Monkey Jesus

With the Cascadia Cup up for grabs, 1500 Timbers fans made the trip up the I-5 into enemy territory with hopes high that they would be returning to the Rose City with silverware. A draw would’ve been enough to secure the title. In the end those same fans would make the return trip having seen their side lose 3-0 in front of an (official, if not actual) 66,452 crowd. Closer to 66,500 if you include the Timbers playing and coaching staff, who spent much of their time spectating in any case.

The absence of Hanyer Mosquera from the back line, as well as the return of Diego Chara to midfield, forced our Gavin Wilkinson to make changes.

Now, you and I in our n00bishness may think that if you’re missing a crucial piece from your defence in such a big match, that would seek to make sure you keep changes to a minimum at the back, right? WRONG! What you do is change the full-backs and goalkeeper too so that you have change 80% of the back line. That is the right thing to do.

And the attack that has hardly been striking fear into defences? Well, you make no changes there and you most certainly do not, under any circumstances, start your team’s leading assist provider. That would be the actions of a madman.

So, into defence came Futty Danso, Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. I got up at 1:55am for the game. I checked twitter and saw the line-up at 1:58am. The temptation to go back to bed at 1:59am was strong. It wasn’t so much that I feared the worst as I expected it.

Wallace’s spot in midfield was taken by the returning Chara, with the rest of the midfield and attack as it was for the 1-1 draw with DC United last week.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but after doing a bit of research on Seattle and watching a few games – those are hours I will never get back – I’d identified what I thought were pretty obvious patterns to the Seattle attack.

1 – They would look to overload the right with Rosales/Evans, Tiffert and Johansson. As such we would need a left-back who could make the right choices, as well as having a left midfielder who would track back and help out.

2 – They lacked a left-footed player on the left side, and Gonzales doesn’t get forward nearly as much as Johansson, so we had to expect that they would look to come inside and ping the ball diagonally to the back post for Montero or Johnson to attack.

3 – Johnson’s aerial threat meant that there was no way we would win every duel, so we had to make sure that the players were alive to the second ball and that we won that.

Given all that, here was the line-up I’d have gone with – Bendik/Ricketts; Kimura, Horst, Futty/Brunner, Smith; Jewsbury, Chara, Alexander; Nagbe, Mwanga, Songo’o

My reasoning? As I said, I felt continuity (as far as possible) at the back was crucial, though I wouldn’t be adverse to Jewsbury starting ahead of Kimura (with Nagbe back to midfield and Zizzo starting).

My thinking is that, since Seattle offer less threat down their left, Kimura – who I don’t particularly rate highly, but still think is better than Palmer – could be given a set of simple instructions of “keep tight, don’t let them come inside and stay on your feet”. Ditto if Jewsbury subs in there.

If we play with Nagbe, I’d play him a little off the wing rather than as a winger. Here I’d want Nagbe to look for space and, in the process, either pull Gonzalez narrow (opening up space for the overlap of Kimura/Jewsbury) or force Alonso to drop in and mark him, opening up space for Songo’o to come inside from the left, with support from Alexander (and Smith on the outside).

Mwanga is up top because I felt it would be pointless to play long ball football as the Seattle central defence would eat that up all night long. Rather, playing Mwanga would emphasise movement and passing over physicality or “lumping it into the mixer”.

The help out Smith on the left, since Songo’o isn’t the greatest defender in the world, Alexander would be given the job of playing left of centre, and to shuttle across to back up the Scot. He’s shown, when he subbed for Chara earlier this year, that he can play this disciplined, defensive role if asked to, and between the three – Smith, Alexander and Songo’o – I feel we’d have the numbers to match up and nullify much of Seattle’s threat.

That’s what I’d have done.

What Gavin did was put Wallace in at left-back. The reasoning seems to be it was because Wallace is more “athletic” than Smith. I’d back that line of thinking if the game was only one part of a heptathlon, but it isn’t, it’s the main event and you just put someone on the back line whose best attributes sure as hell aren’t his defensive ones. Wallace has looked decent in the last few matches playing in midfield, where his lapses in concentration aren’t directly punished by having an opponent go clean through on goal.

