Bunked Off

Type the words “Football is a cruel game” into google and it’ll return around 19,100,000 results. Say the words to a Timbers fan and you’ll get one result – a weary sigh.

San Jose Earthquakes took their turn to deliver a swift kick to the balls with their late, late comeback to deny Portland their first road win of the year. Wondolowski’s injury time goal gave the home side a 2-2 draw and further cemented their reputation as a team that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit”.

Speaking of which, Gavin Wilkinson said in his post-match comments that San Jose “are a very talented team; they have a lot of self-belief and a tremendous coaching staff.”. Oh, to have other coaches say that about us now and then. Or, you know, once. Once would be nice.

After a draw against them, Wilkinson rang the changes. Injuries forced Chara and Ricketts to miss out, meaning a first start for Joe Bendik. I’d thought, pre-match, that we would see Wallace keep his spot at left-back after a good showing, with Alexander coming in for Chara, and I’d hoped we see Boyd given a start. One out of three ain’t bad…

Boyd did indeed start, but the surprise was that Wilkinson opted to abandon his 4-3-3 formation for a (broadly speaking) 4-4-2 with Danny Mwanga getting the start in attack. Wallace did indeed start, but in centre midfield, and Palmer took over the right back spot from Kosuke Kimura. Nagbe and Songo’o were tasked with giving the team width, and Steven Smith was restored to left back.

I was surprised to see the Timbers line up in a 4-4-2, especially as I’d done a quick bit of research that suggested to me that San Jose had faced some kind of 4-4-2 variant 17 times this season, and had won 12 of those matches. Meanwhile they’d faced a 4-5-1/4-3-3 12 times, and only won 6, losing 4.

Though, it should be said, that of the two 4-4-2’s to defeat San Jose this season, Portland are one of them. Perhaps lightning would strike twice.

Also, as an aside, I thought it was pretty curious that of the Earthquakes 5 defeats this season, 3 have come on trips to Cascadia, with Vancouver racking up a couple of them. Of their four trips to the north-west this season, they’ve only avoided defeat once – beating Seattle 1-0 back at the end of March. San Jose return north this weekend to beat Seattle, and then once more in October when the Timbers will host.

Back to the game.

San Jose rested Wondolowski and Alan Gordon, the club’s two top scorers, for the visit of the Timbers, but it didn’t stop them having a couple of efforts from distance that had Bendik scrambling and diving across the goal, only to go narrowly over or wide.

It took until the 12th minute before the Timbers had their first sniff of goal when Boyd bullied Beitashour to get his head on a Palmer long ball, but he sent it narrowly wide of Busch’s goal.

Boyd had started pretty well, looking eager to impress after his recent exile to the bench. The way he got to Palmer’s long pass was encouraging, but any hopes that the Scot would go on to silence his ever-so-vocal critics were extinguished when he left the field shortly after with a groin injury. It looks to me on the replay like an inadvertent knock on his inner knee/thigh from Beitashour caused Boyd to land off balance, and he seems to have tweaked something. A freak injury, and just the way his luck has been this year.

Bright Dike replaced Boyd, but the tide of play still flowed inexorably towards Bendik’s goal. Steven Lenhart had a good sight of goal with a header midway through the first half.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, where a player can ghost into the space between defenders and get a free header. Had the ball been just a few inches lower, you’d fancy Lenhart to bury it, but the Timbers got away with it here.

I thought Mosquera’s actions were a bit odd in this move. He seems to just assume that the ball won’t come in first time and looks away to direct Rodney Wallace. By the time he decides to check where the ball is, he could’ve easily been caught on his heels and unable to react to the darting run by Lenhart.

Mosquera’s been something of a rock in an otherwise shaky back line this year, but it’d be fair to say he didn’t have his best night here. There have been a few times when Mosquera’s gone a-wandering out of defence this season, or switched off and been unable to react. I think he has all the tools to be a top defender but he needs to sharpen up his concentration a bit.

It looked like the Timbers would take a draw into the break, but almost out of nothing they took the lead through Danny Mwanga.

It was a nice bit of play between Dike, Mwanga and Wallace to work the chance for Danny to score, but I’d like to rewind the move a bit first.

Both teams had lined up with two guys in the “engine room”. Portland had Jewsbury and Wallace, San Jose had Baca and Cronin. Here we see Baca and Cronin been attracted across to where the ball is, leaving Wallace alone in the centre. Jewsbury gets in to intercept a loose pass and touches it off to Nagbe. By this point, both San Jose central midfielders are over by the wing.

How often have we seen this happen to the Timbers midfield, where it allows itself to be pulled out of shape?

The ball works it’s way back to Palmer at right-back.

