Matter of Heart

Last week, John Spencer and his coaching team deserved the plaudits they got for pulling a tactical rabbit out of the hat in adjusting his team’s set-up to counteract the strengths of a till-then unbeaten Sporting Kansas City team. With Lovel Palmer plugged into a defensive midfield role, and a disciplined performance from everyone around him, the Timbers were able to neutralise much of the threat posed by Kansas City, and snatched an unlikely victory thanks to an own goal off a Kris Boyd cross.

I gave Spencer’s team selection a lot of praise last week, and I feel it was warranted. It wasn’t a pretty game, or a pretty performance but the team stepped up with arguably their best showing of the season so far, albeit one of the backs-to-the-wall variety. Going forward to this weeks match against Montreal Impact – the second bottom side in MLS this season, with only Toronto worse off, and I’m not sure at this point if Toronto aren’t some kind of grand prank being played on MLS – there was every reason to be hopeful that the Timbers could build on the Sporting result with another win, and at the same time see off an East Coast hoodoo that had seen the Timbers cross 3 time zones seven times, winning none and losing four.

What the Timbers fans got for their optimism was a disorganised, disinterested and bitterly disappointing performance that showed less heart than Tin Man repeatedly punching an orphan in the face. It wasn’t just the lack of desire though that cost the Timbers – they simply weren’t good enough from back-to-front.

In hindsight, the worst thing that could’ve happened last week may have actually been winning the match!

It would be folly to think that the Timbers won last week on organisation alone. They got a huge slice of luck in the own goal, and needed Perkins to make saves at crucial times. There’s an argument that Timbers made their own luck that night, but nevertheless, trying to pull off the same thing twice was always going to be pushing it.

And yet, that’s what the Timbers tried to do.

Steven Smith, the treatment table bothering ex-Rangers left back, replaced Mike Chabala at left back, but other than that change, all was as it was against Kansas City. The thinking seemed to be that since this strategy worked last week and beat the best team in the league, it was bound to do well against one of the the worst teams, right? Because that’s exactly how football works!

Yet, shockingly enough, the strategy that seemed so tailor made for countering a very specific style of football from Sporting didn’t fit against the Impact. Like the laziest kind of lounge magician, Spencer thought he could go one table over and pull off the same trick twice.

Palmer, asked to play the same deep lying role that he had the previous week often looked lost and unsure of just who or what he was supposed to be picking up. For all he was officially given a zonal marking role last week, as Spencer claimed, he just so happened to be marking a zone that contained Graham Zusi more often than not. Montreal didn’t have a Zusi. They don’t play that way. Their strengths are in their wide players and neither Felipe (who was my player of the match, for the record, with a fantastic range of passing on show) nor Warner are your archetypal attacking midfielders. So Palmer was left marking a zone with often no-one in it, and without that clearly defined opponent, he floated around without any sense of effectiveness.

Here Montreal were able to find space on the edge of the Timbers box as Palmer was sucked towards the back line, leaving his “zone” unprotected. Shades of Beckham in the LA match – also a match where Palmer had been parachuted in to play a holding role with seemingly no clearly defined instructions. Warner isn’t Beckham though, and his attempt to “Messi” his way through the mass of Timbers defenders was snuffed out.

It was very much a shot across the bow for the Timbers.

Palmer’s deep role can be seen even more clearly when the average positions of players are taken, using the heat maps on the MLS site as a guide.

It’s hard to be precise with this, obviously, but it shows that Palmer was often playing so deep that he could’ve been a third centre back. What is also noticeable if the way that the Montreal attack skews towards the Timbers left back area. Smith tried to play an attacking game, which saw him pushing up the field. This is fine – I wanted the Timbers to take the front foot and try to force Montreal back, but as you can see from the positions of the Montreal right back and right winger, they weren’t overly concerned with covering back, indicating that Montreal felt pretty comfortable dealing with the Timbers’ attack.

What was also concerning was Smith’s sometimes lackadaisical attitude to getting back, as was seen in the second Montreal goal.

