The Change Up

Three months ago I wondered whether a radical change in tactics might be a way for the Timbers to put an end to a disappointing start to the season. It didn’t happen, and John Spencer abandoning his beloved 442 for something as radical as a 343 was always the longest of long shots, just like Sigi Schmid to passing up an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Spencer would be fired as the season continued on a downward spiral, with Gavin Wilkinson installed as interim coach with a brief to “find out more about the group”. That would be the group that he had a large hand in assembling that he’s finding out about.

Wilkinson has moved away from Spencer’s 442-shaped comfort blanket and experimented with a long front man, and a five man midfield. Whether it takes the shape of a 451, a 4231, 4141 or a 433, the team has still struggled to find form like I struggled to find a good metaphor to put here.

The problem, as far as this armchair manager sees it, is that we continue to make the same mistakes, patiently rearranging the deckchairs before ramming into every damned iceberg we can find.

The plan seems to be the same as it ever was: play it quickly out of the back, get it wide, ???, profit. The problem stems from the fact that we play with guys out wide who are attracted into the centre like Wayne Rooney to his local nursing home. Franck Songo’o, when he’s in the mood, is a fantastic player who’ll beat players with tricks and feints, but he tends to do most of that coming in off the flanks rather than getting round the defence to get a cross in.

This has the effect of narrowing our attack to a dull point, handing the emphasis for providing width to the full-backs. Mo’ problems as we have full-backs whose delivery from wide areas could be politely described as fucking shite, so even when we do work a good overlap there’s an odds on chance that the only person getting their head on the ball is going to wake up in hospital with a case of concussion and the faint memory of walking past a football ground.

The other issue is that when the pass doesn’t go out wide, and our nominal “wingers” are coming inside, the middle of the pitch can get more congested than Harry Knowles’ arteries. So, we run right into traffic, lose the ball and are caught with our pants down and full-backs way out of position.

Being the kind of football nerd that spends time thinking about these kind of things when I could be doing something more productive like shouting at traffic or seeing how many Ritz crackers I can eat at once (6), I thought if we’re not going to think out of the box – which is a shame cos, really, what have we got to lose at this point? – why not find a way of playing that requires the minimum of tweaking?

Taking the 433 that the Timbers lined up with against Goats USA as the basis, I came up with something that does much the same job, but better I think, and with a dash of Barcelona in there, cos why the hell not?

The “Christmas Tree” formation – a sadly fitting title given the way the Timbers defence have been dishing out gifts this year – is a variation of the more traditional 433 where the two wide attackers are played more centrally, in behind the striker rather than flanking him, or supporting from wide.

Or, as Jonathan Wilson puts it in Inverting the Pyramid:

The 4-2-3-1 is just one variant of the five-man midfield. One of the attacking midfielders can be sacrificed for an additional holder, producing either a 4-3-2-1 – the Christmas tree – or the modern 4-3-3. Co Adriaanse seems to have been the first exponent of the 4-3-2-1 at Den Haag in the late eighties, and Terry Venables experimented with it with England ahead of Euro 96, but it was at the 1998 World Cup that a side using it achieved its first notable success, and it entered the mainstream.

Aimé Jacquet’s problem was accommodating Zidane, one of the greatest playmakers the world has known, but a player of limited pace and almost no defensive instinct. His solution was to give him effectively a free role, but to do that without destabilising his team defensively, he followed the Italian convention and fielded three midfielders whose function was primarily defensive – Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembeu. Youri Djorkaeff was included as a further creative presence, with Stéphane Guivarc’h as the lone centre-forward. He was much derided – and it may well be that, from a technical point of view, he is the worst centre-forward ever to win a World Cup – but he performed his function, which was, broadly speaking, to provide a focal point and hold the ball up for the creators behind.

AC Milan are the best modern exponents of the 4-3-2-1, although theirs is rather more attacking than France’s had been. When they won the Champions League in 2006, Kaká and Clarence Seedorf were the advanced midfield presences, with Andrea Pirlo operating as a regista behind them, flanked by the snapping and snarling of Gennaro Gattuso and the unfussy efficiency of Massimo Ambrosini. Again, though, the key is fluidity, for both Pirlo and Ambrosini are comfortable advancing and Seedorf, equally, can play in a more defensive role.

Against Chivas we saw the Timbers play with one holding midfielder in Jack Jewsbury, with Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara ahead of him – Nagbe concentrated more on attack, with Chara performing the box-to-box role.