Here you see that Dawkins has come back to cover Wallace, but Dawkins is an attacker. Wallace has a ton of real estate in front of him as Baca and Cronin are way out of position.

Palmer’s long ball is met by the head of Dike.

Mwanga is on to the flick, and he lays it off to Wallace who has rushed forward in support, all on his own. He displays a deftness of touch in rolling it back into the path of Mwanga, and the striker keeps his head to slot home and give the Timbers the lead.

Up until this point I’d been pretty critical of Mwanga and Wallace. Mwanga had struggled to get himself involved in the game, while Wallace at times didn’t seem to display any measure of tactical discipline as he seemed a bit too keen to hare around and try and get on the ball.

Credit where it is due, though. Wallace held his position well without being dragged across, and attacked the space well. Mwanga worked the one-two and kept his head when it mattered.

I fully expected an onslaught from San Jose in the second half, and just hoped we could keep it shut down for the first 10-15 minutes. Indeed, San Jose stepped up the pressure, and Portland struggled to keep the ball out of their own half.

There are few teams who make harder work of defending a lead than Portland Timbers. At a time when the match was screaming out for someone, anyone, in Rose City Red to get a foot on the ball and calm the match down, we resorted to the age-old sit deep, hit in long strategy. Indeed, it seemed like Gavin had misplaced his Bumper Book of Kickball Tactics (pop-up edition) and had instead been reading from Great Military Strategies of the Italian Army as the defence retreated deeper and deeper and deep …

… and then Franck Songo’o picked up the ball midway in his own half, went gambolling forward like a child on his first visit to Disneyland, beat two men and laid it off for Danny Mwanga to smash it in from distance. 2-0. Two. Nil.

The goal couldn’t have come further against the run of play had Danny been wearing a Dick Turpin mask, but nevertheless the Timbers held a 2 goal lead with a little under half-an-hour to play. If ever there was an unlikely time for a team to notch their first road win, it would at the ground of the league leaders, and yet that’s what it looked like the Timbers were, improbably enough, about to do.

Wondolowski and Gordon were thrown on by Frank Yallop in an attempt to rescue the situation. Wilkinson made no changes. I really thought that, the goal aside, the Timbers really needed someone in the middle who could hold onto the ball. I’d expected to see Alexander come on around the hour mark, and I reckoned it would be Songo’o to make way, with Wallace covering out left. Alexander had shown he could do the defensive side of the job when he’d understudied for Chara earlier this season, and he’s one of the few players on the team who looks truly comfortable on the ball.

But no.

The tide kept coming in, and there was a sense of inevitability when it finally subsumed the Timbers defence.

Wondolowski scored it, finally beating Bendik who had, up until that point, be Gandalfian in his determination to let nothing pass.

The goal highlighted, for me, the problem the Timbers faced. The defence was sinking deeper and deeper, practically camping out on the edge of our own box, which opened up space between defence and midfield. I felt, from very early on, that we missed having Jewsbury doing the role he’s been quietly effective in these past few matches in screening the defence. Even more so as the pressure piled through-out the second half. While the long ball caught us out to an extent, the amount of space between the two lines here is pretty shocking. You can’t open up a space like that and not expect teams like San Jose to exploit it.

The second half was becoming an exercise in frustration. For so long now Wilkinson has spoken about the importance of possession, and yet here, when possession would really matter, we abandoned it. We gave the ball away, again and again and invited the best team in the league to press higher and higher up the pitch.

The annoying thing was we’d already shown in the first half that we were capable of actually playing a bit of football.

This 21-pass sequence ranged from side to side, any showed some nice movement and touches. Although it died when Mwanga was robbed of the ball, it was hugely encouraging to me at the time as it displayed a patience and coolness that I felt we’d need.

Even though you might expect a San Jose side chasing the game to put a bit more pressure of the ball than they did in the 6th minute, it’s nonetheless striking how little we even attempted to knock the ball around and slow the game down. Instead, we got caught up in San Jose’s manic energy, and played the game at their pace, rushing things and resorting to desperate football.

You can see the marked difference in approach in the tackling graphs.

It’s little wonder we were unable to give the defence any kind of a breather when we resorted so often to hoofing it clear.

With the rest of the game played out almost exclusively in the Timbers half, Wilkinson signalled his intent by sending on Eric Brunner for Danny Mwanga with a few minutes to go. The bus was being parked.

Part of the problem for the Timbers was that, aside from the often aimless long balls, we didn’t have an effective point man up top to chase things down, or provide a target. We lacked someone to hold the ball up and give the defence some relief. Any time the ball did go in Dike’s vicinity, it seemed to either bounce off him or past him. I though Mwanga’s better movement might’ve been more use late on, but it wasn’t to be.