At no point does Smith either seem alert to the danger, or show any real urgency to get back on terms with his man, or at least put pressure on him. The play began with a long ball out from the Impact keeper, and long before Sinisa Ubiparipovic became a threat there was time for Smith to get back. Credit must go to the final pass from Montreal which cut out defence and goalie, though a case could be made for Bendik staying on his line rather than trying to palm it out.

Smith, making an instant debut after his release by League One side Preston North End, looked like a man short of match sharpness. His last appearance for Preston was at the start of March, where he was subbed off after an hour of a 3-0 defeat to Colchester. Prior to that his last game time had been back in January. It showed.

Chabala found himself sitting this one out which strikes me as somewhat unfair. Chabala had put in a sterling effort against Kansas City, and while he may not be the greatest attacking full back around, he does offer a lot of bite and work-rate in defence.

You can see clearly the difference in tackles and interceptions between the two players. Yes, you might expect Chabala to be a bit busier given he was facing the best team in the league, but it’s still an illuminating picture. Smith’s focus seemed to be in attack, with less focus on getting back and covering. He was also prone to going to ground readily, which on a couple of occasions gave Impact players the chance to simply take a touch past him.

It would be ridiculous to write off a player based on one match, especially a debut but I still think Chabala has every right to be pissed off that he was overlooked. One of my criticisms of Spencer has been that it often seems he picks players based on his opinion of them, rather than how they’re actually playing. I’m sure he rates Smith highly, and I’m also sure Smith will go on to be a good left back for Portland given time, but throwing him into a match so soon, especially when Chabala had, in my opinion, earned that spot, sends out all the wrong signals to players. Players should earn the jersey, not just expect it.

Where’s the incentive to knuckle down and work harder to earn a spot in the team if certain players are going to get picked regardless? I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for these guys to see their fine work one week rewarded with a spot on the bench the next.

It was also be silly to blame the defeat on one man. Smith bears the greatest culpability for the second Montreal goal, as I see it, but he didn’t lose this game for Portland. There were very few bright spots through-out the team, or on the bench. Again Spencer seems to have picked a team and tactic without any thought to the opposition. I can understand the call to “keep a winning team together”, but this wasn’t a team that played Sporting Kansas City off the park and swashbuckled their way to a well-deserved victory. This was a team that knuckled down, bunkered and got a bit lucky on the break. This was NOT the team for Montreal.

Even the great sides will change it up depending on opposition, and this Timbers team isn’t a great side.

With Palmer so deep, Jewsbury was given so much ground to cover as he was expected to get up and down the pitch. To his credit, he had a great chance in the first half thanks to a classic box-to-box run.

It had shades of the breakaway chance against Kansas City last week, where Chara fed in Boyd. But here, as then, the chance wasn’t taken as Jewsbury’s shot didn’t really carry much threat behind it, and Ricketts will be able to make a YouTube highlights reel worthy clip out of his theatrical save.

But even here you can see how deep both Palmer and Jewsbury were sinking in defence. There are three Montreal players and the ENTIRE Timbers defence and midfield behind the ball in the top left panel. This time, the Timbers broke well, and Jewsbury got forward, but too often there was a loose pass or a long ball out of defence that only invited the pressure back on.

The strategy of “keep it tight” was pretty clear as the Timbers repeatedly tried to defend in bulk, but it essentially cedes ground to the opposition, and as a result the midfield battle was one that Montreal pretty comprehensively won.

The above shows the passing and shooting of the central midfield pairings of both teams. What should be pretty clear is that the Montreal two are both more involved and operating higher up the pitch than the Timbers pair.

The problem with playing on the back-foot, looking to soak up pressure, defend in depth and break, is that it, by design, invites pressure. I wouldn’t say the Timbers parked the bus as Chelsea did against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, but they had a tendency to drop off and give up space to the Impact whether through design or poor application. It worked against Kansas, but against the Impact the Timbers luck ran out.

There was a huge slice of bad luck in the two injuries the Timbers picked up. Purdy’s head knock forced him out early on, and Troy Perkins took a boot to the face as Nyassi went in stupidly high on a ball he was never going to win.