In the 4321 I propose for the Timbers, the holding midfield role could be retained (given to Chara (#21) in the example above, but it could easily be Jewsbury, or Lovel Palmer if you secretly really hate football and want it stamped out), with the two in-front both performing box-to-box roles. We’ll come back to that defensive midfield role in a bit.

Though it might seem at first glance that we’ve lost an attacking player, because we have as there’s no longer a “front four” as there was in the 433/4231, but I think it would allow us greater attacking flexibility and potential.

The key to this change, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out, is “fluidity”, and having the attacking midfielders – Songo’o (#8) and Nagbe (#6) above, but it could also have Alhassan, Richards or Mwanga in there instead – moving out of the most congested area of the field and into space, rather than the other way round, with support coming from the two deeper midfielders, Eric Alexander (#17) and Jewsbury (#13).

The fact is that we essentially play the same way every week and teams know it. The personnel changes and there might be variations on the theme of 442 or 451, but it tends to shake out just the same. They can sit two or three players in midfield and know that they can shut down much of our attacks by simply waiting for us to run blindly into them. They can take their chances that we won’t hurt them down the wings, as we generally won’t, and look to spring us on the break when we get frustrated or panic, and meekly hand possession back to them.

By having Songo’o and Nagbe start in the centre with instructions to stay mobile, we can start to pull players around and look to open up spaces for our deeper midfielders to step forward into.

Keeping possession of the football is something that the Timbers have struggled with. It doesn’t seem like keeping the ball was as important to Spencer as “going direct”. It’s a very British mentality, though one that’s becoming rarer as footballing cultures from around the world have exerted their influence on the game in the UK.

Clearly, that approach isn’t working, so let’s change it up. Let’s keep the ball instead.

Here Steven Smith (#14) has the ball out wide. He can look to go down the outside, either with a run or a pass for Songo’o, or work it to a midfielder inside, or back to Futty Danso (#98). By having that extra man in midfield, we give the player on the ball an extra body to find.

It might not making for blood-and-thunder, “exciting” football, but I’d rather see us work the ball back to defence and across the pitch without advancing than trying to force something to happen and turning the ball over.

So if we have to go back, and then work it across the defence and back again three or four times, then so be it. While we’re doing it, the opposition are having to constantly adjust and move to cover space, while we’re letting the ball do much of our work.

Keeping the attacking midfielders mobile, and being patient in possession, allows us to probe for a space or weakness, rather than launching the ball towards “the big guy” up top and hoping we can profit from a knock-down.

And that’s another thing: the long ball is gone. No longer will JELD-WEN Field be a no-fly zone for light aircraft, fearful of being struck by another errant Troy Perkins punt.

Keeping the ball begins at the back. Generally speaking, whenever the keeper has the chance to get it up the pitch it signals that the opposition have just been thwarted in an attack, so why the hell are we giving it back to them? It’s like spilling someone’s pint and then throwing your own drink over them for good measure – why make things more difficult for yourself and invite trouble?

I want to see the central defenders either side of the box, with the holding midfielder close by, and the ball rolled out to feet. These guys in turn should be looking for a pass to feet rather than putting their foot through it like they just caught it in bed with their wife. If these guys are covered, a long throw to the full-backs or one of the deeper midfielders looking for space.

I’m not saying never ever go with a long ball. If the opportunity presents itself to send someone into the clear with a quick ball up the pitch, by all means, but I hate seeing players resorting to a lazy punt as a matter of course. It’s an abdication of responsibility – “it’s not my fault he didn’t win the header” – and causes more problems than the occasional time the ball may break kindly is worth.

As you may have noticed, there’s a change at the back too. In possession I’d want my central defenders pushed out wide, with the holding midfielder dropping back to create a line of three. This is very much like the system Barcelona use where Busquets is often the guy to plug in at the back.

The thinking here is that is provides cover for the full-backs who’ll be expected to play on the front foot, and take the game to their opposite number.

Currently, if we lose the ball and the opposition attacks the gap left by a full-back caught up the pitch, we’re left with a central defender having to cover across, making up ground on the attacker, and a 1v1, or worse, in the centre. As players scramble to cover and get into shape, it’s easy to lose an attacker for the split second it takes for them to get that half-yard they need to get in behind.

With the three at the back, the flanks are already covered, with the defender of the opposite flank able to squeeze back in should there be runners from midfield.

The defenders also serving as linking players, helping to circulate the ball.

In attack, the important thing is to give the player on the ball options.

In this example, Smith has a number of options. He can go round the outside (a), looking for the run of Songo’o, whose run would have to be matched by his marker lest he be allowed to get in free and clear behind the defence. His run would allow Alexander to step forward into space.

