shifted in the second half, did see but couldn’t figure out how to turn it back in his team’s favour, or saw it change but just did nothing to fix it.

The lack of quality at full-back is becoming a running, and increasingly unfunny, joke. I know this isn’t Football Manager, where you can tap in a few numbers and throw up a list of 50 suitable candidates, but for the position to be left as the team’s consistent weak point for over a year now is infuriating. A couple of trades for MLS journeymen here and there isn’t really cutting it.

Next week sees a trip to play LA Galaxy. LA have had a shocking start to the year and it’s tough to tell whether the Timbers will be facing a side hurting and eager to prove people wrong with a dominant performance, or a team playing poorly with morale at an all-time low. Either way, Timbers have to up their game. There is a break-out 90 minutes in this team just waiting to come out. We’ve seen flashes of it here and there. Someone in this league is going to be on the end of a real beating for the Timbers. Let’s make it Beckham FC. RCTID.

So, what could’ve been done differently?

The fact is, Robin Fraser out-thought and outmanoeuvred John Spencer. His changes – bringing on Smith, getting his midfield forward quicker – forced Portland on to the back foot and they simply didn’t react. Smith was left to go 1v1 with Palmer all game long as Alhassan simply isn’t the guy you want trying to track back down the wings. He naturally drifts in field at the best of times, and that’s what happened here. And Chara was left exposed in the second half by Spencer’s refusal to drop Jewsbury back.

Perhaps going flat 4-4-2 would’ve shut down Chivas in the middle, though you’d still need someone out wide who could do the defensive work to help Palmer. Unless, you remove Palmer from the equation and bring on Purdy.

The risk if that Smith still gets past Purdy, who hasn’t started for Timbers in a long time. Only Spencer would know if Purdy was up to coming into a match like this to do a shut-out job on Ryan Smith, and I can only assume he didn’t think he was.

During the second half, I’d gone on twitter to say I thought Perlaza should come on, so Chara could go out to the right side and give cover to Palmer. Let’s assume I’m in charge, if I make that change, how does the team shape up then?

A 442/433 asymmetrical formation, with Chara sat deep right to give cover to Palmer, whilst at the same time no neglecting his duties in the centre. Jewsbury drops back to match up with Chivas, with Alexander coming inside (another potential change could be Alhassan for Alexander or Nagbe). Perlaza would play off and around Boyd up top, with Nagbe providing wide cover in defence and a threat coming in from wide in attack.

Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. We’ll never know, it’s just one smug fan’s idea. Instead Spencer stuck rigidly to Plan A and the game just drifted away from Portland like a smoke from a flare.

It’s concerning that for the second week in a row Spencer has failed to make the right call at the right time. He made, only my opinion of course, the completely wrong substitutions at every turn last week, and here he failed to react whatsoever to a change in dynamic on the pitch.

A good manager can send out a team with a decent game plan and have them execute it. A great manager can adapt that plan and alter it when problems arise. The seeds for Portland’s defeat were sown in their own tactics. A diamond can work well against a team playing 4-4-2, but when a team drops an striker off the front and double teams on the man at the base of the diamond, it can be exploited, giving the team crucial space and possession of the ball in the most dangerous area of the pitch.

Someone hasn’t been reading their Sun Tzu.

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18 thoughts on “The Song Remains The Same

  1. Brilliant analysis as usual. I did wonder about why we didn’t see Purdy in the fullback slot when Palmer was so clearly outmatched. I haven’t seen him play with the first team in so long that I don’t have a sense of what he might offer that Palmer lacks. I recall Purdy being a decent and serviceable fullback but maybe I just have my USL glasses on.

    And Captain Jack…that is a tough one. Separating Jack the captain from Jack the player is impossible, yet it must be done if performance doesn’t improve. :-/

    1. I liked Purdy at the start of last season. You’ve seen more of him than me, though. I always thought he was the defensive full back, while Hall was the attacking wing-back. But he’s been out of the team so long you have to wonder whether he’s just in the squad to make up numbers/as potential trade fodder at this point

  2. Great analysis per usual, especially love the Bhutan shout out. Where did news that Songo’o came off injured come from? I just assumed 60 minutes was pretty much his limit still. Also, any idea what was up with subbing Chabala in for Wallace in the 47th minute instead of at the half?

  3. Very well done. One point that you didn’t bring up, and i think it would have been very worthwhile, is that minda got a yellow card early in the game, but i didn’t see anyone running at him the rest of the game. Spencer really should have dropped nagbe to the point of the diamond to have a go at minda, similar to against RSL and beckerman. I do have a question for you mr alexander. I agree that nagbe looks better in the trequartista role, but who would play that defensive mid position? Chara at the bottom of the diamond? Or do you put jack there (or marcelin?), move chara right and play someone on the left a bit more flairey (songo’o, al’hassan, or alexander)?
    Anyway, excellent post, and i think purdy would have done worse than palmer against fancy pants smith.

    1. Great point re: Minda, and one I absolutely spaced on. Thanks for reminding me.

      At this point I’d play with Chara at the base, if we played the diamond. On form, Jack just isn’t cutting it for me this year. But I think you can only play that formation when the opposition allows it. Against a five man midfield, it just doesn’t work.

