Goals, all we really want is goals…

It was probably the most epic new chant created by the Timbers Army this year. One memory in particular stands out to me. The day this chant was born. In the May 5th game against Columbus Crew.  Walking to my spot in the top of 104, slightly late from half time having been helping at the 107ist table, I decided to walk along the gangway between the one and two hundreds to avoid the crowds of folks still waiting for beer or a free toilet. I have a distinct memory of entering in around 108 and hearing this chant going, smiling to myself because I’d quite enjoyed learning it in the first half. Then proceeding a little further down and seeing Shawn Levy in his midsection capo stand leading the chant with great enthusiasm, jumping around and maybe even dancing a little! I thought to myself I love this chant.

Why did I love this chant? Well no doubt that a part of it was because of its homage to the sadly departed MCA. But there was something more. I think this song connected to my footballing soul. I think this song connected to the heart of the Timbers Army.  And, perhaps crucially, it connected to one of the biggest points of disappointment that we had in the stands. Goals are at the very heart of the game of football. It doesn’t matter how much you appreciate good defending or a solid hard working midfielder you still love goals. We all do. Every football fan across the world loves goals. It’s why, whether or not we like the teams on every level, we are more likely to tune in to watch games which we think are more likely to produce goals. It’s why we are instantly inclined to think that a 0-0 was probably boring and that a 3-4 game was probably a classic. It’s why we have goal of the week and goal of the month competitions. Goals are the pinnacle of a football game. The troubling thing is that the Portland Timbers don’t score many of them.

I am not much for analyzing football by numbers. But sometimes they do highlight certain points well. So, allow me to hurl a few at you to digest. It’s probably not news to you that Portland scored the second fewest goals, 34, in the MLS only behind the woefully poor Chivas. Yes, even Toronto managed more goals. We were also recorded the third worst defence. No doubt I feel the defence needs to improve, but I think most of our attention should be on getting the attack to work. I think that if the Timbers got the attack to work better they may even find their defence naturally improving. There could be a whole blog entry dedicated to that theory but in brief: a good attack helps the team to keep possession, something the Timbers are generally woeful at. When you have the ball more the opposition has less possibility to score. Also, when the Timbers are chasing games, which is too often the case, they leave themselves exposed at the back. A good attack would score more and thus help to prevent this.

Allow me to indulge you with some more numbers. After two full seasons in the MLS, this is the Timbers overall scoring chart:

  1. Jack Jewsbury- 10 goals
  2. Kenny Cooper  – 8 Goals
  3. Darlington Nagbe- 8 Goals (6 of these in 2012)
  4. Kris Boyd – 7 Goals
  5. Bright Dike- 6 Goals
  6. Jorge Perlaza- 6 Goals
  7. Eric Brunner- 4 Goals
  8. Rodney Wallace- 3 Goals
  9. Danny Mwanga- 3 Goals
  10. Futty Danso- 3 Goals

For the record: Boyd, Cooper and Dike all have a very similar strike rate of around 1 in 4. Cooper’s strike rate significantly improved when provided with better service at NYRB. Is it possible that better service could see Dike or Boyd hit high up on the scoring charts? Oh, and for a laugh… the other Timber player with a 1 in 4 strike rate is Kevin Goldthwaite.

And the assists totals:

  1. Khalif Alhassan- 8 Assists (6 of these were in 2011)
  2. Jack Jewsbury- 7 Assists
  3. Sal Zizzo- 5 Assists
  4. Eric Alexander – 4 Assists
  5. Franck Songo’o- 4 Assists
  6. Diego Chara- 4 Assists (All in 2011)
  7. Darlington Nagbe- 3 Assists
  8. Rodney Wallace- 3 Assists

So Jewsbury is the most consistently producing offensive player. A defensive midfielder is consistently out producing wingers, attacking midfielders and even strikers. Beyond that, Jewsbury isn’t even a particularly special defensive midfielder. He is solid and pretty consistent and he can pass a football reasonably well. But those attributes have been enough to see him become our most productive player. This highlights what, in my opinion,  is the biggest problem in the team. A severe lack of creativity. There are plenty of striking things to be revealed in these little lists.

nagbealhassan

After 2 years of MLS football and 47 appearances Khalif Alhassan has notched up 8 assists and a solitary goal. In his 61 games Darlington Nagbe has produced 8 assists and 3 goals. These are two of our more skillful attacking players, and yet so little production. With Nagbe and Alhassan the problem is evident on many levels. These are young players who are incredibly inconsistent. They can go from looking like European bound superstars in one game, to looking like a player that would struggle in the USL.

This is not a unique problem to Portland Timbers young players. After one season with Manchester United Cristiano Ronaldo had been described by many as a “one trick pony”. It was quite a popular opinion that he was a “bag of tricks” who wouldn’t produce much. What was the problem? Ronaldo, was very inconsistent in delivering end product. He could do 5 stepovers in 2 second, blow a player away and then fail to deliver a good cross. He’s shooting was inconsistent too.  Fast forward a few years. There may be many things to call Ronaldo, not all of them pleasant, but unproductive is not one of them.

