The Nagbe Enigma

Darlington Nagbe has come to embody the fortunes of the Portland Timbers in what has been a difficult second year for both parties. So much hope and expectation was placed upon them coming into 2012, and both have frustrated and disappointed while still showing the occasional flash of brilliance that only serve to make the lows seem ever bleaker by comparison.

Nagbe came out of a successful University of Akron side in to the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. The Zips have been one of college soccer’s finest conveyor belts for young talent with Steve Zakuani, Ben Zemanski, Perry Kitchen and Teal Bunbury also coming through there.

He was given the Hermann Trophy, an award for the country’s top college talent, after guiding the Zips to a national championship and had, it seemed, the world, or at least the US soccer portion of it, at his feet.

Prior to the SuperDraft there were many pundits who tipped Nagbe to go first and Sports Illustrated praised his “strong presence on the ball, ability to go at and get by defenders and typically smooth finishing touch”. He would eventually be drafted second, as Portland’s first pick, and hit the ground running with 21 starts in his debut season.

The highlight of that first year was probably his wondergoal against Sporting Kansas City.

Any fears of a sophomore slump from Nagbe seemed unfounded as he started the year in sparkling form, coming off the bench against Dallas to score an equaliser in the second match of the season. He followed that up with two goals against Real Salt Lake a couple of weeks later.

Such was his early season form that there was speculation over just how Nagbe would choose to represent on the international stage, with the player himself seemingly rebuffing the advances of Liberia, the country of his birth.

However, since those heady first few weeks Nagbe’s form has been on a slow, steady decline. It’s not that he’s playing poorly, as such, but that he’s certainly not improving either.

Comparing his first goal against Real Salt Lake earlier this year with a passage of play in the similar area against Colorado Rapids highlights the difference between the Nagbe that started the year on fire and the player who’s currently filling the Timbers #6 jersey.

It’s been noticeable, to me at least, that the drive has gone from Nagbe’s game. The team as a whole has struggled, and it’s tough for a 22 year old, 2nd year pro to flourish under those circumstances, but nevertheless it’s been disappointing to see Nagbe fail to progress as I’d hoped he would this year.

Even ex-head coach John Spencer seemed to tire of the talk surrounding Nagbe, and a few of the players.

I’m sick and tired of hearing the word potential. For me, potential gets you your contract, gets you on the field, then you’ve got to produce. We’ve got too many guys right now not producing to the best of their abilities.

Spencer’s comments came after the 1-0 defeat to LA Galaxy, the first match after the defeat Cal FC, so a time when the team were really struggling to put together anything positive. This was also a period when Nagbe began to be used more deeply.

Nagbe’s found himself in a number of positions this year. He’s played as a striker, a wide attacker, at the point of the midfield diamond, tucked in behind the strikers, and also in a more traditional midfield role at times. How he’s expected to get any consistency in his play when there’s seemingly little consistency in where he plays is a mystery.

It’s interesting that the Timbers signed Danny Mwanga this year. Mwanga was a player who took the MLS by storm in his debut season at Philadelphia, before struggling to find a defined role in his second year which saw his form slump. The parallels between Mwanga and Nagbe are striking, though at least Nagbe has remained a fixture in the Timbers’ starting XI.

You can see how Nagbe has been utilised in these heat maps of his appearances this season. Note, the 1-0 defeat to New England and the 2-1 victory against San Jose are missing as the chalkboards for these games are borked.

In that first half of his season, Nagbe had almost as any many shots on target (10) as he’s had shots in total in the second half (13). Given his deeper role, it’s understandable that he’s getting fewer shots off. What’s worrying is his accuracy plummeted too. In that first half he got 47.6% of his target shots on target (10/21), but since then he’s had a single shot on target, or 7.7% accuracy.

To be fair to Nagbe, he’s still every bit as involved in the play as he’s ever been. He’s not hiding out there. He’s making passes around every 140 seconds or so, a figure that’s been consistent across the year, and his accuracy has hovered around 86%, with four matches seeing it over 90%. The problem is that he’s doing it further from goal, and there are a lot more backwards and sideways passes, which gives the perception that’s he’s being less effective.

I’ve wondered a few times what Nagbe’s best position is. I still feel he lacks a bit of the robustness to play up top. Even Kris Boyd, a bigger and more seasoned players, used to the “blood and snotters” nature of football in Scotland and England, has seemed to find the physicality of MLS defences tough to come to terms with at times.