      1. Oh and one thing i forgot to mention. In the first picture you have, when palmer showed smith outside, the person point out the danger was Songo’o (#8) not Kalif Al-Hassan (#11?). But I agree that Chara could do play DM, or at least should be given shot. Anyway, very excellent work again, definitely the best Timbers analysis out there.

  4. This hits all the points I really wanted to say myself. A few other things I noticed at the game last night:
    1) 2nd half…while the Chiva’s coach was out active in the game Spenny was hanging out by the other coaches just watching. I wonder how much he was really a part of the 2nd half. He looked confused.
    2) What was Wallace doing last night? He always seemed to be in the same place as say Song’o and just brought another defender with him. Nothing good came of his being out of position.
    3) My biggest problem is that we are wasting Boyd. Since my football tactics knowledge is low I am not sure what the solution is for getting him the ball. BUT I do see the exact same pattern as last year with Cooper. Atleast with Cooper he was a big target. Is Spenny just out of his league? How do we best get Boyd the ball and space he needs to attack?

    1. We seem to be stuck in this mode of playing 4-4-2, getting it wide, knocking crosses in. I’m doubtful that that approach is actually effective at all.

      With Boyd, he works best when he can get the ball to feet in or around the box. He’s a penalty box predator. Put the ball on his toe, with a sniff of goal ahead, and he’s going to invariably test the keeper, at the very least. To do that means getting players running into the box, stretching defences, hitting the byline and cutting back, or having someone with the ability to find the pass to feet at the top of the box. We’re simply lacking that player at the moment, or an effective attacking strategy that exploits our attacking strength. Right now we’re hammering square pegs into round holes and scratching our heads when they don’t fit.

      It’s interesting thinking back to something I heard Tim Vickery (THE premier South American football expert, imo) say about Chara: Chara isn’t a creative midfielder. He’s the guy who gets the ball, gives it short to someone else and then has the engine to get forward. Have we seen that type of play from Chara yet? I can’t recall too many examples.

  5. From the press box I saw Songo’o signal for the sub. As he came off he was near Spencer and grabbed his hamstring as an explanation as to why he signaled for a sub.

  6. My first visit here, and I’m very impressed on a number of levels. Great–but easy enough for the daft like myself–analysis, and great management between fan and analyst hats: My blog entry probably would have been written from the top of the Fremont Bridge as I was rambling naked like the KONY 2012 guy. I’ll definitely be a regular. Thanks for your work.

    I will say that the opening paragraph would have been a lot more appropriate last week. Chivas scored in the 82nd, but may as well have been the 72nd, 62nd, 65th… maybe I won’t list all the minutes which the goal may as well have been, but all the minutes from the second half are in the set. I personally didn’t feel like the loss was snatched.

    And stop kidding yourself, the only reasons you’re not the DK of B, as I like to call the position, are geography, birthright, cruel reality, lack of tyrannical instinct and it’s all a popularity contest.

  7. Re: Chara – no, I haven’t seen him dish and dash, but I can’t think of any of the other Timbers midfielders I’ve seen do this, either. And I can’t believe that there’s nobody on the side who can play give-and-go, or who hasn’t somewhere in their careers, so I’m assuming that this is Spencer’s call; he seems to like the play-wide-push-up-the-wingbacks-and-cross-it attack we seem to be using now.

    Hate to agree with what you’re saying, but I do; and if the problem is more on the sideline and in the front office, well, that makes it tough to solve – you can’t just trade your GM. I do wonder how many of Spencer’s starting choices come from him and how many from Gavin. I had similar problems with Wilkinson’s game-management skills when we were still in the USL – he seemed to have similar problems recognizing when to substitute and, when he did, which players would work well against which other teams.

    Well, this loss was SO bad – we were clearly outmanaged and outplayed – that I can see this as a possible break point in the season. The coach, and the team, can use this as motivation to start working on these problems (surely they see them – we all do, and we don’t get paid to do this…) and sort things out. Or – and I’ve seen this happen to teams I’ve been a part of – it can start tearing the team apart, as forwards start blaming defenders, cliques form and start fighting each other, and the team loses confidence in the management.

    We’ll have to see. RCTID…but parlous times, these.

  8. THANK YOU.

    Finally, a post about the Timbers that discusses some major issues that “fan blogs” seem to gloss over – the ineffectiveness of Jack Jewsbury and Kris Boyd not getting balls to his feet.

    The two are correlated, by the way. The Timbers midfield needs to deliver passes to Kris Boyd’s feet or into open space for him to run onto them. I have only seen the Timbers send balls forward in the air – KB is only 6’1!

  9. dead on the money.

    the approach to jewsberry is appaling. no player is so precious as to justify his position in the starting xi simply by fact of his existence in the side..

  10. Thanks for the great analysis. I too think Boyd is not being used properly. He always is marked by 2 or 3 players when he gets service from a cross. That’s not going to lead to a lot of goals.

    And Jewsbury. I like the person. But maybe a change is in order. My recollection, this year though, is that he only seems to link up with other players well for the first five or ten minutes of the game. Then he drifts off and becomes a ghost. Almost avoiding the ball?

    I’m worried that you’re right about Spencer. He may not have the tactical savvy.

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