The option for the cross (b) is still there. You could look to get Boyd (#9) in here, or if the Scot has dropped off and taken a defender with him, Nagbe making a late run against the full-back at the back post.

Both (c) and (d) let the player shift it inside, and the important factor here is to keep the ball moving quickly. One and two touch football, looking to work triangles and keeping it simple. The option to go back (e) is always there, and the ball can be shifted across to the other side where the opposition defence can be probed from another angle.

All this is very easy when it’s written down; it’s a different matter in real life. There’s been a noticeable drop in the speed the team plays at as guys look to take a couple of touches before moving it on and this, allied with the team playing towards the busiest area of the pitch, contributes to the side’s inability to create enough of the clear cut chances needed to win games.

Do we have the players to play a quick passing game, and is Boyd mobile enough? Perhaps not. You can tweak and experiment all you like with formations, but if the XI on the pitch simply aren’t good enough, you’re going to lose most matches regardless.

Given Wilkinson (coincidentally, this is how his name is pronounced in Kiwi) is there to see what the players can do, I’d like to at least see him ask the question of the players. Let’s see what they can do. Though, perhaps it’ll be down to Sean McAuley to experiment further given his appointment – I don’t understand why we’re hiring assistants when we don’t yet have a head coach, but there you go – seems to have, at least in part, been designed to free up Wilkinson to concentrate more on his peerless work as general manager.

The club is stuck in a kind of listless limbo state at the moment. The playoffs are like Lindsay Lohan’s career, a distant memory, and there’s no threat of relegation to light a fire under a team that have themselves spent much of the last couple of weeks under a bus. With no manager, and no direction, it’s little surprise the team are drifting towards the least satisfying climax since Snooki’s boyfriend sobered up mid-coitus.

With little to play for, the Cascadia Cup excepted, all the fans can look for is some signs for hope next year. We could start by at least trying to play good football.

15 thoughts on “The Change Up

  1. I could be wrong (I often am…), but it sounds like you want us to play like Spain.

    Do we have the talent to play like Spain? Does anyone?

    1. No, no, there’s no way we could play like Spain! We don’t have the central midfielders to pull it off, which is why I focused more on the attacking midfielders supporting and creating space up top, with the full-backs giving us width. It’s taking a pinch of what you see at the top level, and applying it to what the Timbers have done in the past and seeing if there’s a way to blend the two that might improve our play. We don’t have a Xavi of Alonso to run things in the middle, and it would be crazy to even attempt to play that way.

      The similarities to Spain mostly come from the idea of keeping the ball and moving it quickly, but it’s hardly unique to them (or Barcelona) they just happen to be the best at it.

  2. A separate thought, and this may truly show my ignorance, but if the Timbers can put up 20 shots against Chivas, or 39 shots against that rec-league team from LA, and get shut out in both games, I’m not sure “offensive flow” is our problem. I’d say “finishing” is our problem. Am I wrong?

    1. The way Chivas play – sit deep and look to snatch a goal – they invite the pressure on them. They tend to conceded a higher number of shots than most, but rely on a defence denying clear chances and , as I said, nicking one at the other end. And, yeah, Cal FC – let’s not forget how the Sounders dismantled them. It was a nice fairy tale story, but the fact is it was a bunch of guys not good enough for the MLS and it showed as they were played off the park by Portland, but we just had a nightmare in front of goal.

      We should’ve won both those games if, as you say, our finishing was better. Absolutely. Finishing has been a problem, but equally if your shots are being limited to pops from outside the box, or half chances from corners etc, you can quickly boil down another game where you had 20 shots to, maybe, 2 good chances. That’s my issue. We don’t create enough good chances, Chivas and Cal FC aside, for the reasons stated. We rely on set plays for much of our goal threat because we struggle finding that final pass that puts a player in on goal, or puts the ball on a strikers boot 10 yards out.

      Just quickly running through the stats, the Timbers are currently 18th of 19 in terms of goals scored per game, yet our shot accuracy rate (number of total shots that are hit on frame) is around the MLS average, while our conversion rate (number of shots on target that are goals) is actually 4th best in the league. The reason our goal scoring is so low, or at least a big factor, is only 5 teams have taken fewer total shots than us.

      Could we finish better? Yes. We can work on that in training and building up players confidence. But we could also be doing better in terms of creating shooting chances? Yes.

