This will be a (relatively) short one this week because I didn’t notice my VPN subscription had expired so I can’t rewatch on MLS Live, and I’ll save you my “MLS Live should be available in the UK anyway” rant for this week. Instead, I’ll be relying on the MLS highlights for the few pics I do use and cursing them for not carrying the passages of play I had noted and hoped to talk about. Extended highlights, anyone?
The Timbers made their second trip this season to the heart of Mormonia to face Real Salt Lake after snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against San Jose last time out. The first trip to Rio Tinto in 2012 ended in a 3-0 defeat, and gave owner Merritt Paulson the silver bullet he needed to end John Spencer’s reign of terror(ble football), ushering in a Golden Age of beautiful, free flowing, orgasmic football under our esteemed and benevolent overlord, Gavin Wilkinson.
This second visit also ended in defeat, and three goals scored, but at least this time the Timbers got one of them and, but for the width of the crossbar, they could’ve snatched an, in some ways undeserved, point on the road for the second match on the trot.
The Timbers midfield and defence struggled to come to terms with the movement of Salt Lake’s Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales. It was almost inevitable that it would be the movement of these two that would lead to Real’s first goal.
As Morales picks up the ball (1), the Timbers central midfield two of Wallace and Jewsbury are a little narrow giving space either side to the veteran Argentinian and Tony Beltran (both circled) who has pushed forward.
Espindola will drop off his marker, Horst, and slip into the space between defence and midfield. When he picks up the ball (2), he’s dropped between Wallace and Jewsbury and is then able to turn and run at the space. Morales makes a looping run round the outside and as the Timbers defence gets drawn towards the ball (3), Espindola has the awareness to flick it off to Morales. Jewsbury throws out an arm and tugs back Morales, preventing him getting a shot off or playing in Beltran on the overlap.
From the resulting free-kick, the Timbers make a mess of it. Wallace is positioned as the “runner” – the guy on the edge of the wall whose job it is to charge out and close down the ball the second a touch is taken (or, usually, just before it’s taken – how often do you see free kicks blocked by a guy 5 yards from the ball?).
Rather than charge out, he seems confused by Morales’ little backheel, hesitates and then does a pretty, but ineffective, pirouette. But that’s only part of it. The wall itself parts, allowing Espindola to drive the ball low between Mwanga and Mosquera and into the bottom corner.
Despite Real being the better team, the Timbers did have their chances, but were denied by a combination of good keeping from Rimando, or the final ball just not quite being good enough.
A failure to pick up Morales would once again lead to trouble for Portland later in the first half.
Again, the central two fail to follow Morales, giving him lots of space to work, and it’s his give and go, and then a run inside that leads to the free kick when Jewsbury leaves a foot hanging. There were calls of “dive” from some Timbers fans, but I don’t agree. It was a pretty clear foul, and a really lazy, half-arsed “tackle” from Jewsbury.
This time the wall weren’t to blame as Morales hit a fantastic free kick over the wall and beyond Joe Bendik.
Although both goals came from set plays, it was the Timbers inability to deal with good movement from the Real attack – Morales and Espindola in particular – that were the key. That and Jewsbury having a horror show, and a terrible effort at building a wall.
The second half saw a change from the Timbers with Bright Dike coming on for Steven Smith. Wallace dropped to left back and the team took up more of a 4-4-2 shape.
On the hour mark there was hope for Portland when a fantastic cross from Sal Zizzo was met by the head of Dike and he sent it beyond Rimando for 2-1.
Given this boost, Wilkinson did what any manager would do and took off a defender and put on a more attacking player to try and press for an equaliser.
Oh, did I say he took off a right back, and put Zizzo back there? That is the guy who’d just set up the goal, and wasn’t, isn’t, and most likely never will be, a right back. Meanwhile Jack “I’ve played right back” Jewsbury stayed central, even though we had literally just brought on a central midfielder in Eric Alexander.
Last week, I’d hoped we’d at least bring Alexander on, in order to help retain possession further up the field as we defended a lead. We showed what a good passer of the ball he was against Real, misplacing only 1 of his 15 attempts, making the decision to leave him on the bench against San Jose all the stranger.
With Zizzo at right back, a lot of our threat down the right was neutered, and Wilkinson would complete the job by hooking off Songo’o with a few minutes to go. His replacement, Kalif Alhassan, never really got involved – little surprise when you have all of 8 minutes to make an impact – and, in fact, failed to touch the ball in the final third.
