The Timbers made their first visit to Houston Dynamo’s swanky new stadium, their second visit to Texas this year, and left the Lone Star State with another hard-earned point in their second goalless draw on the bounce.

John Spencer saw little to change in the line-up after the draw with Columbus – a match I attended after 12 hours in the air with a toddler and an infant, and as such have only the barest recollection of, but great thanks to Sheba for the tickets all the same – with Steven Smith coming back in to start at left back.

It meant Jewsbury continued at right back, and Palmer took up his new role as midfield enforcer with Nagbe and Boyd leading the line, and Songo’o and Wallace giving midfield width. Danso and Mosquera partnered at the back, hoping to build on a very promising beginning against the Crew.

Though it nominally looked like your typical Spencer 4-4-2, the reality was in took more of a 4-4-1-1 shape as Nagbe spent much of the game dropping deep to get the ball.

Whether accident or design, Nagbe’s ranging deep to get involved spoke to the isolation of the front line, and not for the first time.

It seems like the strategy over the past couple of matches has been to close the back door, and you could understand why – this was a team that had lost 13 goals in 8 matches prior to the Columbus match. And while you have to say it’s worked so far – two matches, no goals conceded – it has left the creative attacking players so detatched from play that they may as well take lawn chairs onto the pitch with them.

The defensive shape has to be praised though. For a team that has so often lacked defensive discipline, or shown a tendency for concentration levels to drop, the work the midfield and defence did to maintain order was, for the most part, excellent.

The lower screengrab highlights especially the good work done defensively to close down the space and hold their lines. You have two tight banks of four, no more than 30 yards from goal – it’s an intimidating sight for an attacking team to break down. Just ask Barcelona.

However, the flip side is that as good as those lines are defensively – where are the attackers? The gap between midfield and attack is more a chasm, and it’s one reason why it’s so difficult to get the ball to them effectively and build attacks.

The policy of dropping off and almost daring Houston to try and break them down is highlighted by the above shots, as well as this breakdown of where each team was tackling/intercepting play.

You can see at a glance how clustered these events are in and around the Portland box, and indeed the vast majoirity occur in the final 30 yards. It should also be noted how the play is being funnelled towards the centre.

Given that BBVA Compass Stadium has the same pitch width as Jeld-Wen Field of only 70 yards, it’s no surprise that the Timbers would look to narrow the play and really congest things in the centre.

Houston’s defensive play, as you can see, if more more spread out and they had a tendency to press higher up the pitch.

The Timbers’ defensive strategy worked for much of the game, with a few cutomary late chances given up as tiredness and injuries started to open up space. Danso was struggling laste on, but was unable to come off as all three subs had been used. One of those subs had been to replace Jewsbury with Chabala after Jack fell awkwardly in the first half. I don’t have the figures to hand, but I have a strong suspicion that Portland lead the way in enforced injury substiutions.

Palmer, often a lightning rod for criticism, did some good work covering at the back.

Palmer didn’t have a bad game at all – though someone needs to tell him that he doesn’t need to shoot everytime he has the ball within 40 yards of goal – but when alongside Chara in the centre it leaves the team very asnaemic in an attacking sense through the middle.

Chara was his usual self, buzzing around the midfield and getting stuck in, but neither he nor Palmer could offer the thrust through the middle that the team need.

Chara also seemed a little off the pace at times, which is unusual for him.

Palmer does his job well, but Chara is caught on his heels rather than being alive to the danger.

And again, he fail to match the runner, which forces Danso across and leads to a decent chance for the Dynamo.

On the whole though, the defence did their jobs well and I’m sure the second clean sheet in a row was greatly received by the coaching staff. Troy Perkins deserves big pats on the back for a couple of crucial one-on-one saves. Given he’s already wearing a mask, surely it’s not much of a leap to get him playing in a cape too. Superkeeper to the rescue.

The problem is at the other end. It’s now 427 minutes since a Timbers player last scored – at least, I don’t think we’ve signed Chance Myers yet – and that is a seriously long time to go without troubling Timber Joey to turn his chainsaw on.

To put that into context for a nerd like myself, you could watch the entire Star Wars trilogy (original, of course – no special editions) and still have time left over to get halfway through the Holiday Special, which coincidentally would probably leave you as depressed as watching your team fail to put the ball in the net in over 7 hours of play.

I mean, Bea Arthur, what the fu-

Sorry, back on topic. Given the isolation of the front line, it’s little surprise that good chances are as thin of the ground as Sounders fans pre-2009.

The introduction of Sal Zizzo after a lengthy lay-off gave the Timbers a bit of spark. He replaced Rodney Wallace on the hour after Wallace had had a poor match. He was wasteful in possession and generally looked like he wasn’t comfortable at all. I had held out hopes that Wallace would slot right in at left midfield as I felt his greatest weakness was his defending. I may have to revise that opinion as, on this evidence, his attacking isn’t so strong either.

Zizzo gave the team a bit of zip when he came on. In Zizzo the Timbers finally have someone who will take a player on, and go round the outside rather than look for a pass back. Nagbe and Songo’o are also good at taking defenders on, but these guys rely more on trickery to beat a man, whereas Zizzo will do it with good old fashioned pace, drive and strength.

Zizzo’s driving run leaves a defender in his wake, and he gets his head up to lay a nice pass off to Nagbe who doesn’t take the first time shot, and then can’t dig the ball out from under his feet in time.