The handball decision given against Smith for Montreal’s opener was also bad luck on the Timbers part as it didn’t seem he had “handled the ball deliberately”, as per the Laws of the Game.

But luck, as well as poor officiating or a terrible playing surface, don’t excuse what was simply a terrible match from the guys in Rose City Red, and even though Lovel Palmer and Steven Smith have been singled out here, I also don’t think these two lost this match between them. It took an entire team to play this badly.

Another match passes where the Timbers clearly had the wrong strategy, but nothing was done to rectify it. There’s some mitigation in that two injuries forced the Timbers to make changes they wouldn’t have, given the choice, but the fact remains that it was clear the Timbers weren’t at the races in the first half, and the change, when it did finally come an hour in, was little more than a “deckchairs on the Titanic” style shuffle. Nothing was done to alter the shape or strategy. Perkins’ head injury put paid to any hopes that Spencer might throw the dice as the game wore on.

If Spencer expects a pat on the back for the way he set out the team last week, he has to except a large slice of blame for this week. I cannot explain how he thought taking what seemed to be a one-off, bespoke strategy and thinking it would simply work again against a completely different set of players was ever going to work. At best it was tactically naive, at worst it was downright bad management.

Had the Timbers got a point, which seemed to be the game plan, or even snatched three, they’d had better been leaving Montreal on horseback wearing Dick Turpin masks. It would’ve been nothing short of daylight robbery.

Football can be a cruel mistress at times, but it can also be unerringly fair too. This week the Timbers got what they deserved – nothing.

Next week sees Columbus Crew visit Jeld-Wen Field, and the Timbers Army will be expecting much more from their side. It’s not like things can get much worse… right?

P.T. F.C.

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29 thoughts on “Matter of Heart

  1. This has me again wondering if Spencer and Wilkinson are not a very good judge of talent. It seems they like “certain” footballers but dont know how to fit them into a “team”. Showing how poorly they utilized Cooper last year this year is showing even more with Boyd and how little they play to his full talents. At some point it is less about the players (which just follow the coach) and more about the rule of the front office.

    1. There almost seems like a conflict between JS and GW in the sense that Spencer clearly has a way he wants to play, but Gavin has an idea on the kind of players he likes and the two don’t seem to overlap as much as you’d hope they would.

      I obviously don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors, but the way the team is being built doesn’t seem to suggest that everyone is exactly singing from the same hymn sheet.

  2. Great analysis of a really poor game by our boys in red.

    A couple corrections for you. I believe Nyassi was booked for the challenge on Perkins. It came late though, just before play resumed and next week we play the Crew not the Fire.

  3. Sharp, as always. One comment on Chewy – I think he would have gotten the start had he not rolled his ankle vs. SKC. I suspect, given the team and the “turf”, Spencer thought Smith could give it a go. The whole game felt oppressive from the start (cold dome, bouncy concrete) and I got the sense that rather than try to capitlise on unpredictable nature of the surface, they were unsure of their passes and runs. And, of course, the boot to face didn’t help. Thought that might light a fire, but I think they lost all confidence after that. Sigh. Onward Rose City.

  4. It must be difficult with the teams depth to make a starting line-up. Alexander has been playing wonderful soccer, and like your comments about Chewy- one could easily argue has earned his spot. Only a handful of players have shown the consistency, skillset, and desire to be a lock in the starting lineup- and with a deep roster- i do feel for Spencer trying to find the right mix. Merritt is correct when he says its not an issue of talent.
    I see the potential of a lot of players, but at some point they need to decide to leave it on the field. Boyd’s early games showed a lack of chemistry with the team- to no ones fault – it simply comes with time together – when teammates know when you are going to zig or zag…. So to finalize this thought– if it’s not talent, and new guys need time with the team to build chemistry – the key then is the chemistry. You can find your chemistry without knowing your role- and you can’t perfect it until you accept your role and sell out for it. My role will be cheering on the boys in green from the north end at the top of my lungs. I’m committed – I’m sold out- I know my role and I will excel!