Maybe Gavin thought Wallace’s “athleticism” would get him forward, and push Seattle back and win the battle down the flank that way. Well, that worked a fucking treat, eh? Because, as you know, that slovenly Smith never gets up and down the line.

The decision to drop Smith was a strange one – references to a Wilkinson quote “player health” abound on twitter, but at the time of writing they aren’t being reported. Smith has a case for being the Timbers most improved player over the past few weeks. He had a really rocky spell earlier in the season, but as his fitness has improved and he’s become more attuned to the league, he’s settling in very nicely.

Now, I’ve nothing against Wallace. I think he’s perfectly functional (if a tad overpaid) as a squad player, questionable as a starter and downright objectionable as a defender. You almost can’t get mad at the guy whose known to make mistakes when he makes mistakes, instead you should direct that ire at the guy who put him in what I felt was the key position on the field to make those mistakes.

The first goal came about as, surprise, Seattle overloaded that flank.

Rosales, Tiffert and Johansson are all out there on the right. Wallace is trying to marshal Tiffert, while keeping an eye on Rosales, as Johansson bursts forward. Songo’o fails to track his man.

The Seattle midfield has narrowed, negating the Timbers 3v2 advantage in the middle, as Zizzo stays out wide. The ball forward by Alonso is missed by a diving Wallace, and Johansson runs on to it. His pass into the centre is aimed towards Montero, but Danso gets there first and directs it past a helpless Ricketts.

Fucking. Textbook. Elementary. Football.

The second goal followed soon after as the Timbers were in disarray. That is, more disarray than is usual.

Here we have Danso following Montero out of defence (a). Tiffert (d) will slot into the space left by Danso (d) as the ball goes left to Evans. Now, there’s only place Evans wants to go here, and it’s inside (c). Palmer’s job here is to get tight, and force Evans onto his weaker left foot, and down the side (b). Instead, Lovel stands off Evans (e), letting him get his head up and measure the cross to Johnson, who is making a customary back post run (f) to finish the move, and the Timbers hopes of a result here, off.

Taking a leaf from the seemingly half-arsed way Wilkinson prepared the team for this match, I’m not even going to bother going over the 3rd goal in any detail, except to say we failed to win the second ball when Johnson got a flick-on because Wallace was asleep at the back post, which was fine cos he was only marking Fredy Montero. Equally, I’ll give the substitutions as much thought and consideration as Wilkinson seemingly did. There, done.

Sure, there were chances for Portland. Songo’o had a couple of sites of goal, Wallace had a free header from a corner, Dike had a sniff, as did Nagbe. Nothing that would overly worry Gspurring, the Sounders keeper.

I went to bed last night, knowing that I would wake up to gold from Wilkinson and the Unsackable One didn’t disappoint.

Those two [David Horst and Futty Danso] haven’t played together an awful lot.

Who picks the team, and who hasn’t been rotating the squad? Look, I get that defensive consistency is important (as I said earlier), but by my quick reckoning Wilkinson has set out the same back four in 7 of the last 9 matches. You can’t have it both ways – you’re either trying players out and seeing what you have, or you’re picking a settled team

They had a lot more mobility in the midfield. They had a lot more freedom and kept the ball moving. They caused problems.

We (supposedly) outnumbered them and yet you’d think Seattle had the extra midfielder. As I said before the game, quick movement of the ball was vital. We did none of that. Seattle did. They won.

(That’s what happens) when you’ve got mature players that understand the game and understand what is expected, and we had problems solving it.

A good coach is supposed to help players “understand the game” (hint: coach). A good coach is supposed to make sure that a player “understands what is expected”. A good coach is supposed to identify problems on the field, and solve it p- not just sit back and blame the players for not understanding. You see something going wrong – fix it! Change it if you have to. Shuffle players around. Relay instructions to the guys on the field. You see it happen all the time in matches all over the world. That’s your job.

Then there’s this…

I have no words.

In a big environment you want players to play well and sometimes when things aren’t going well, one or two players start hiding a little bit. That’s not a go at the players, it’s just the environment.