I also feel he’s not as well utilised out wide, and Songo’o and Alhassan are arguably better choices there in any case. In his attacking midfield role, I just feel he hasn’t been the attacking fulcrum the position demands. He hasn’t seemed fully comfortable playing there, and has been playing much more conservatively as a result.

Part of the reasoning behind the “Christmas Tree” formation I proposed a couple of days ago was to try and get the best from Nagbe. Playing as the sole player in the centre between midfield and attack heaps too much responsibility on his shoulders. Having three players tucked in behind him would, I’d hope, give him the freedom to try something now and then, rather than playing the safe percentage game.

I’m all for keeping possession, but when you transition into that final third, you need guys who can provide that spark of something special, not simply laying it off for others for fear of being the guy who loses the ball.

There’s no doubt that Darlington Nagbe is a good player, with the potential to be very good. Failure to get the best of Nagbe doesn’t bode well for the club’s hopes of bringing through other young talents and developing them into players who can fire Portland to glory.

8 thoughts on “The Nagbe Enigma

  1. Great read, as usual. Do you have any insight as to why Nagbe was playing so much deeper in that stretch of matches from VAN to RSL?

    This bit:
    “I’m all for keeping possession, but when you transition into that final third, you need guys who can provide that spark of something special, not simply laying it off for others for fear of being the guy who loses the ball.”

    …rings all too true, I think, at least for this somewhat more than casual observer. This is the thing I notice most when watching the games, particularly on TV – you see great movement to get into the attacking third, then someone – many times, Nagbe – looks like they have a better-than-speculative look at goal, but they lay the ball off instead of taking a shot or playing a ball in to someone in a better position. By not wanting to be the guy to lose the ball and kill the attack, they still kill the attack.

    1. It’s a vicious cycle. The team is low on confidence so they’re not taking those shots; they’re not taking those shots and not winning games, so confidence stays low.

      When you see most of the best proponents of that role in behind the striker, most of them are able to play that role without having to take care of defence too. They’re out there to create havoc in the opposition defence, with the rest of the midfield doing their backtracking for them.

      When we played with Nagbe there, in that stretch from Vancouver to RSL, we did it within the confines of a 4-4-2, so Nagbe wasn’t able to concentrate his energies on attack as he only had one man, Diego Chara, behind him and if he didn’t track back and help out, we’d be overrun in midfield. So he ended up falling between the two roles – attacker and midfielder – and doing neither job particularly brilliantly.

      In the later matches, we’ve switched to a five man midfield, and we’ve had two guys behind Nagbe so he hasn’t had that responsibility to drop back in quite so much so you see his activity further up the field.

      1. Kevin, since you brought up the team being low in confidence, let me bring up my theory that a large part of Portland’s problem is psychological and, more importantly, due to some inherent problem in the Timbers organization.

        For example, Kris Boyd owns the goals-scored record for the Scottish Premier League, but when he comes to Portland, he can’t find the back of the net. Then there’s Kenny Cooper, who can’t score when he’s here last year, but then he’s traded to New York and suddenly he’s 2nd in the league in scoring. Nagbe was awesome for Akron and started strong for us, but the longer he’s here, the less confidence he has.

        Kevin, is there something going on here? Is there somebody in the Timbers locker room or front office who is killing the soul of these players?

        Or do you think that I’m off base with this theory?

  2. “The Nagbe Enigma”–sounds like a Robert Ludlum thriller.

    There was talk at the end of last year on several forums (fora?) of “building the team around Nagbe.” I’m not sure if Spencer and Wilkinson agreed or not. But it seems weird to think of building a team around a guy, probably with the biggest potential on the team, but nobody knows what position he plays.

    What position did Nagbe play in college? Also, didn’t he say last year that his preference is to play striker? I definitely feel like he shouldn’t be a winger or central mid, and CAM has not really been working out either. I agree with you in your previous article that his best position is probably between mid and forwards, as in a 4321.

    Do you think Nagbe’s development has been hurt by bad coaching? I’ve heard that theory.

    Most importantly, what is your take on where his head is? My intuition is that this is not mainly a tactical problem. He seems overcautious, lacking killer instinct, resigned. As a coach would you: (a) bench him for a while, or (b) let him play through it? Does he need support and encouragement or a kick in the pants? Or what?

    Darlington is still my favorite player and I hope this is just a slump he soon breaks out of.

    1. I’ve heard Nagbe described as an attacking midfielder/striker during his days at Akron.

      I think Nagbe works best as a, to quote your screen name, withdrawn striker. I don’t think he’s the guy to lead the line against MLS defences (not yet, anyway), but he seems lost the further back he slips. It’s a problem that neither Spencer or Wilkinson seem to know how to get the best out of Nagbe. Perhaps it will take a fresh pair of eyes to see where to get the best from him.