  5. I think you went too easy on Spenny. Really poor decision on his part for wanting to play on the counter. Especially with Songo’o and Alexander fit and on the bench, start either one of them over palmer or jewsbury, and the timbers might have controlled the ball. Anyway, this was an incredibly depressing game to watch. I know it doesn’t do any real good to discuss, but what do you think of getting a player like Felipe on the team, with the passing ability from deep? I think that’s the one piece the timbers are missing, and you get a player like that, even the full-backs will start looking good. Thanks again for the excellent article, keep up the good work.

    1. I was impressed with Felipe. I haven’t seen much of Montreal, so this was my first proper look at him and he was a stand-out in the middle, for me. He had a great range of passing, and the way the Timbers play with the full backs pushed on, that ability to pick a pass would be great to see.

      Currently we have guys in the centre who just don’t possess the ability to get the ball and knock a 30-40 yard pass out wide. Most passes are sideways or backwards, and short. We just don’t have variation and if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s little surprise that teams figure you out in no time.

      Felipe had that variation to his passing.

  6. If MP is correct and it’s not a talent issue, this means that the talent is not being deployed properly. Which comes back to Spencer. I feared he would “fight the last war” in Montreal and he did. It seems like he’s determined that the Timbers will play ugly defensive football, regardless of opponent or the players’ skills.

    I was wishing we’d come out in a very attacking alignment and take it to them, but had no real expectation that it would happen. We will see more of the same next week with Jewsbury providing no service from the middle, Chara wasted on a wing and Palmer filling a jersey.

    I know you’re a Perlzaa fan, as am I. But truthfully, he played an awful game. He looked sluggish and the four offsides really hurt. I suspect he’d have been out if we’d had a sub left at 70 minutes. I was a bit surprised to see him come out for the second half. Not suggesting he be benched (I’m sure he knows he played poorly) but he sure didn’t help the cause this week.

    1. Perlaza didn’t have a good game at all. Jorge’s the sort of guy to me that’ll give you, generally, a consistent level of performance, but he’s prone to having off nights and he had one there. Not helped by poor service, and he seemed a bit anxious to get in behind, hence the offside calls. Nagbe looked a bit better up top cos he’s a guy who’ll drop off to get the ball, whereas Perlaza will go wide, or look to get in behind. Given the way the Timbers had sunk back in the middle, Nagbe found there was a bit of space to be found by dropping off.

    2. I don’t know that you should be listening to Merritt’s opinions on talent as his opinions are formed from whatever Gavin tells him. He’s only watched soccer since he purchased the Timbers.

  7. “[Spencer] picks players based on his opinion of them, rather than how they’re actually playing.”

    I firmly believe that is the heart of our problem right now.

    1. Spenny’s problem is GW. He always played favorites and I feel he needs to go. MP defends him, but shouldn’t, Reserves should be given 1st team shots.

  8. I enjoy your columns and I believe you are one of the best reads. After watching the game this week and last week’s game, I feel like our mids are lost. I know switching around our midfield is a poor tactic at this point, but what if we could bring in someone like Schelotto (or Schelotto himself). This type of midfielder seems perfect for our system. A perfect passer with a good touch that could feed our forwards.

    1. I agree with you that a passing midfielder who can control the ball is exactly what the timbers need in the center of the pitch. somoone who plays similar to the way Felipe did for montreal against us. And thinking more about it, there already is a player in the team that might be able to fill that role, Kalif. That might be hard to believe, but he did play in the center of midfield for one of the preseason games, against chivas i believe, where he came deep for the ball out from the CB, then was able to turn upfield and make accurate passes to the wing. On top of that he’s probably the best player on the team at retaining possesion. The only question is his defensive work, but it can’t be any worse than jewsbury’s at this point. What about it, a Kalif Chara midfield tandem, will it work?