Just like you know when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” it will be followed by the most egregiously racist statement, so “that’s not a go at the players” will, when utter by Gavin Wilkinson, inevitably be preceded by him having a go at the players. Have the courage of your convictions, Gavin. If you want to blame the players, do it. Rev that bus up, crank up the Whitesnake, run them over and back up if you feel like it. Don’t fob us off with crap about “the environment” because you fool no-one but yourself.

We learned a little tonight about certain individuals. It’s going to be an evaluation process through to the end of the year. It was important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.

First off, players in different positions – what did we learn about Wallace and Palmer at full-back that we didn’t already know from the many times they’ve played full-back before? That they are as mediocre as everyone already knew? Well, good job Captain, sorry, General Manager Obvious in underlining that point on the biggest fucking stage of the year. I’m giving you the world’s slowest hand clap over here.

Second, and this maybe just my interpretation of what Wilkinson is saying, but it sounds to me that he thought this game was just another experiment. Another attempt to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. He used the biggest game of the season – the chance to salvage something worthwhile from a Wynaldian trainwreck of a season, in the backyard of our greatest rivals no less (YES, THAT FUCKING GAME) – as an EXPERIMENT? Fuck off with your “it was the players fault” bullshit, if anything they were only taking their cue from you. 1500 fans paid hard cash in good faith to watch Wilkinson tinker with stuff to prove some vague point about players that he should not be allowed to wriggle out of responsibility for signing in the first place.

I wouldn’t put Wilkinson in charge of a McDonald’s franchise, let alone a Major League Soccer team.

Look, as much as it pains us to admit it, we all know Seattle are a better team, with a better head coach. If it wasn’t for the rivalry aspect, there would be no great embarrassment in going there and losing (though the manner of said defeat may be good cause). We know that. So the very least we expect is that the head coach, the general-fucking-manager, takes it seriously and approaches it in the proper manner.

You certainly don’t use it as an excuse to tinker with things. And if the front office did any work at all in scouting Seattle, it was either woefully produced or completely ignored by Wilkinson.

I was 100% on board with the idea of writing off the season, and using the time to see what we had for 2013, and what we needed to get. It made sense. But I don’t think we’ve got that, despite Wilkinson mentioning it whenever he gets a chance. What we’ve had, as far as I can see, is the same small group of players, sometimes playing in different roles, but generally playing in the very positions where we already know exactly what to expect from them. The fringe guys don’t seem to be getting a look in. Eric Alexander gets pity minutes here and there. Danny Mwanga can’t get a run of games together to build some consistency or confidence. Fucito is granted a farewell tour of Seattle (and, with any luck, top flight football) while Richards, Jean-Baptiste and Kawulok can’t get a look in. What are we supposed to be learning, exactly?

When you play a team that are, and the league doesn’t lie, better than you, in their home ground, you adjust your tactics accordingly. You seek to nullify their strengths, and exploit their weakness. You don’t send out two full-backs who aren’t up the task and then resort to lumping the ball forward to Dike who had more success drawing blood from Seattle defenders than he had drawing saves from the Seattle keeper. That is just sloppy.

Gavin Wilkinson’s management of the squad post-Spencer puts me in mind of Cecilia Gimenez, the 81 year old amateur fresco artist from Spain. Both have sought to repair something that, while hardly a masterpiece in the first place, certainly needed a bit of work to bring out it’s best features but their cackhanded attempts have rendered the result a laughing stock. At least the Monkey Jesus is proving popular though, so Cecilia has that over Gavin.

Sure, he never wanted to be head coach and he’s only there to fill in before Caleb Porter gets to add his rut to the wall John Spencer presumably spent 18 months beating his head against. The thing is, I don’t think the guy who has watched Wallace and Palmer (sorry to keep picking on these two – they weren’t the only non-performers out there by any stretch) in training for weeks, months even, and still hasn’t recognised that neither of them are top flight full-backs should be in charge of scouting and signing players. It’d be like hiring Stevie Wonder as an interior decorator or Abu Hamza as a juggler.