In the end, a draw was probably the fairest result for both teams. The Timbers will hope to build on their defensive foundations, adding a bit attacking verve, as they look ahead to back-to-back home matches against Chicago and Vancouver.

It was interesting to note this on twitter after the match…

Strange for an owner that hates 0-0’s to have a team that has singularly failed to sign a truly creative midfielder.

But what do I know?

Till next time, #RCTID

10 thoughts on “D-Fens

  1. Good article. I disagree with you that the organization didn’t sign a creative midfielder. Chara’s passes, when he is on his game and not playing out of position, have been some of the best plays..

    1. With Chara, I don’t see him as a creator, as such. I think he’s more a win it & give it type of player. He could feed the ball to an attacking midfielder in good areas where the Timbers could create something, but I don’t think being that creative midfielder is Chara’s game, in all honesty.

      1. I recall three times last night, in the first 30 minutes, when Chara passed the ball (I think to Nagbe each time) and then made a run down the right only to have the pass go to Boyd or Wallace out left. All three times Chara was open, onside and about to be sent in alone. And all three times the actual recipient was not.

        It has to be tough to start give-and-go’s all night and never get the ball back. It makes me think that perhaps Nagbe is the less creative midfielder of the two.

  2. I would also point out that we seem to have two defending midfielders. This seems to be Spencer’s MO. It didnt work last year and doesnt work this year. How long do you think Boyd will sit around and take the lack of service? I am starting to think the pieces are there except they are hindered by a coaching staff that under utilizes their strengths.

    1. I think Kris is really happy off the pitch, but the longer he is marginalised and not supported on the pitch, the more likely he is to get frustrated. You can already see cracks here and there. The guy is a goalscorer – that’s what he does, and when he isn’t doing it he’s going to get annoyed.

      I don’t know if it’s a lack of confidence in his backline that has Spencer playing that way, or whether he wants to set his team up as a counter-attacking side but he seems pretty wed to playing with a “bucket” midfield whenever he can. That’s fie if you want to set up to stifle and frustrate opponents, but it doesn’t really make for a team that’s going to be proactive in creating chances. It also shuts us down through the middle, so teams know if they’re facing the Timnbers all they have to do is shut down the wings and we have NOTHING coming down the middle.

      Since joining MLS the Timbers have had good attacking players – Cooper’s form at NYRB is no fluke, and Boyd’s broken scoring records for a reason – yet last year we were joint 4th lowest scorers, and we’re averaging less than a goal a game this year. It’s glaring.

  3. Kevin –

    Fantastic write up (as always). Should they both find themselves fit, is the Timber’s best bet to put Zizzo and Songo out wide with Nagbe and Boyd up front? I think both Zizzo and Songo prefer the right side and I’m not sure how either would work as cover for Smith’s overlapping runs along the right. But, good God the Timber’s need to sharpen their attacking play and Wallace just does not seem to have the IQ to make the last pass in the final third that the Timber’s desperately need. I’m fine with a counter-attacking style (see your reference re: Barcelona v. Chelsea) and using Chara and Palmer to clog the middle. But someone needs to be able to make that last pass to free the man up in the box.

    Keep up the great work and thanks.

  4. I’m a huge Nagbe fan, but I have to admit that his best moves of late have been little more dribbling backwards or into double teams. For someone as technically gifted as the dude is, he needs to be able to slip a pass forward once in a while.

  5. The problem with us going with a counter is that to be consistently successful you have to be able to 1) spring your midfield and forwards quickly, and 2) hit them with accurate passes to feet.

    We don’t really have anyone playing regularly with that sort of pure speed outside of Zizzo and (to a point) Nagbe. And we don’t have anyone with that sort of pure passing touch outside of Alhassan, and (occasionally) Songo’o and Alexander. And we don’t seem to have anyone in midfield or up front who can consistently make runs into space or onto a pass to make all this work.

    So when we DO gain possession in back, or midfield, what usually happens is what happened Tuesday night; a series of passes (often backwards or across as often as forwards) that ends in a “tackle – possession lost”, into touch, or a final desperation long-ball. I’m not sure if we aren’t capable of passing through the middle because of Spencer’s up-the-wing style, but right now it sure doesn’t look it.

    I guess my question would be why we aren’t willing to try to pull Nagbe back to ACM, where he would seem more naturally placed to run at the defense, try a forward (Fucito?) up front, and move Chara to DCM. Then we’d have some mixture of Alexander-Songo’o-Zizzo-Alhassan at outside mid and could afford to try sitting Palmer and see if we get a more successful attack.

    I was glad to see another well-played defensive match. Now I’d like to see if Spencer has the tactical throw-weight to solve our attacking sterility. Right now he seems to be either unable to see a way clear or unwilling to sit players he sees as essential to his present system. If that starts working, then, hey, onward, Rose City! But if not…

  6. I think when we can get Zizzo and Alhassan back many of our service problems in the box will be fixed. Alhassan however does not track back very well and puts more pressure on our defense which could be a problem with Smith pressing forward. Wallace did do a nice job filling in when Smith was forward but he doesn’t create a lot with passes in the final third. Last year Zizzo would break people down on the outside but then had nobody to feed in the box and didn’t seem to want to take the shot. I’m hoping he will find Boyd and the drought will be over. Nagbe! please don’t try to take two touches on the ball inside the six yard box ever again!!!

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