  9. I’ve felt growing unease with 2 related coaching issues: 1) putting the best 11 on the pitch; and 2) creating a game plan that they can successfully implement. For example, the only reason that Jewsbury is playing a CAM position must come from the “[Spencer] picks players based on his opinion of them, rather than how they’re actually playing” phenomena. I’d rate Jewsbury as at least the 4th best option at that crucial position behind Nagbe, Alexander and Songo’o. The lack of a meaningfully productive (both offensively and defensively) center of our midfield is the core of our problems game after game in my opinion. The SKC game is the only one so far where I felt the Timbers coaching staff did an excellent job of game planning. I can’t help but wonder if the coaching issues relate to the unexplained departure of Trevor James and his replacement by Cameron Knowles. While Knowles has an impeccable Timbers pedigree, James had both deep experience and connections to some of the best coaching traditions in the US and UK. Just have to wonder but something fundamental is not working this year.

  10. I agree with your observations. I really like Spencer but I am having to question his decision and his flexibility. I keep having to remind myself that this is a young team and Spencer is a young coach. Growing pains can be painful, but they key question is “Are we growing?” I am not so sure…

    BTW, yours is the best Timbers analysis in the web. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks!

      I’m of much the same opinion about Spencer. I almost feel like I should start every sentence with “I don’t think Spencer should be sacked but…” What I’m worried about is there doesn’t seem to be much progression from Year 1 Spencer to Year 2 Spencer. You can only be a rookie for so long.

      It’s still very early in the season though. If we’re still struggling come the end of the regular season, maybe then a decision has to be made, but till then we have to hope that Spencer is learning and that he’ll start to right the ship.

  11. I appreciate the analysis of a match that had me baffled. I think you are right on with the “what” and the “why.” I hope we don’t have to search for answers at “who.”

    You keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

    Thanks!

  12. Another doleful match…another incisive analysis. I’ll second Punk Monkey; so far you’re far outdoing anyone and everyone who is writing about this team, including the current beat reporter for the Oregonian, who of everyone should be all over this. Ah, well…

    Nothing major to add. I will join you in not wanting to join in the whingeing already turning up on various sites, including the Timbers own site and Facebook page. “We suuuucccckkkk!” “Fire Spencer now!” “So terrible!” You’d think that half the supporters who visit these places had never struggled through a relegation-level season or known a club that played musical managers (see: Toronto F.C.).

    That said, I would like to see some more thought coming from over the touchline. I used to have trouble with Gavin’s matchday decision-making; he never seemed to have a particularly deft read on the opponent, and his substitutions seemed hit-and-miss, as well. Spencer seems to be going on in a similar fashion; when he writes his tell-all memoirs of his first two years in Portland I’ll bet the title will be something like “Let ‘Em Play And See What Happens”. I don’t expect every manager to be cunning as a cunning fox appointed Dean of Cunning at Cunning University, but a little more study of the game, and scouting the incoming teams, would seem to be in order.

    And the other difficulty that seems to be going unaddressed is the on-field leadership, both up front and in the back. You called out Smith for playing like he was gassed after 20 minutes. While I don’t expect Perkins to go Full Schmeichel on him, a barked “ball side! goal side1” every so often might have gotten his head up. Look at where Mosquera is on the through ball that led to the second goal; he’s sagged of two yards and is upfield of the play – why isn’t someone – Brunner, by choice, since he’s the senior defender with a novice ‘keeper in goal – running the backline, telling Mosquera to go to the ball and Smith to stay manned-up?

    Same with Palmer in midfield. Sure, he should have a better idea of his role. But there should be someone – and since he’s wearing the armband it should be Jewsbury – to remind him; “Palmer? What the hell are you doing? Who are you marking?”

    A lot of this stuff comes down to how Spencer has prepared the Boys before the opening whistle. But all season this team has come apart on the pitch, as well – most notably after the second Chivas goal; that was pure panic out there, with no indication that anyone between the touchlines was trying to pull the side’s head back into the match.

    I’m still hoping that between them Merrit, Gavin, and Spence are seeing a way through this. But Merrit’s post-game quote about the problem not being on the field makes it sound like he’s starting to lose patience with either Spence, Gavin, or both. And that could be ugly, if it leads to midseason sackings. Ugh; not sure I want to even think about that.