      There’s also the issue of sorting out the defence. It’s all very well scoring more, but if you’re still conceding a lot, the situation isn’t going to improve, so we need a solution that addresses both these issues and I feel that both these issues stem from the way we play. That’s what I feel we need to address first and foremost.

      1. Thanks, Kevin. That’s a perfect and very enlightening answer.

        Say… think there’s any chance we could convince Xavi or Alonso to move to Portland and wear the Timbers green? David Silva, maybe?

        (A guy can dream, can’t he?)

  3. Another well thought out article. It does seem to fit the abilities of our players better. Songo always going inside and ending up with 3 or 4 defenders around him and losing possession kills me. The christmas tree formation seems to help solve this. The only player who runs to space to create angles for passing is Chara. We need more of that up higher in the middle of the pitch. I did like having Chara creating turnovers in the attacking half during the first half against Chivas. We just aren’t seeing that from any attacking mids this year. Landon Donavan has realized that putting pressure on the back 4 can work wonders for your offense but we never do. I like Songo and Nagbe having more space to work with which may help get service to Boyd at his feet. I have learned a lot by reading your articles this year. Thanks

    1. I really liked what I saw from Chara in the first half against Chivas. My worry would be about the robustness and ability of Jack or Palmer to play the defensive midfielder role if we tried to play Chara in a similar role against a team that would put our defence under pressure.

      Thanks for the kind words, it’s always nice to hear.

      1. I thought Chara was a key factor in virtually every attack we had in the first half last weekend. It got me thinking about whether or not he could become that solid attacking mid with a little creativity if he were given a chance to figure that role out as a member of our team. Leaving him still as a box to box type mid, but leaving the primary defensive mid role to someone else and letting him be free to be where he wants, to do what he wants, and cause havoc with his passing and his engine that seems to always be stuck in high gear (a good thing). I just thought he made so many great runs and great passes. Someone else mentioned leaving Alexander as the primary CDM. I like that idea too. What about for the 3 in the middle having Chara and, well, I don’t know… I guess Jack at this point (we still need to find another solid CM in my opinion, even if Chara is who I am wanting him to be after last game), in front of Alexander. Give EA a chance to learn that role as well. Ideally though, I would like to see us pick up a true CDM, and allow EA and Chara to be free Box to Box, with the Christmas Tree formation as you have it set up. I really like it. And it allows changes later in the game that still suit our subs as well. Alhassan, Mwanga, Richards, and a lot of other switches could be made that fit for the subs as well!

      2. At this point, I don’t think we have anything to lose from giving Alexander a go in defensive midfield, and seeing how it works. I agree though, if we want to let Chara off the leash, we need a new defensive midfielder because I don’t think Jewsbury or Palmer are up to the job.

        I remember hearing about Chara that he was a box-to-box midfielder – not necessarily the most creative, or a guy who’ll bag loads of goals, but someone with the engine to get up and down the pitch all day, and do it tidily and without fuss. Of course, he comes here and becomes a defensive midfielder cos he’s by the far the best we have in that position, but getting a solid guy in to play that role could allow us to free Chara up to do what most experts in Colombian football agree is what he does best.

  4. Thought of this formation often. It could finally release Alhassan, Nagbe & Songo’o to be standout threats. We need to give them more freedom.

  5. Great write-up, as usual. Everyone (fans, players, coaches, GMs) should read Inverting the Pyramid. The first few chapters are tough to get through, but once Wilson starts examining the game in the latter part of the 20th Century, it is an eye-opener. Seems like it should be part of Football 101..

  6. How about Alexander playing back there until we can ship Jewsbury and Palmer and money for a better defensive mid. I do like this formation even with chara still playing back.

  7. thank you for writing this, ive been banging my head against a wall about this since the beginning of the season, since everyone is obsessed with the premier league and/or enamored with the dutch/barca, and serie a is “boring” so they just dismiss it. but imo is the best way to get the most out of chara, nagbe, al hassan, and songo’o.

  8. (1) Snooki’s boyfriend {snort}. Lindsay Lohan. You’re a funny guy. Thanks–I really needed a laugh this morning.

    (2) I’m wary of any central midfield with Chara plus Jewsbury. Maybe having a third central mid would be different, but I can’t remember a time this year where those two in mid were able to generate any offense.

    (3) How do you feel about your 4321 but with Songo’o in Jewsbury’s place and Alhassan in Songo’o’s.

    (4) I think I prefer you suggestion from a few months ago to try a 3-man back. A potential problem I see with this (4321) is you still rely on our fullbacks (who are probably mediocre at offense and worse at defense) for width getting forward. Seems like they get caught out of position too often on counters.

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