The Timbers Take Wing

Portland Timbers fans are still basking in the afterglow of a fine derby victory, and with the dust still settling I thought I’d look back at one of the aspects of the Timbers play that really encouraged me – the wings.

Alhassan put in another good shift down the right, backed up by Jewsbury, but here I’m going start with a focus on the left wing.

Franck Songo’o has frustrated me so far this year. There’s been flashes of skill here and there, but he’s been entirely inconsistent and at times has seemed to lack focus and purpose in the final third.

I’ve also doubted his winger credentials, especially in light of his performance against LA.

Songo’o tendency to drift infield really hurt the Timbers in that match. He was coming in off the wing, and running right into the most congested part of the pitch, with LA packing three men in the centre of midfield.

He showed much more discipline against Seattle, sticking to his role a lot better.

For me, it was Songo’o best game in Timbers green. I’m still not convinced he’s an out-and-out winger, but his display against Seattle showed that he can play that wide role effectively, especially when he has Steven Smith on his shoulder.

The reintroduction of Smith down the left flank was a massive boon to the team. Where Songo’o may drift infield, and narrow the attacking line, Smith will pop up out wide and force Seattle to leave gaps in the middle, or give the Scot a free run at the byline.

Songo’o and Smith would combine out left in the build up to the first goal, scored by Kris Boyd.

As well as the combination of Smith and Songo’o down the left, another very encouraging aspect of the play was the way that they switched play from flank to flank.

Too often we’ve seen the Timbers work the ball down the channels, run into trouble and simply cede possession to the other team, but against Seattle we saw them switch play from one side to another with real purpose.

Here we see the team winning the ball deep, getting it forward quickly down the right and then working it across the pitch, right in front of the Seattle defence. Unfortunately the pass into the box is a poor one, but notice Smith once more making himself available down the line – finding himself level with the ball at both the start and finish of the move.

Another example of this crisp passing across the pitch to stretch the Seattle defence begins with Smith and Songo’o wide left and ends, via Nagbe and an onrushing Jewsbury, with Alhassan in wide right.

Alhassan’s dinked shot/cross (who knows with this guy) drops just wide of the post, but agains you see the team moving the ball with poise and precision.

This kind of crossfield passing is only possible with willing runners from fullback positions and hard-working guys in the middle who make themselves available for the ball, and move it on crisply.

No-one sums that role up better than Diego Chara.

This was probably my favourite passage of play, even though it didn’t come to anything in the end. I simply love Chara’s work here. He’s the first on the scene to take the ball from Smith, and then at every stage of the move, he’s always available to take the ball back. He doesn’t do anything flashy or highlight-reel worthy – his passing is simple and measured – but this kind of play in the middle is what allows the team to move the ball across the field at pace and keep the opposition moving, allowing the Timbers to probe for weakness.

Even when he does lose the ball, he’s straight onto it and wins it right back.

Someone like Chara is essential as the Timbers don’t have a passer like Beckham, who thinks nothing of launching a 50 yard crossfield pass. Instead, the Timbers looked to rely on quick, short passes and runs to work the ball across, with only one crossfield pass attempted (not including set pieces).

Once more it was the Smith/Songo’o combination down the left that combined to forge a great chance for Danny Mwanga to write himself into Timbers folklore by scoring against Seattle with his first touch at Jeld-Wen Field.

The team has oft been criticised for being predictable in the way they play. They’ll be direct, they’ll try and get it wide and cross it in. Teams have capitalized on this and neutralised the flanks, driving the team infield and into trouble as we’ve often lacked the short, quick passing game needed to carve open a team through the middle.

We finally saw a glimpse of that game plan clicking into place against Seattle. Smith has already made himself indispensable at left back, and Jewsbury is solid enough at right back – thought I still think that’s an area that needs to be strengthened with real quality.

Given this team’s tendency to find something that works one week, and blindly try to replicate it the next week without thought for the change of opposition I still worry that we seem to lack a Plan B.

It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Alhassan in the next match. Jewsbury isn’t the willing runner that Smith is round the outside, so isn’t going to cover for a player who drifts inside as well as the Scot, and that could leave the team lopsided and forced down dead ends. It may be that Zizzo’s time has come.