Despite this result, the Timbers can still salvage the Cascadia Cup by beating Vancouver next week in the final road match of the season. Winning the trophy after this omnishambles, in our first road victory in our last road match, would be so Portland.


27 thoughts on “Monkey Jesus

  1. The only way that Portland takes home the Cup this season is if Vancouver rolls over; they’re playing for postseason position, that’s not gonna happen. If we escape with a draw in BC we will be very, very lucky.

    I really have nothing to add other than ire; this was the ONLY match we “needed” to keep this entire season from being an utter disaster. And to do that we needed only to grind out a nil-nil draw. A marginally-talented but disciplined side with a tactically intelligent manager should be able to do that, hell, does that all the time – look at the entire history of Italian football.

    But even without the weapons-grade moronity of the lineup and substitutions I was sure that this season’s squad was capable of making the tactical errors it would take to let Seattle go 1 or 2 up early and force us to chase. This is the least disciplined, least technically and tactically sophisticated team I have seen fielded here in Portland and having watched Gavin’s USL sides that’s saying quite a bit. It’s an effing trainwreck right now and I wish I thought that Merritt saw that.

    The part of me that’s RCTID wants to believe we can win in BC Place and bring home the Cup. The part of me that’s a soccer fan and student of the game thinks that if we did we’d just paper over the cracks in the foundation of this team and let the Ginger Man off the hook for his ineptitude. I will therefore hope that we can do the former and that Merritt will STILL see the latter –

    Onward, Rose City!

    1. That’s the annoying thing. I grew up watching Scotland and Kilmarnock, my country and my local club. Neither are particularly great and stacked up against Holland and Germany, or Rangers and Celtic, they’re always going to struggle. But Scotland consistently made World Cup sunder Craig Brown because was (and still is with Aberdeen) an organiser. He’d assess his team’s weaknesses and strengths, as well as those of the opponent in great depth, and try and find some way of grinding out the result needed, be it a hard-earned road draw, or a to-the-wire home win. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

      There was a brief return of hope for Scotland with the reigns of Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, who were of a similar ilk, but now we have a guy in charge who plays one way, home or away, regardless of opposition and what do you know? Our 2014 World Cup dreams could be over before it’s trick-or-treat time. Way to go.

      That’s what the Timbers have with Wilkinson. It’s one way of playing, and we’re going to stick to it. Fine, if you’re Barcelona and can roll into town and impose your will upon your opponent, but we’re not. To put it in a La Liga context, at this point we’re more of a Real Zaragoza. The only way we can get results is to take each match as a distinct and individual occasion and look to tilt the table such that our strengths, such as they are, are highlighted and those of the opponents are negated. We just don’t do that. If we win one week, it’s “great, that worked, let’s do it next time.” There’s no sense that the staff sit down and actually say to themselves “why did it work? What can we take from it to the next match, and what can we drop, or fix?” No, it’s rinse, and repeat.

      Like I said, great if your Barca (though strictly speaking, they do change it up from match to match, subtly) or even if you really are looking to see how a wide group of players perform in different roles within one over-arching system. I don’t get the sense we’re doing the latter either.

      1. “The only way we can get results is to take each match as a distinct and individual occasion and look to tilt the table such that our strengths, such as they are, are highlighted and those of the opponents are negated. We just don’t do that.”

        And never have; Wilkinson’s USL style was similar to what we’ve been seeing this season. Don’t scout your opponent. Pick an XI based on your whim, or the last match. Throw them out on the pitch and see what happens. Make substitutions (apparently) at random, based on your “gut”, or who has been your darling in practice. Wash, rinse, repeat.

        Which is what worries me about next season. Porter, is, supposedly, a student of the game, a Brown-type manager. But he’s going to be working for Gavin, the Levein-type guy, and Merrit, whose knowledge of the game appears to stop at the last FIFA 13 he played. So can he convince this precious pair to scout the opposition, to invest in disciplined, technically gifted players that will work in a system that has to be tweaked to meet each opponent? When his bosses still subscribe to the “Let ’em play and see what happens” school of football?

