The Defence Rests

After a win last weekend that gave hope – albeit of the remote kind – that the Timbers could make the play-offs, the team did their level best to extinguish those flames in the return fixture against Colorado Rapids as the old road woes returned.

Even though I had my doubts about the home performance against the Rapids, I understood why Wilkinson lined up the same XI again. The team has been pretty settled of late, and while they were getting results it’s hard to argue against sticking with the same formula.

However, the Timbers started slowly and within the first minute the Rapids had hit the post and Timbers fans settled in for the now-familiar bumpy ride.

That initial chances came when Kimura misread a long ball and got caught out. Not the first time Kimura had misjudged things, and won’t be the last. It’s a startling statistic to think that Kimura has played in 11 or the Timbers 27 matches this season (39.3% of total game minutes), yet has been on the pitch as the team has lost 24 of the 46 goals it’s shipped (52.2% of goals lost). It’s a chicken and egg situation – is the defence so much worse because Kimura is there, or did Kimura come in as the defence was already slipping bearing in mind he played under John Spencer only once and so has been here through the shocking run of results under Wilkinson.

I like the Japanese full-back (going forward, mostly) but this is a game he’ll want to forget. A terrible return to his old stomping ground.

The Timbers went 1-0 down early on when Kimura tried to clear the ball with an odd head flick that did nothing but set up the Rapids attacker. With less than 10 minutes played ,the tone had been well and truly set. Indeed, there was a marked difference to how the Timbers approached the first 10 of the home match, compared to here.

In the first match, we were able to get the wingers involved in the final third early on, whereas here we spent much of our time going from side to side with very little forward penetration. It was possession that just kind meandered nowhere in particular.

Any time the Timbers did get into a position to attack the Rapids rearguard, the final ball was invariably lacking in quality.

Up top, Dike was having a hard time getting involved in the play, often having to come deep to get a touch. His running, which had been an asset in previous matches, wasn’t up to the standard here as he seemed to make the wrong choice more often than not.

He tries to run in behind the defender, which is admirable, but you can see quite clearly that Dike would have to thread the ball through the eye of a needle to get it to him. The better decision would’ve been to offer himself up for a ball to feet, and link the play, or to go the other way and try to create a space for Nagbe to drive towards.

Toiling in attack, the Timbers were looking decidedly shaky at the back. Kimura looked rattled after the initial five minutes, and never seemed to recover (how he made it full-time, let alone half time, I can’t explain other than Wilkinson really didn’t trust Kawulok) while the midfield were allowing the Rapids too much room to put passes together.

The Rapids 2nd goal was a fine example of the midfield failing to do it’s defensive work.

At each point along, you can see how much space the Rapids players have to pass or cross. Songo’o perhaps should’ve got across to close the cross down a bit sooner after Smith was dragged away by the intelligent outside run. Kimura lets his man get away from him, and neither of the defenders is quick enough to react to the rebound.

The second half followed much the same formula as the first. Wilkinson decided against any changes at half-time as presumably he was loving the possession, a fact he brought up in a post-match interview as a source of pride as we’d kept the Rapids to only 50.6% of the play instead of the 60% they had when we last visited. I’m sure the Rapids were crying into the pillows that night as they lost that crucial 9.4% of possession that meant they could only equal the 3-0 scoreline, while restricting us to fewer shots on target, stats fans.

In a way, beating Colorado in Portland may have been the worst thing that could’ve happened as it lulled the team into a false sense of security. I felt we were very fortunate to get a win out of them, and said on twitter before the match that my fear was that the Rapids wouldn’t miss the kind of chances they did last week again.

Still, I’m sure that the coaching staff would take that on board and change it up for this match. Nope? Still, they’d definitely change it at half-time when we were 2-0 down and toiling badly. Right?

The change did finally come midway through the second half when the Ghost of John Spencer made a like-for-like change in throwing on Kris Boyd for the ineffectual Bright Dike. Dike had missed a glorious chance earlier when he blazed a deep cross from Zizzo high over the bar. It was the first time we’d really managed to work that ball down the channel inside the full-back, with Zizzo – the team’s best, and some might say only, performer on the night – scampering to reach Kimura’s pass at the byline.

