Clowns to the left, Jokers to the right

In a flurry of misguided optimism I had written in midweek about how I thought the Timbers could, should, and would, beat LA this weekend. In the end it was another disappointing road trip as the team succumbed to defeat to a poor LA Galaxy.

There was no surprise to see Danny Mwanga start alongside Kris Boyd in attack, and the rest of the squad was as predictable, save for the inclusion of Franck Songo’o at left midfield.

The match started with some end to end play, and the Timbers were looking dangerous in attack for the first time in a long time. With Nagbe playing high up the pitch, and Alhassan and Songo’o supporting from midfield, it certainly had an attacking look.

The Galaxy had gone with a 4-3-3 that became a 4-5-1 in defence. The central three of Beckham, Juninho and Sarvas seemed to take a while to work out their roles in the system, and this early confusion was exploited by Nagbe who was finding spaces between defence and midfield.

I wrote in my preview article about how early crosses to the back post could be effective in exploiting the Galaxy’s aerial weakness at the back, yet this was the one time we effectively got the ball into the box.

In fact, the level of crossing in the game for the Timbers was poor.

Five attempted crosses from the left all game, only one successful – and even that didn’t get into the box! All season we’ve been whiffing crosses in for big defenders to head clear with ease and when we finally play a team that can be truly hurt by height, we scale it back.

It’s little surprise that we were so absent down the flanks when your “wingers” are Alhassan and Songo’o. I worried that Songo’o out wide would hurt or wing play, and so it proved.

You can look at that pic and, sure, you can try and tell me that Songo’o is a winger, but I don’t believe you. I know he was sold as that but Spencer’s spiel that he has “never played in there probably in his career” looks kind of hollow when you engage your eyeballs and actually watch where Songo’o is playing. He is not a winger.

Sure, he might stand out wide when the Timbers don’t have the ball, but as soon as they get it, he drifts inside. Maybe it’s a tactical thing, and that’s what he’s been told to do, but even so I’ve never once see him display that winger’s instinct to take a player on round the outside and whip a cross in.

And before anyone points out false or reverse wingers, or guys such as Ribery and Robben, or even Messi, who have played outwide, only to come infield, there’s a big difference between what these guys can do from there than what Songo’o does. To be fair to Alhassan, while he is often guilty of the same ineffectual meandering infield, right into traffic, he at least stuck to the flanks a bit more.

I honestly think some people are getting blinded by the whole Barcelona thing. La Masia is a footballing factory – it goes through scores of kids, and only a select few every make it anywhere.

I think Songo’o is a talented player. He has skills. I just don’t know where he fits in in this time. It’s certainly not out wide.

With our wide midfielders narrowing the attack, it made Portland’s play predictable.

Get it wide, work it inside, run out of space, get it wide again. Repeat until the ball is knocked out of play or lost to the opposition.

While it paid off early on, and Boyd in particular had a good chance after some encouraging linking with Mwanga as well as Songo’o’s headed chance, the Galaxy quickly got wise to the ploy and started sitting Juninho or Sarvas alongside Beckham at the back of the midfield three and shut the play down.

I don’t profess to be a footballing mastermind. I’m just a fan with a blog. I’ve never played the game beyond schools level, and I’ve certainly never coached or managed outside of the Football Manager series of games.

Yet even I could see this was dangerous.

I don’t post these to show off, or brag about how clever I am (much). I take no satisfaction from it, but if I, a humble fan, could spot the potential for disaster by leaving the midfield so short, why in the name of Steve Guttenberg’s Left Testicle couldn’t the coaching staff? This is their job. They get paid to do this shit.

Sure enough, minutes after my last tweet, this happened.

This was the build up that led to the corner, that led to the Galaxy scoring the only goal of the game.

I really pity Diego Chara here. He would’ve had every right to be absolutely fuming with the coaching staff after this match. Time and again he was left so outnumbered in the middle I half expected Burt Young to emerge out of the dugout, urging the Colombian to “hit the one in the middle”.