      2. I don’t know the scouting set-up at the team, but I’d rather see money spent on domestic, next opposition scouting and giving the manager all the information he needs to build a game plan without having to do it all himself than a couple of all-expenses paid trips to Colombia or Europe. Hopefully Porter can, in some way, change the culture at the club but Merritt would need to let him work in peace, and Gavin will have to reign his ego in so… yeah.

  2. Spot. On.

    That was one of the most painful matches I have watched as a Timbers fan, and I have seen some howlers. The lineup, tactics, and substitutions were a complete mystery to me. I have been reserved in my public comments about Gavin Wilkinson, but there really is not a single reason for me to hold back: He has got to go.

  3. I don’t know enough about the beautiful game to point out exactly what was wrong, but my god I could tell there was a whole lot of wrong to be found.

    The Smith thing burned me more than anything else. Sure he gets beat a bit more than I’d like, but he’s got what even a casual observer can tell is a fantastic eye for the game, solid understanding of his job, and gets by his physical limitations by putting himself at the right place to make a play.

    Putting in Fucito to start the second half was something of a joke to me. I think GW has been watching “Rudy” on a regular basis.

  4. I will admit I only skimmed this post. I just don’t have the stomach to relive this match. Or maybe it is the hangover.

  5. Theory: Could it have been Caleb that set the experimental lineup?

    The subs I put on GW, getting Zizzo off was important to do, but for Fucito? Futty was probably gassed and anytime I see Brunner on the field I’m happy. EA should have started, but don’t understand taking Nagbe off.

    1. I don’t know. It seems a bit too easy, and convenient, of a get-out for Gavin. I’m sure Caleb had certain players he’d like to see, but I don’t think he’s phoning in starting line-ups. Just my gut feeling.

      1. GCA’s article mentions Porter did just that. Seems odd to put Wallace and Smith against each other. Might there be some midfield options we don’t know about that will shift Wallace out of midfield and into the back line?

    2. And the other thing that makes me think that this was all Ginge’ is that I can’t imagine that Porter – who is said to be a pretty perceptive guy in soccer terms – would need to see anything more of Wallace-as-fullback, or Palmer for that matter. Had we seen AJB or Kawulok, sure. Had we seen Valencia on for Zizzo, maybe. But instead this has a very Kiwish flavor; “hmmm…these guys looked sharp in practice, let’s see what happens if they start…”

      1. Aye, I think if Porter was having a direct influence on the Starting XI selection, we’d have seen more from some of the young guys like AJB or Kawulok, or even Richards who got a brief run and has been the forgotten man since. I think, purely based on my own feeling, Porter’s influence is more on how the team play – he’s obviously going to lay out how he wants the team to play next year – and maybe “I’d like too see this guy, or that guy” but I don’t think he’s picking teams. That’s Gavin’s remit.

      1. Honestly, I doubt it… Merritt Paulson would flip shit if Gavin was scorching earth for Porter before he even got here.

  6. I can’t disagree with anything anyone said above. Though, I want to add…

    Passing, dribbling, and trapping, things we all learned back at 7 or 8 and practiced every day – like it or not. It sure would be nice if these professionals practiced it, as they showed yesterday they need it. And the lack of heart is getting to me – please guys, at least fake that you care. I lost count of how many times a bad first touch or bad pass meant to give up on the ball. If you give it up, you should work twice as hard to get it back. Though I guess 2×0 is still 0..

  7. “Sure, he never wanted to be head coach and he’s only there to fill in before Caleb Porter gets to add his rut to the wall John Spencer presumably spent 18 months beating his head against.”

    GW keeps repeating this in public, but current and former players have whispered that he spent the past year working to get Spencer fired so that he (GW) could actually get the permanent head coaching job, and that he’s now happy Spencer is gone but bitter and resentful that Porter is coming in and taking what he wants. Sounds like a recipe for success next season.

    1. I don’t know whether that’s sad or hilarious. Right now wanting the HC job at this club is like wanting to coach the Washington Generals or scrambling to land the top job at the Iraqi Army in January 1991. If those rumors are true than GW is sadder an old bastard than I ever imagined.