On another night, Dike would’ve blazed the ball into the night and fans would’ve been raving about his performance once again, but such are the margins a striker works with that he misses it and is hauled off soon after.

Boyd had a cameo role in the Timbers best chance of the night.

It was well worked, and came out of nothing, right up until the finish from Chara who showed why he’s more the guy you want giving the ball to the goalscorer, than trying to be one. Had that gone in, it might’ve set up an exciting end to the match, but it didn’t. Wilkinson as good as threw up his hands and gave up, chucking on every striker who happened to cross his eye line in some mad scientist attempt to conjure up a goal without seemingly having any idea how that would happen.

The Rapids nabbed a third when a deep corner saw Jewsbury lose his man, the ball was nodded back across and Kimura was bullied out of the way, with Castrillon’s header slipping through Ricketts.

Another frustrating night and the play-off dream is as dead as the look in Michele Bachman’s cold, shark-like eyes. In attack we were lifeless and flaccid – Franck Songo’o was largely anonymous and Nagbe struggled to make his presence felt through the centre – and in defence, well, there is no defence.

Kimura had a shocker, that’s for sure, but none of the defensive line really emerge with much credit from a bad night at the office. The breakdown of this defence was, for me, summed up in one little moment in the second half.

This little passage of play is indicative of the kind of sloppy errors we’re making the back, time and again. What David Horst hopes to achieve here, I’m at a loss to explain. Presumably he wants Smith to follow Akpan so he can, what, close the ball down or go mark Castrillon? But closing down the ball is Jewsbury’s job, and Smith has enough on his plate with Horst having a brainstorm beside him. As it is, Horst kind meanders into space, does nothing, and the ball is simply knocked in behind him, leading to a good chance to score.

The lack of communication is shocking at times, and here we have a defender who doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing. And this breakdown from a back four that have played together more than any of the other 20-plus configurations we’ve seen this season.

And yet, despite that almost 10 hours of game time, as well as countless hours on the training pitch, they still play like they only just met in the tunnel before the match.

It seems that, with these four, Wilkinson has (for now) settled on his defence. Continuity is important, especially in a defence where split second timing can be crucial, in stepping forward to spring an offside trap for instance. The fact is though, for me, this defence looks no better now than in their first match together. The same mistakes kept being made, and by the same people.

Looking at the central pairing, there have been five configurations. Horst/Mosquera has been used most often (855 minutes) with Brunner/Mosquera 2nd on 519 minutes. Danso with Mosquera or Horst both log 360 minutes, and Brunner/Jean-Baptiste is on 336 minutes.

As you can see, Brunner/Mosquera has been the most steady central pairing, and one can only speculate as to how the season may have unfolded had Brunner remained injury free. As for the “worst” pairings.. Well, they share one common factor. David Horst.

I love his heart and passion, but I question his defensive “brain”. Too often he switches off, or makes the wrong choice and we’re not a team that are going to outscore opponents 4-3. We can’t afford liabilities at the back.

No doubt the injury to Brunner has forced the coaching team’s hand. Danso, it seems, has paid the price for his part in the 5-0 drubbing in Dallas, presumably because someone had to be punished for that. And yet, in his three matches with Mosquera, other than the Dallas debacle, he helped keep two clean sheets, with the defense leaking a single goal over 270 minutes of play. Again, taking that 5-0 result out of the records, when Danso was in the defence, the team lost a goal (on average) every 70 minutes – better than any other central defenders’ figures (Brunner 61, Jean-Baptiste 56, Mosquera 54, Horst 47).

A similar thing happened to Horst after the 5-3 loss to LA, but Danso hasn’t been able to find his way out from under the bus since Frisco as Horst holds on to his place in the team. With Brunner’s appearance on the bench, it would seem like Horst’s time is up any game now, but it’s still perplexing to me why Danso has paid such a high price for a bad game, while Horst is a continued source of anxiety in defence.

Meanwhile, Jean-Baptiste has returned from a loan spell and can’t get a look in. I liked how he shaped up earlier in the season. He’s raw, there’s no doubt, but he need to play to smooth those ragged edges down.