There was, as I mentioned before, that chance for Dike that crashed off the bar. It was, as my wife pointed out, almost the San Jose match in reverse. Once more, it was from Zizzo’s cross and it makes the decision to push him further back all the more odd when you think that we effectively removed this weapon from our arsenal. Dike looked fired up for this after coming on, and the RSL defence didn’t look too sure of how to deal with him so it seemed like the ideal scenario to test them by throwing the ball into the area from wide and letting Dike do what he does best. But we decided not to do that.
I think the move to put Zizzo at right back may be a sign of the management losing faith in Kimura. Kimura came to the Timbers with a “won’t be missed that much on the field” sentiment from Rapids fans that suggested we weren’t exactly bringing in a game changer, but after the trouble the Timbers have had at full-back, someone who could at least do the basics would be a step forward.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything from Kimura to suggest he’s good enough. His reading of the game is poor, and you won’t go poor by betting against him in 1v1s. He has tons of heart, and there’s no doubting he seems like a great guy, the kind that fans can identify with, but he’s a footballing liability too often. Perhaps there was an injury concern, fatigue issues, but it seems to me that it was a management who wanted to test Zizzo in the role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is further experimentation at right back before the season is out.
Losing, With Style
Little has changed on the road for Portland since Spencer left. The record under Wilkinson is 2 draws and 5 defeats, compared to Spencer’s 2 draws and 6 defeats. We’re scoring more, which is nice, but conceding more, which isn’t.
Again, a lot was made of possession post-match. “I think the possession stance of this team has changed dramatically from what they were,” said Gavin. It’s certainly true that we’re keeping the ball more since Spencer left – of Wilkinson’s 13 games, we’ve hit 50% or more 8 times, compared to 5 in 17 under Spencer – but of those 13 times we’ve been on top, we’ve won twice.
There may be something to Sigi Schmid’s “our league is a counter-attacking league” quote. Certainly, it seems that the team we have is built for that style of play, unsurprisingly since it was John Spencer that had a big hand in putting the pieces together. In fact, we win almost twice as often when we have less of the ball (29% to 15%) though it’s hard to separate on figures alone which games we’ve set out to counter-attack, and which we’ve simply been beaten back by a better team. Or been shit.
It certainly seems, from looking at the figures (as flawsed as that approach may be) that the team benefit from taking a counter-attacking approach most especially at home. In 18 matches where the Timbers have had equal-or-less possession than their opponents, they’ve lost once – the 3-2 defeat to, appropriately enough, Real Salt Lake earlier this season. Of those 18 matches, the Timbers have won 13. It’s a record worth almost 2.4 points-per-game, or to put it another way, better than any current home record in the league.
By way of contrast, when we’re “in control” of a match at home, that points ratio drops to 0.86, and we’ve won only 3 of 14. On the road, we lose a little over 50% of matches we have less possession in, which isn’t great, but of the 8 road games we’ve been seen more of the ball, we’ve lost 7 and drew only once (Toronto, 2-2).
I think those “philosophical” differences between Paulson and Spencer were, to a large degree, about this style of football. Perhaps seduced by seeing teams like Barcelona and Arsenal, Paulson has thought to himself “I want my team to play like that”. To which, and I’m speculating wildly here, John Spencer might’ve countered with, “not with this lot, you won’t.” Of course, things don’t simply work that way in football and there’s more to play that kind of football than just telling the players to pass it a bit more and play in a 4-3-3.
Clearly, given this new direction, there’s a method behind implementing the system now and getting players used to it, or simply seeing who can do it and who can’t. There was always going to be an adjustment period as players adapted. The issue is that it’s been shoehorned in when the season was still active. We weren’t so far off the play-offs when Spencer was told to pack his haggis and go, but by determining that the way the team played would have to change, and quickly, Wilkinson and Paulson effectively signed the death warrant of this season back in June, for all their public protestation otherwise.
Of course, if it leads to a stellar, or at least competitive, 2013 then the short term pain would be deemed worth it. Enter, Caleb Porter.
Porter has a big job in the off season in identifying those players who aren’t suited and getting them out, and bringing in players who can play “possession with purpose”. The way the current roster has been built has been almost magpie-like – picking up shiny pieces here and there with no real thought for how they fit together. That can’t continue if the Timbers hope to be successful. Signings have to made with the system in mind, rather than simply because he’s a good player and available, ala Kris Boyd. We’ve already seen how successful bringing players in and just plugging them into a system and hoping it works despite everything they (should) know about the player.
With four matches left of a dismal season, the Timbers get to stay in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder. DC United visit Jeld-Wen this weekend, and this followed by trips to Seattle and Vancouver as the team look to salvage a Cascadia Cup triumph from the wreckage of 2012. San Jose visit to round off the year.