    Courage! Onward, Rose City, and let’s get stuck into some Columbus!

  13. Couple thoughts on Spenny:

    Last year it looked like the team was his. Yeah, he had issues with Coop, but everyone celebrated their first goal with him. I haven’t seen that this year. I am worried he is loosing the team, and based on the lineup decisions I can start to understand that.

    My first thought on the injury subs: Alexander should have come in for Purdy, with Palmer dropping back to the RB spot. Sure, Palmer was part of the problem during the loosing streak, but Braun just gets skinned out there. He had a couple great touches and put a few insightful passes forward, as one might expect of a converted midfield, but he gets burned one on one.

    I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those with inside knowledge on injuries, and sending Chewie out on a crappy surface with an ankle knock is a risky move. But sending out Palmer to attempt to reprise his Spork killing role was clearly folly.

    Lastly, was this a game where Wallace might have excelled? A crappy, fast surface seems to be the place that would reward Wallace’s athleticism. Wallace is not the best at many things, but he certainly covers ground. Would he have closed out where Smith did not on the last goal?

    1. Dunno if the lack of team hugs is telling; in a slump like this there’s little to celebrate at all, and certainly the team seemed happy enough with Spence after the SKC win.

      What I do agree with is the feeling – and right now it’s just that, a “feeling – that the Boys are starting to tune him out. I assume that he can see the same things that KA is describing here, and that he’s shouting at Smith and Palmer, say, from the touchline. But so far I have yet to see a player – and this held last season, as well – look over at Spence, nod his head, and adjust his play midmatch, either by shifting position, making runs where he had not, marking tighter or looser…there just seems to be this attitude “There’s ol’ Spenny shouting again…whatev’.” and it seems more marked this season than last.

      No idea if this is really happening, but I get the same sense – that as the losses mount the team is slipping away from Spencer. No surprise, but, still, there’s got to come a point where he’s not going to be able to turn things around.

  14. One last thought on the Front Office.

    In his last years as coach one of the things that characterized Gavin was his resistance to change. He’d put a team on the pitch in April and barring injury we’d see the same side run out in September. This seemed especially the case with his attackers; he seemed to hate to change up the forwards and attacking mids, regardless of how well things were going on matchday.

    In 2009-2010 he stayed with Mandjou Keita for a long stretch after it became apparent that the other teams had a) figured out that Gavin’s offense ran through him 90% of the time, and b) had figured out how to mark Keita out of the match. In 2010 he did the same with Ryan Pore; put the ball through Pore early in the season and had success and then kept at it through the summer as our opponents figured him out and closed Pore down.

    And Gavin never seemed to develop a counter; he just kept bashing away with the same XI to ever-decreasing results.

    So I wonder; how much of this helps Spencer indulge his taste for playing favorites on the pitch? When your GM has a penchant for “stability”, regardless of circumstances, and a fairly hamfisted feel for the flow of the game and how to engineer successful matchups…and you the coach are similarly inclined..?

    We could be in for a very interesting May…

    1. There was also that issue in 2010 of Gaving not playing Scot despite Scot being the superior player. He kept trying to make someone else work there and for the life of me I can’t remember who it was.

      1. Gav’s handling of the defense wasn’t one of my treats to watch, either. He had a couple of defenders he seemed to see as far better than those of us sitting in the North End saw them; Steven Keel, for one, who always seemed to be found wandering about somewhere south of midfield. Not terrible, but one of those leap-and-stab defenders that give you heart failure even when they make the tackle.

        Kevin Goldthwaite was another of his oddities that I could never see the point of; his arrival on the pitch always seemed to signal a desperate defensive scramble…

        I remember thinking the same way in 2010; why isn’t he playing One-T? ISTM that Purdy was breaking in at right back, though, and that was probably why. What I recall from that season was Keel and Futty in the center but the outside backs tended to change up depending on who had had the best last match; Purdy, Quavas Kirk, Ian Joy, and Josh Cameron.

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