I worry that his time out may have mythologised Brunner’s talents, as there is a habit for fans to inflate the abilities of those that aren’t playing. Regardless, we need him back, as much for Hanyer Mosquera’s well-being as anything else!

I’m sure that, for all his credentials as an attack-minded coach, Caleb Porter will be making sorting out the defence a priority in the off season. Until we can be confident about what’s behind us, we can be sure in going forward.

The Timbers have a weekend off to mull this result over before picking themselves back up for the visit of the mob from up the road. Cascadia Cup glory beckons.



10 thoughts on “The Defence Rests

  1. Someone pointed out that our defense seems to do quite well against counterattacks, but not too good when we are set in position. Any thoughts on that? I don’t have stats to back this up, but one thought why this might be is that we seem poor at setting the offside trap.

    Thanks for the stats on various defender combinations, which confirm what most people thought: Mosquera>Brunner>Danso>Horst. Not yet sure where Jean-Baptiste fits in this scheme, but it would be great to find out. Maybe Horst is useful for marking big strong slow forwards like Casey.

    1. I think we’re being killed by poor individual decisions. Horst has been responsible for a few “WTF?” moments, and we’ve Kimura completely misjudging a long ball, or Smith failing to tracker a runner, and so on. It doesn’t matter how well you drill them as a unit if guys are going to go “off reservation” at random moments. Defensive intelligence if an oft overlooked and undervalued resource and, sadly, I see precious little of it in the Timbers back four.

      As for offsides… We are one of the worst offenders in the league for being caught offside and we’re #19 in terms of catching opponents offside. A quick graphic here. Perhaps our desire to “go direct” is why our offside figures are so, and maybe our tendency to site a little deeper is why we don’t play the offside trap as often, or effectively, as other sides do. It may be a tactical choice, but when I look at that defence I do see a great deal of confidence in each other and you need complete faith that if you step up, the other three guys are stepping up with you.

  2. Horst is a nice guy and reportedly a smart college student but he’s either a bonehead player, poorly coached, or both. Knowing American player development it’s likely Horst got this far just on size and athleticism but was never properly taught how to think the game. It’s unlikely anyone asked, “can this boy think the game?” So many of our problems in my opinion is the squads inability to communicate and their confusion regarding how to express themselves on the pitch, combine that with lack of talent and presto! the wooden spoon is dangling overhead. It’s amazing that a creative and dynamic town like Portland has a team like this representing them. But then again, that’s what happens when you sever lines between grass roots supporters and the squad. They’re not representing Portland’s style, they’re representing Paulson’s stale corporate style. But that’s another story. Back to our defenders… Horst is the least intuitive and least artistic of the defenders unless you’re giving him points for masochism and dark humor. Whatever it is he needs to sit.

    The bigger problem remains the same though. We still have a ninny GM/coach who isn’t smart enough to solve the problem because he apparently doesn’t know what the problem is in the first place. The Ghost of John Spencer indeed and as you have said before, the job is only half done.

  3. Kevin, your analysis as always is incisive and thought provoking, especially the detailed analysis on our centerbacks. I am curious however on a couple data points that are omitted.

    You defended Futty by removed the 5-0 Dallas drubbing, and compared the resulting metric to the other four CB’s. What would happen if you removed the worst outing for each of the CB’s and then compared the results? Or remove 5 goals from each of their tallies? I’m wondering how inclusion of that data would skew the figures.

    Also, while I like the straight correlation between goals conceded, CB pairings and matches played, I wonder how the data would be impacted by attending for two other variables: match location (away/home) and opponent difficulty (based upon current record or winning percentage as a SOS metric doesn’t really exist at this point). I imagine the away/home variable would have the strongest correlation to goals conceded, no matter the opponent or defensive pairing, though I could be wrong.