Season by season he matured in Manchester, and then in Madrid, into one of the worlds very best footballers. There are countless other examples of players going through this process. Nagbe and Alhassan’s inconsistency is very, very normal for young, flair based players. The problem is that they are two key players in Portland’s offense and that most of the other attack based players share the same fate.

Franck Songo’o has unquestionable talent. With the skill he had he should be one of the top performing players in the MLS. But he is limited by his inconsistency.  Alhassan, Nagbe and Songo’o are an exciting trio of players. However, they are not just limited by consistency, they are shackled. But not just them, the whole offense is shackled. Because these three should be our primary source of provision for strikers. But the strikers are feeding off scraps. Zizzo’s return to fitness in the later half of the season offered a boost here. He is more consistency in his performances and especially in the area of delivery. But, I would also say he has less ability.

After the Timbers first MLS season I naively thought that Nagbe and Alhassan would magically progress in the off season and help the Timbers set the league on fire in their second season (burn, destroy, wreck and kill!). I believed in the progress of young players, in their development into better players. Perhaps I have been playing too much FIFA and Football Manager, where young players will always develop if you play them. It’s probably fair to say that Nagbe has improved a little. With the more limited game time it’s hard to see anyway in which Alhassan has improved. Now, I see that Nagbe and Alhassan have two things working against them in the current set up.

Firstly, they have often been two very important players in the offense. There is pressure to perform. Any professional should be able to handle pressure of course. But a lot consistent pressure to perform on a young and developing player is not conducive to the development of said player. Just think how many times you sat in the stands last season, and even more the season before, hoping that Nagbe or Alhassan could pull something off to help create a goal.

In every league around the world young players are hyped as the next big thing. Pressure is heaped upon them, as they are labeled the next so and so and so. There are two great examples in the Premier League this season in Raheem Sterling and Tom Cleverley.

The talent both youngsters possess is evident. It’s also evident that both are far from finished article. But that didn’t stop the hyperbole. After a particularly impressive display for England Cleverley was actually compared to Iniesta. Here is a player still struggling to hold down a place in the Manchester United midfield (the weakest area of that team) being compared to one of the worlds finest creative midfielders. Raheem Sterling had his fair amount of ridiculous over the top praises and comparisons too. But, whilst they may have pressure to perform from over expectant fans and media there is not too much pressure from within the team. Manchester United have Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Nani, Valencia, Kagawa, Scholes and Carrick to supply the passes for Van Persie up front. If Cleverley is struggling to make those incisive passes in a game then Manchester United will probably get by without them. Even with Liverpool struggling as they are they still have several players in addition to Sterling capable of creating chances.

The addition of Songo’o certainly provided us with another player to pin our offensive hopes on. But, as mentioned earlier, his struggle was the same. Whilst Zizzo is more consistent, you still would not say consistency is a strong point of his. Four attacking midfielders/wingers and wingers whose struggle with inconsistency only served to heap more pressure on themselves and left Boyd, Dike et al casting a lonely shadow upfront waiting for service.

Any kind of service. 

nagbe

So, rather than being able to participate and develop themselves in a successful attacking unit Nagbe and Alhassan (and Songo’o and Zizzo for that matter) were left to try and overcome their demon and provide the team with the creativity it needed. At times during the season I think I could almost see the burden sitting on their shoulders. I think that perhaps that pressure stifled the creativity of Nagbe and Alhassan. Particularly Nagbe. He often seemed scared to run at players and take risks because he felt the pressure to supply the right pass or move to provide the goal. There will always be pressure on youngsters to perform but the system at the Timbers has not served to alleviate any of this pressure. There is a huge difference to being a young star winger in a great offensive unit, and being a young star winger who is the hope of the offensive unit. The former is more likely to bring the successful development of a young player.

The second thing is that Nagbe and Alhassan don’t have another player to look up to in their development. Songo’o is the closest thing they have and he is also relatively young and struggles in exactly the same areas. This is very much related to the first problem. If the Timbers had one,  one is surely not too much to ask, attacking midfielder or winger who was experienced and a consistent producer it would make the world of difference. They don’t have to be all that dynamic or exciting. They just have to have been there and done that. They just have to be consistent. The type of player that could stroll up and put an arm around Nagbe in training and give a word of advice. They type of player who could consistently put in 4 or 5 good crosses or through balls EVERY game. In an instant the pressure on Nagbe and Alhassan drops and they are spending time everyday with a player that can assist them in their develop.

Mr Porter, in the chance you are an avid reader of Slide Rule Pass, which I assume you are as it is the primary location for all your Portland Timbers blogging needs, I plead with you. I beg you. Please, please, please sign someone who can fulfill that role. May I suggest it would be a most excellent way to sign the new year! (P.S I don’t think McCourt will cut it for this role). This would be a huge step in the right direction offensively and could even be a step toward fulfilling the identity of the team. I believe it would help this team tremendously in their development. Even if it costs us sacrificing one of Alhassan, Nagbe or Songo’o I think it would be worth it to get the best out of the other three and offer better service to our lonely strikers. I don’t suppose it will suddenly make us a great team challenging for MLS titles, but it will certainly elevate us.