    2. What was he working on that could have gotten John Spencer fired? Your made up story is yet another version of the “Merritt is hypnotized by GW” meme. GW is a lapdog with no backbone, yes. But he is not pulling anything over Merritt’s eyes. Merritt made the call to fire Spencer, and that’s on him.

  8. Reading this was cathartic – just perfectly sums up everything I was thinking. Thanks Kevin. ‘Omnishambles’…too fucking perfect.

  9. I personally believe GW is attempting to showcase players that he already knows won’t be with the team next year and that he believes may have trade value. I have difficulty believing that Palmer or Wallace will be back next year and I can’t see how Dike will fit in the new system. Perhaps even Fucito could be part of this lemonade recipe?
    (I am not trying to suggest that showcasing these players against Seattle was a good decision.)

  10. Here is another thought that can make you both depressed and angry…

    This is been a very rough season for the fans…ALL of the fans…certainly the TA, who have really cheered and Tifo’d with their hearts on their sleeves…but all of the Timbers fans have tried through it all, to keep some frail semblence of good humor and cheer with an eye to the future…and the one thing that has driven this point for the fans is the chance to win the Cascadia Cup…the chance to retain some glimmer of faith and pride.

    This “Cup” was all that we had left of this season, and it really means/meant a huge amount to the collective fan psyche, and even more so, for us to win it by fending off Seattle, even with a draw, up in Seattle.

    This game was SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO very important to all of us, and we knew it, the players knew it, and certainly Gavin and Merritt knew it.

    So…with all that was riding on this game…this season…this last two years, you would think that Gavin would have put forth the best possible lineup and sub’s, and the best possble tactical game plan that he could have…not apparently/inexplicably experimenting with the lineup, the subs, and the tactical strategy.

    And you would have thought that the players…knowing how much this game meant to their long suffering fans…would have really been on razors edge, wound tight, psyched and ready to really give their all to the very end…

    Instead…it felt like the players gave it an early push, found Seattle, rough and ready, and then just wilted,and shrunk from the fight, unwilling to go the extra miles that it was going to take from them, just to even have a chance of being competative up in the Emerald City…and you know that they knew this from the get go, and still, they could not seem to muster the pride, the will, and the effort for their fans…those fans who still sold out every damn game at the Jelly, and cheered their asses off…

    And Gavin…it almost feels like he just thumbed his nose at the Timbers fans, knowing how much this game mattered, but doing everything he could to foul it up from his end…on purpose…not giving a damn, or maybe, exacting his revenge in the most painful way he knew how…

    A truly sickening thought isn’t it…

  11. “Have the courage of your convictions, Gavin. If you want to blame the players, do it. Rev that bus up, crank up the Whitesnake, run them over and back up if you feel like it. Don’t fob us off with crap about “the environment” because you fool no-one but yourself.”

    Astute and hilarious. Although I suppose he has the out of not being the actual head coach.

    “Back up if you feel like it.” I’m still laughing.

  12. Another telling quote from GW: It was important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.” Interim Coach Gavin Wilkinson after the Portland – Seattle match
    What happened to ‘the cup is very important to the organization’? Besides that we all have seen these players in those positions already. This sounds to me like GW’s first attempt to throw Portwe under bus for the line up changes.

  13. FWIW, here’s the full Wilkinson quote why Wallace v Smith: “This is an experiment to look at next year. Steven [Smith] has done well. He’s had tight hamstrings. We’re coming into an environment where the pace of the game – we’re expecting to get a little bit more energy out of Rodney [Wallace]. He’s also done very, very well for us. He played left back against Seattle at home, and Steven’s also done well. It was a tough decision based on the health of the players and on the direction of the team and we’ve got some decisions to make over players. So it’s important that we put Rodney in this environment and see how he did.”

  14. Love the way how you try to analyse things.
    But maybe try not to OVER-analyse. At the end, fysical, technical and psycholigical qualities will decide the game 90% of the time. The other 10% is plain luck.
    It sometimes happens and that is the beauty of the game.
    The Timbers simply do not have a good team. They’re fysically strong but lack skills and (football)brains in every single position … besides Songo’o.
    They have to innovate!! That is what Portland is all about, no?

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