    Taking this another step further (and I apologize for the dissertation, you awoke the statistical junkie in me), I don’t think it unreasonable to state that defense does not happen in a vacuum. Meaning, just because a goal was conceded, a CB is not necessarily solely to blame. There are quite a few additional factors that could impact a metric such as goals, such as fullback starters and their play, midfield performance/defensive tracking, a David Beckham free-kick golazo, etc; all potentially independent of the CB factor. I liken it to the RBI statistic in Major League Baseball. In sabermetric circles it is widely considered the most misleading outcome in baseball simply because it reports an incomplete view of a player’s ability. Just because a player has 75 RBI’s does not mean he’s a better player than one with only 25. I could explain in more detail but I’ll refrain for now.

    I guess in the end what I’m saying is that this type of discussion fuels my itch to perform a correlational study on these match variables to create a fancy chart prompting a complete defensive analysis. And after such a frustrating season like the current 2012 iteration, it’d make for excellent offseason fodder. Maybe one day I’ll have the time to do it!

    Thanks though again for taking the time for such detailed insight into the team we all love. Much appreciated!

    1. I actually have the data on all positions, goal types (go ahead, equalisers etc) as well as shots conceded, on target %age etc. Loads of figures, but that wasn’t really the point here – it would be a whole other blog in itself. Here I was more making the simple case that, it seems, Futty was punished for his part in the 5-0 result when that was a complete team breakdown – an aberrational result. While Horst continues to underwhelm on a match-by-match basis. Despite having a settled back four for 7 games now, I’m not seeing any real improvement and, in my opinion, it’s because 50% of those four – Kimura and Horst – are not playing up to standard.

      1. I tend to agree with your statement about improvement. What frightens me is what appears to be the lack of communication throughout the back four. You would think with the continuity of 7 consecutive games played that there would be some noticeable improvement in the cohesiveness of the group. It’s safe to say that has not happened. There have been games where individuals have been impressive, but never the whole group.

        In any light, what would your starting back four be, one for this year and then for next?

  4. No question that our mental hiccups at the back are killing us. But this match made me think again about what sort of person is likely to do well as a soccer manager/coach versus who we’ve had in charge.

    If there is anything characteristic of Gavin Wilkinson (and Spenser before him) I would call it unreflectiveness”. And this season is making painfully obvious that there really IS such a thing as “soccer intelligence”, and this Timbers team conspicuously lacks it much of the time.

    If we were good enough to overwhelm our opponents with pure awesomeness it wouldn’t matter; we aren’t and we won’t – we don’t have the budget to be Barca.

    Since we aren’t, we need to work hard; we need to out-think as well as outplay the reast of MLS, and instead our coaches just don’t seem to bother thinking too much about his sport; not about the team, not about the team’s opponents.

    Here was a perfect case; two games with the same opponent within a week, with the first a hard-eked-out win, in which we used certain of our strengths – such as Zizzo’s speed down the wing, Dike’s havoc-making in the box, and Nagbe’s vision and passing out of central midfield to beat them.

    Any coach who thought ten minutes about that should have figured out that Colorado was going to figure out how to adjust to those problems and shut those players, doing those things, down. Any coach who thought another two minutes would have figured out that we don’t have the sort of players who can execute their game regardless of the adjustments against them.

    Instead we turned up at the Dick with no Plan B and it was so painfully obvious. Yes, the defense was disastrous. But even worse – to my way of thinking – was the mindset that had the team just wandering in assuming that doing the same thing the same way against the same team in less than a week would work out the same way.

    Hope is no a plan. But…

    Onward, Rose City!

    1. Well said, Chief.

      I just hope that Caleb Porter has a different sort of attitude. And I hope he’s watching our games on TV and already planning how he’ll fix things.

      Hell, maybe he’s reading this right now…

      Hey, Caleb!

      1. The thing about this thatbugs me, IY, is the disturbing possibilities it presents for NEXT season. On the touchline we’re going to have Porter, who IS reported to be a student of the game and a pretty decent thinker in soccer terms…while in the offices above we’ll still have Mr. “Another Brick In The Wall” Wilkinson, whose idea of “assembling a team” is to raid a fire sale of Colombian strikers and Kiwi defenders and present them to the coach like a fat Persian laying the remains of a sparrow on the pillow.

        I don’t know how that’s gonna play out, but I can’t see how it ends well…

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