      It’s hard to say where his head is right now. He seems to be playing like he’s got a weight on his shoulders. Whether that’s expectation getting on top of him, or he’s just suffering in a team that’s low in confidence, feeding off it and letting it affect him, I don’t know. My inclination would be to give him a rest from starting for three or four games, just to let him concentrate on getting his head right and recharging the batteries for the run in. Of course, the thing with young players is, if they’re not managed well, they can take that as a big knock and their heads go down further.

      I think if you look through the team, there’s the beginning of a good spine to it with Perkins, Mosquera, Chara, Nagbe and Boyd. But Chara’s been left with too much to do, Boyd’s getting next to no service and he’s snatching at what does come his way as a result, Mosquera doesn’t know who’ll be beside him from week to week, and Perkins’ form (IMO) has dipped ever since that goal vs LA when he got blocked off. And Nagbe has been struggling to find form for a while now. If we can’t get that most basic element of the team right – and every expert you read about the game will tell you that having a strong spine is crucial to success – we’re doomed to blunder from one bad result to the next. That’s a coaching/management issue.

      I’ve no doubt Nagbe will find a clear and defined role, and will go on to be a very good player. I just hope he does it in Timbers green.

      My thinking with putting him there in the 4321 was to tell him to go out and express himself. Try things. Take men on, have shots. If it doesn’t come off, don’t worry, there are three guys behind you who have your back. Don’t worry about defence or playing safe. Just play.

  3. Good work, Kevin.

    This is something we discussed on this week’s Choppin’ Wood. Obviously the constant change in position negatively affects his form. And it’s a total confidence situation as well. But his range of passing has been very poor as you mention. At any given point recently he will only have a 270* range of passing – as in, he will not make the pass straight ahead but instead will only go sideways, backwards, or diagonally forward. If he is meant to be a central attacking midfielder this is unacceptable. Perhaps he needs to receive the ball higher up the pitch and just turn and shoot..

    1. The other thing I thought about after posting this piece was who Nagbe had ahead of him to pass to. Boyd’s not really the most mobile of guys, and especially when we’ve been playing with Boyd on his own in the middle, options are limited. When we had someone like Perlaza up there, he’d be making the kind of runs you want to see ahead of you. Fucito and Mwanga haven’t really had much of a chance to fulfil that role.

      Still, even with that caveat, I still think Nagbe is playing overly-cautiously. I wonder how much of that has come from getting a rollicking for giving the ball away, so he’s determined to keep possession, even if it means sending the ball back and killing the momentum of the move. I’d love to see him get the ball and just go at players and take them on. We haven’t seen it so long, it’d be easy to forget just how explosive Nagbe could be earlier in the season. Now he just kind of drifts around, posting decent pass success numbers, but not really impacting on the match.

  4. Any new player in the MLS needs a mentor. MLS is not college ball; not even a twin to some other league. I will leave the better/worse discussion for elsewhere but the fact is, it is different.

    I place some of the responsibility–and thus some of the blame–at Boyd’s feet. Boyd is the one with the experience, he is the one who could take Nagbe and work with him to make the transition to pro ball.

    During games, however, it seems that even before Nagbe touches the ball Boyd is screaming for it. I believe it would be difficult for a new player to step out and cross the DP, world-decorated fellow striker who is telling him to pass the ball rather than to take the shot. Then, it seems as if Boyd has nothing encouraging to say to his teammates–he “looks to the heavens for assistance dealing with these flawed mortals” half the time and does the one-handed “why am I surrounded by fools” face wipe the other half.

    Now in all the interviews Boyd seems like a nice guy. But his demeanor on the field seems quite aggressive, even to his teammates. That has to be hard on a kid just trying to learn the ropes.

    And let us all hope that Nagbe does not learn defending and hustle from Boyd. It is quite difficult to play with 10 active players, let alone 9. . .

    So whether Spencer was a good new player coach is immaterial now. But is Boyd a good mentor for the new kid with the huge burden of expectations? Who is helping him make the adjustments? Who is there praising his accomplishments even if the crowd is mistaken in their judgment?

    Who will be the one Darlington Nagbe talks about a decade from now when he is asked “who has been the most influential person in your professional career. We could hope the answer would be “Kris Boyd, who demonstrated to me by his actions what it means to be a top professional player. . . ”

    Let us hope that player is at least someone from Portland.

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