Nagbe clearly had an attacking brief, and it shows in this defensive breakdown for the two players. To Chara’s credit, he did a good job, hamstrung though he was, and was a constant presence shutting down space and thwarting Galaxy attacks.

After an inital good showing, Nagbe again drifted out the match as it wore on. I wrote a while ago that I’d been concerned that Nagbe was slumping, whether through exhaustion or a loss of confidence, and looked in need of a rest.

Even the very best young players will hit a point where they need to be taken out of the team to allow them to recharge the batteries. Nagbe is only a second year pro, and there’s been a lot of expectation heaped upon his shoulders.

At times, Nagbe is contributing very little. The team, as a whole, are carrying more passengers than a Japanese bullet train, and they’re not all on the pitch.

Again, we had another game where the Timbers failed to adjust to the opposition they faced. Make no mistake – this LA team were poor. They didn’t outplay us. They simply had a strategy that worked, and one that we failed to even acknowledge, or so it seemed.

I can absolutely appreciate the team going out to attack and we saw that for much of the first half, but the thing is, if you don’t then score, you’d sure as shit better have a plan to defend as well. When we found our attacking play being stifled as the game wore on, we didn’t adjust. As the Galaxy began to exert control of the centre of the pitch, we didn’t adjust.

If this seems familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before.

The changes finally came after the goal. Boyd – who missed that early chance and had another long range effort cleared, but is looking ever more anxious and frustrated in front of goal – went off, as did Alhassan and Songo’o, but by then the Galaxy were able to close down the match by sheer weight of numbers.

The parallels between Boyd and Kenny Cooper are concerning. Both are good strikers, solid goalscorers, and yet their time in the Pacific Northwest has been marked by bad luck, poor service and, at times, an apparent loss of confidence in front of goal.

I should address the goal as well, I suppose, as complaints about the refereeing were prevalent on twitter after the match.

While they certainly excelled themselves with some calls that betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the offside rule, on the goal I see no problems, to be honest.

To get on my hobby horse for a moment – goalies get far too much protection as it is. The slightest glancing touch of a keeper is invariably called a foul on him, and it’s gone way beyond ridiculous. An attacker should have as much right to fairly challenge a goalkeeper as he does a defender.

That said, I can see nothing wrong with the goal. Donovan gets himself into a dangerous area, and some were arguing he was obstructing Perkins. I think he had as much right to move toward the ball, and get himself in a dangerous area, as Perkins did to try and clear it – which, by the way, I don’t think he was getting near in any case.

If Perkins had expended as much energy in playing to the whistle as he did in waving his arms around, he might have got more a hand to the ball.

It’s very much a subjective thing though. Some will see obstruction, some won’t. This ref didn’t. It wasn’t an egregious call by any means.

And Portland didn’t lose this match because a ref didn’t cover Perkins in cotton wool. They lost because they did what they always do.

I mean, who needs a Plan B when Plan A is working so well, huh?

Next up, Seattle. Yeah.


5 thoughts on “Clowns to the left, Jokers to the right

    1. Alexander should play in the middle with Chara, not so much as a CAM, but as 2 box to box central mids.

      1. Yeah, I’d tend to agree. The diamond only really works when you’re playing against 4 in the middle and the guy at the tip works hard to get back and support the midfield. I don’t think we had either against LA – we were outnumbered 5v4 in the middle (as we were against Chivas – lesson learned there? Seemingly not) and Nagbe wasn’t getting back enough to help out Chara, though I’d give him somewhat of a pass as I think he had been told to stay high up the pitch.

  1. The thing I keep hearing is how these defeats are about “heart” and “passion” and lack of them. But ISTM that the issue here isn’t emo, it’s skillset; either the players aren’t capable of anything better – and we have seen flashes of more skillful play from several of the players involved here – or the skill problem is managerial, both in a failure to prepare the side as well as an inability to read the match as it happens.

    I honestly think these guys are competent pros who want to play well and win. The failures I’m seeing aren’t so much of heart but of head.

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