The final sucker punch came in stoppage time when a lofted ball into the box was turned home by Wondolowski. There were some who claimed offside, but he was definitely onside when the pass was made, and the touch came from a Timbers player so he couldn’t be offside from that.

In a way, if we were to lose a 2nd goal I’m kinda glad it wasn’t offside. I don’t think I could take the injustice on top of everything else!

After the bitter disappointment that greeted the final whistle, I was left with conflicting emotions. In all honesty, stripping away emotional attachment, we had no right to win that game. Even getting out with a draw was something of an upset. So, in a way, the fact we took a couple of chances really well, and were able to snatch a point is a strange kind of positive.

But you can get away from the fact that we threw away a 2-0 lead, whether it was undeserved or not.We only have ourselves to blame with the way we approached the second half. We essentially gave up even trying to match San Jose in the hopes that we could bunker in and ride out the storm.

And once more, another game passes where Gavin seems unable to read a match and make a proactive change. I was far from the only one screaming out for a change before San Jose’s first. The writing was not only on the wall, it was fucking chiselled there. We weren’t exactly lambs to the slaughter, but we did bring some mint sauce with us. It was, you felt, only a matter of when San Jose would score, despite the heroics of Bendik and Horst’s goal line gymnastics.

But we had to wait till it was 2-1 and San Jose had their tails up before we made a change. Like-for-like saw Palmer replaced by Kimura, before the Brunner change. I get what Wilkinson was doing, throwing another body in defence to match up to San Jose’s three strikers, but the game was crying out for another midfielder to start pushing back before the ball was on top of us. Maybe even, and this is pretty far out there, actually trying to keep the ball and slow it down and frustrate San Jose.

I think the worst thing about the result is that I didn’t meet the equalising goal with an anguished, Darth Vader-esque “NOOOOOOOO!” but rather I slumped back in my chair, ruefully shook my head and muttered “well, there it is.” No shock. No surprise. I’ve been conditioned to expect disappointment.

A point on the road, against a team that had won 6 of their last 7 home matches – scoring 22 in the process isn’t a bad result, but the manner of it – the grindingly predictable capitulation – leaves a sour taste.

The Timbers will stay on the road for their next match, paying a visit to Real Salt Lake. The last time we went there it was John Spencer’s last match, a 3-0 loss. What I’d give to watch that match with Spenny alongside…

#RCTID


[post_ender]

11 thoughts on “Bunked Off

  1. Another brilliant analysis. After the game, I commented to the posse that Spencer would have done the exact same thing – try to park the bus up 2-0. He did it several times, sometimes not even making all his substitutions. So GW is no different, which is unfortunate. I believe we have won only one game in which we had a 2-0 lead and did not score again (Seattle earlier this year, final 2-1). Given that bunkering in with a 2-0 lead has a 90% failure rate why do we do it? It makes a good draw feel like an awful loss.

  2. This is just depressingly spot-on (as per usual), Kevin. My reaction to the goal was nearly identical. I expected it. I did manage a “dammit, Timbers.”

  3. Thanks for your analysis. I agree it seemed like Timbers needed help in the midfield. Not sure why Alexander didn’t play. Not sure why we went away from the 4-3-3. Defense is disorganized.

    1. I suppose GW would point to 2-0 and say 4-4-2 was working, but at that point – with a 2 goal cushion and SJ running rampant – I really don’t know why it took till the 82nd minute before any changes were made and I definitely don’t understand why we didn’t stick another body in midfield and look to win the battle higher up the pitch and possess the ball a bit more. Hate to say it, but we kinda got what we deserved.

  4. Well, you said it better than I did, but the takeaway I had from this match was similar; the 4-4-2 is not well suited to our attack, and our defense and defensive midfield is a mess. Individual skills, yes. But overall organization, marking, holding shape, regaining and keeping possession…we didn’t have much of those skills last season but this one has been an utter rout. My only hope at this point is that Porter has some ideas of where to take this team’s backline and how to take them there.

    I was honestly less frustrated with this draw than with the draw against Seattle. That one we should have won, could have won. This one…had Wondolowski and Gordon been starting I suspect we would have been down two within the half hour. I can’t say I’m thrilled with this draw, but it could and should have been a lot worse.

  5. I’m not sure how relevant it is, but I’m curious on your thoughts Kevin. Was brunner brought on to play as a third center back, or was he brought on to sit in front of the defense as a CDM? I wonder if the team ever practices with the 3 CB’s, as I’m still hoping (not holding my breath, mind you) that the team gives 3 cb’s a go from the beginning of a game. That still seems like the best formation to get the most out of our defense, as the wingbacks won’t be as isolated, and songo’o/KAH won’t have as much responsibility to track back. Do you still see 3 CB’s as relevant/possible, or should i just stop dreaming now?

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