7 thoughts on “The Timbers Take Wing

  1. Wasn’t that lovely? Having stood there much of this season glumly watching the ball go up-the-wing-back-across-up-the-other-wing-back-across-rinse-repeat, last Sunday getting to watch all that creativity was almost as good as sex under the Christmas tree. To watch the Smith making an overlapping run and watching Songo’o actually feed him! That afternoon was like a gift.

    I think your concern about Plan B is spot on but I’m also a little concerned about Plan A. We talked about this on your last post and I realize that the intensity and workrate of the first half hour wasn’t sustainable. But I thought that the team could still have kept their shape and continued the sort of wing play better for the last 60 minutes. I saw a LOT more of the “pointless backpass” sort of play in the second half. Part of Spencer’s job has to be to keep the Boys at work as well as seeing the opponent’s tactical moves and adjusting to them. He doesn’t seem to do this particularly well – yet – and he’s got to start figuring this out soon or he’s gonna be back in Arbroath grilling kippers.

    One last thing…the big difference I see on the Sal v. Kalif tradeoff is that Sal’s most effective matches have been a) as a late substitution, b) partnered with Perlaza, and c) effective when he uses his speed down the flank to pressure the opposing left back. He doesn’t put the ball inside with any accuracy and he tends to overcommit, get caught in possession, and turn the ball over. That will force a lot of defense out of Jewsbury, who was lucky on Sunday not to have to try and do much more than he’s capable of. He’s very different from Kalif, and starting him will perforce require the forwards to shift – yet again – to another style of play…

    But sufficient to Denver is the evil thereof. I love your reminder of how terrific the Boys can play when they get the mind to. Onward, Rose City!

    1. I think Sal’s role in Spencer’s team is as an impact sub, but if he was ever to stake a claim for a starting role then this may be his chances. In saying that, my suspicion is Songo’o will play on the right and Alexander or Nagbe on the left (if Nagbe goes left, Palmer into centre mid…? Eek).

  2. Palmer saw red last match, so we’ll at least be spared his qualities against Colorado. I’d love to see Alexander fill in for Alhassan. I think he links well with Nagbe and has an attacking edge to his game..

  3. Palmer saw red last match so we’ll be spared his talents this next. Would love to see Alexander fill in for Alhassan. He links well with Nagbe and has an attacking edge to his game.

  4. It’s a good thing Palmer got that red card and isn’t available for tonight’s game!
    I would really like to see Alexander in a more attacking mid role as I believe his vision is good even if his execution leaves something to be desired.

  5. Well, THAT was awful.

    I thought Zizzo was fairly ineffective as a starter (tho, apparently, Songo’o was so bad that he was subbed out before halftime) but to be honest so was everyone else. It was like that lovely half hour against Seattle never happened. Big step backwards, and I do wonder what the front office can do at this point.

  6. I should qualify my comment about Songo’o. Going forward he was actually the most effective (low standard to beat, but, still…) player on the field. But he still coughed up the ball repeatedly, was completely out of synch with Smith – tho how much of that was Smith I have no idea, Smith looked genuinely awful against Colorado – and played a big part in the Timbers left flank being soft as a plush toy during the first half.

    I honestly don’t know what to think at this point. The entire team outside Chara (Kris Boyd gets something of a pass just for being stranded up front with no real way to judge how he would have done had he seen any service…) played like they had never seen each other before the match. I’d blame it on their preparation except they weren’t even doing the Soccer 101 things right. The passign was awful, the movement off the ball…well, there WAS no movement off the ball. Defenders backing away – Colorado seemed to move more lazily than a Swedish art film, they got so littler pressure – ballwatching, out of position. The communication…again, there WAS no communication on defense or in the attack.

    An all-round awful display, utter rubbish, and it really calls to question, for me, anyway, whether this team and John Spencer have gotten so completely out of sorts that there’s no “saving” them.

    There’s an old military adage; never reinforce defeat. The idea being that troops that have been really badly beaten cannot be “helped” by a little infusion of new guys; their attitude will infect the reinforcements, who will then get beaten in turn. The Colorado match makes me wonder if this group of players and their coaches have gotten so infected with defeat that they are now nearly incapable of doing more than randomly coalescing for a stretch of decent play before collapsing again.

    It may not be that bad. I hope it’s not. Because if it is the only remedy will be to “blow up” this squad; ship a number of faces out – including many of the coaching staff – and start building again.

    But the way this team played in Denver…

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