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10 thoughts on “Goals, all we really want is goals…

  1. Good stuff. I couldn’t agree more. As much as the defense needs to improve, I would like to watch my team trying to play football and score and win the game.

    1. Ha… Love him or Loathe him, Beckham would be perfect for that kind of role. It would be interesting to attempt a draw up of REALISTIC potential candidates.

  2. Well put!

    I get it that we are a team on the rebuild (is that possible after 2 seasons?!) with young talent and a youth oriented couch. Consistency and precision are going to be things that are going to be questionable moving forward, which further proves the point that where we need the most maturity and leadership is smack dab in the attacking mid.

    FIngers crossed.

  3. Hi All…

    Very good points made Andrew…and all of you…

    Here are some “sticky points” to consider as well…

    One problem we will now also have, besides the midfield leadership/production issues you have mentioned, is we are now shifting to a formation, presumably the 4-3-3, that is a very team oriented offensive production formation. In the 4-3-3 that Porter used at Akron, and the 4-3-3 that everyone raves about with Barca and Spain NT, 7 or 8 of the players are constantly in the offensive mix…moving, probing, passing, screening, crossing, overlapping, cutting, shooting. They work in an almost circular rotation motion…cycling in and out of interchanging positions from the midfield forward…and sometimes, even from the defense forward.

    This requires an enormous amount of technical and mental skill from virtually your whole team, and puts more than just two or three people under pressure to produce in the offensive attack. That is a tall order for any team, and is one of the reasons that the only team that really plays it truly well in the professional ranks is Barca…and Spain, for the moment. What will happen to this system with our squad of players. If Songo’o, Nagbe, et al, had trouble with production under pressure, and these were our skill players, what will happen when we need 3 or 4 additional players to step up and figure at some level of prominence in the attack on a pretty constant basis?

    Also…having had a chance to watch Barca quite a bit this year in the UEFA competition, and their LaLiga play, I have noticed that this 4-3-3 formation they run, even with their extreme level of player skill, is EXTREMELY vulnerable to the quick hitting counter attack, and they are quite often scored upon from a counter attack break out. This is very scary to me, because the MLS has very much been a counter attack driven league. When you are pushing hard in the offensive end in the 4-3-3, you do leave yourselves defensively exposed, and unless our defensive group improves markedly, I fear we are really in danger of being badly exploited by our opponents this coming year…

    Fingers crossed, incantations begun…

    Kind Regards
    Duff

    The other thing that concerns

    1. I wonder if our boys will need the first half of the season to figure the new system out. I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out for that first game and TRY to play like Barca, but completely fuck it up.

      But if they stick with it and slowly get better, maybe by the end of the year, they’ll be dangerous.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the season played out that way.

  4. Thanks for the nice read.

    I didn’t check your stats, but I do know that Alexander has 6 assists and Nagbe has 4.

    1. Stats were all taken from Soccernet and are for MLS appearances only. Assists are also not as easy as counting goals. For example some companies might count two assists for goal (if the pass before the final pass for a goal is particularly important). Some may count a shot rebounded to the goalscorer as an assist, others not. That could account for discrepancies from other stats you may have seen.

  5. Thoughtful analysis, and I can’t but agree with both the post and the comments; the Timbers’ weakness, both this season and in 2011 (although exposed more cruelly this past season) has been a lack of consistent skilled play and a lack of team discipline.

    A very technically skilled team can succeed without being exceptionally disciplined; the tika-taka teams like Barca or the Brazilian national sides that emphasized attacking flair would beat you 4-2 or 5-3. Sure, they’d give up goals on the counter but they’d just score another, no worries.

    I don’t see us having the personnel, either in front or in midfield, to provide that sort of scoring punch. With our relatively lean purse we can’t buy our way out of that, either; what we see today is what we’re going to be for the forseeable future.

    On the other hand, a disciplined team can succeed with moderate skills. It won’t be pretty, and you’ll still get handed your ass by the occasional Barca. But perhaps the single most distinctive feature of the Timbers’ past two seasons has been a remarkable lack of discipline. Defenders drift out of position, ball-watch, mark space, and stab. Midfielders pass poorly when they pass forward at all, and defend poorly when they defend at all. Forwards are marked out of the match, or simply stand there bereft of service. Taken altogether our team play was as disconnected as any team I have ever seen; try and recall a Timbers attack that consisted of more than a random run or a successful speculative pass and shot, or a Timbers defensive sequence that contained a successful takeaway and outlet pass…

    That’s player skills – meaning that maturity and perhaps mentorship might improve things – but that’s also coaching. And the lack of progress we’ve seen in the players over the past two seasons screams at me that our coaching staff, from top to bottom (and, yes, Mike Toshack, I’m looking at you, too – why the hell couldn’t you improve Troy Perkins’ distribution?) lacked the skills to improve the players’, and the teams’, skills and discipline.

    At this point I think we have to hope that Porter will clean house and bring in a new coaching staff that has those abilities. So far I have not read any news that suggests major changes there, so I’m concerned that we will start the new season with the same faces on the sidelines and on the practice field. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing…

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