Montreal Impact started the season with their first win on the west coast in three attempts, defeating Seattle Sounders 1-0 thanks to a first half Davy Arnuad goal. It was a result built upon solid defensive foundations and the ability to break at speed. Despite having only 40% possession, Montreal still got 5 shots on target to Seattle’s 3.
Given the result in Mordor, I see no reason why Montreal wouldn’t take a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy into this game. So, I’d expect them to line-up in the same 4-1-4-1 shape they deployed last week with Patrice Bernier playing as the holding midfielder.
Know Thy Enemy
There is a strong veteran spine to the Impact team, from Perkins in goal, through the Italian duo of Nesta and Ferrari, Bernier and Arnaud in mdfield, and Di Vaio leading the line. Those six players alone have nearly 90 seasons worth of professional football between them, often at the very highest level.
Since adding Perkins last year the Impact have looked much more assured in defence, going from conceding an average of 1.48 goals per game to 0.89. A goalkeeper does much more than simply stop shots – he organises the defence, and it’s from the keeper that defenders take confidence. A back four that worries about the guy behind them is more likely to play with a “fear factor”, as we saw during the early part of last season when Montreal were leaking soft goals and making elementary errors in defence. They’ve conceded only 3 goals in their last 5 MLS matches, and lost 3 in 4 on their way to victory at the Walt Disney World Soccer Pro Classic (really rolls off the tongue, that one), so they are very much coming in to this season as they ended last year. If there was a key word to describe this Montreal team it would be “stability” and the central three of Perkins, Nesta and Ferrari are largely responsible for bringing that to the defence.
They are aided at full-back by Brovsky and Camara. Brovsky is a no-nosense, hard working outside back and Camara, while he doesn’t have the pedigree of some of his European teammates, is as solid defesnively, but is a little more inclined to get forward. Yet, neither are particularly attacking full-backs and will be there primarily to lend presence on the back-line than an attacking outlet.
Bernier played as the holding midfielder against Seattle, in a role he’d been used in during preseason by new head coach Marco Schällibaum. Last year Bernier had topped the Impact’s goalscoring charts so it may seem strange to turn him into a defensive midfielder, but Bernier has shown an aptitude for it, and Schällibaum has thus far shown a preference for a 4-5-1 set-up, over the 4-4-2 the Impact used for much of 2012.
Putting Bernier in the defensive role allows Schällibaum to play Arnaud and Felipe ahead of him, with two wingers adding width behind Di Vaio up top. It was Di Vaio, Arnaud and Felipe who combined for Montreal’s winner up north, with the latter scooping the ball over the Seattle defence for Arnaud to finish with aplomb.
Montreal had a relatively quiet off-season on the trade front, but they have added to their Italian contingent with the veteran (of course) winger Andrea Pisanu. Pisanu plays on the right, which saw Mapp played in left midfield against Seattle, though his underwhelming showing may open the door for Nyassi to start against Portland.
Di Vaio brings a wealth of experience with him, from time in the top flights of Italy, France and Spain as well as at international level. Di Vaio is one of those strikers who thrives by playing on the shoulder of the defender, and though he has the ability to drop off and get involved in the build-up play, he’s truly comes alive in and around the 18 yards box.
The Elephant in the Room
Defence. It would be crazy to write off the defence after a crazy 45 minutes against New York, but it does have to be addressed. Whereas Montreal have looked pretty steady and assured through preseason play, and into the match against Seattle, the Timbers preseason has been characterized by a failure to grab the all-important first goal.
While the defence looked a lot better after the break, New York were still able to fashion good chances on the counter as Portland pushed to grab an equaliser. We can expect to see Montreal play in a similarly compact way, and looking to break from the back at speed. Look at their goal against Seattle for a prime example of the kind of speed and movement you can expect. Given that Montreal are more of a counter-attacking team by design, as opposed to New York who adopted the role under pressure from Portland, this makes them especially dangerous and behooves the Timbers to give the backline some serious thought.
Losing the first goal is never a good idea, but losing the first goal against a team that is expressly set-up to keep it tight and counter-punch could be fatal.
I don’t anticipate any changes in defence, and the presence of Mikael Silvestre on the backline may be crucial in ensuring that Di Vaio doesn’t take advantage of Jean-Baptiste’s lack of experience. Though I expect Montreal sit deep, it’s important that Portland don’t fall into the trap of over-committing, and the full-backs will have to be especially conscious of this. Patience is the watchword.
Di Vaio will look to play off the shoulder of the defence, though he is currently averaging around 3 offside decisions a game, perhaps reflecting his relative lack of pace and desire to get a “head start”. However, he’ll also drop off and look to link up play, and so communication between defence and midfield has to be clear and consistent. Working a good “trap” could be a good way to kill any direct Montreal counters before they really get going, but being aware of the movement of Arnaud, Di Vaio and Felipe and tracking these guys is arguably more important.
Given these pace issues, together with Montreal’s compact shape and lack of attacking, over-lapping full-backs, I would expect to see the Timbers play with a higher line than they started with against New York, with Chara or Johnson taking a defensive cover role to cut out anything before it reaches Di Vaio or Felipe.
Of course, given the way the New York game unfolded, it would be easy to err on the side of caution and play a little deeper to nullify the threat from long balls over the top, but that just opens up the space for Felipe and Arnaud to move forward and work the ball to Di Vaio’s feet, or out to the wide men.
The battle in midfield between Bernier and Arnuad on one side and Diego Chara and Will Johnson in the other could be the key for the Timbers in unlocking Montreal and getting a back line that, while solid, lacks pace.
While Montreal play with wingers, or wide midfielders, most of their creative threat is concentrated in the middle, and both Bernier and Arnaud will look to get forward if the opportunity arises. The presence of Diego Valeri may force Montreal to keep someone back to mark him, and Valeri also has a job to do to harry Bernier, if he plays in defensive midfield again, when he’s on the ball and try and force errors.
Pressing the Attack
To compensate for a lack of speed in defence, the Impact tend to play deeper and rely on their “old heads” to use their football intelligence to intercept and recover the ball before they ever have to resort to chasing or tackling.
Everyone all the backline is comfortable on the ball and, having been brought up in the Italian system, if you give Nesta and Ferrari time, they can stroke it around very easily or look to launch a quick counter up to Pisanu, Mapp, Nyassi or Di Vaio. However, they can be pressed into errors as experience and ability will only cover you so far when you start to lose that vital split-second of foot speed.
There was an example early on where Seattle almost profited from putting the Impact defence under pressure. Perkins’ big criticism at Portland was his poor distribution of the ball, and it’s interesting to see that at Montreal he plays more short passes or throws out to defenders, presumably to counter the fact that his kicking isn’t great.
By pressing the backline, Seattle force Ferrari back to Perkins (1), Perkins returns it to Ferrari (2) and Ferrari looks up the line for Brovsky (3) who is pressured into a mistake, from which Seattle almost score. It’s in these situations that Portland’s pressing game could really bear fruit.
Similar to the Seattle chance, should Montreal try and play from the back, Portland are well set-up to press them back and force an error or turnover. With Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan (presuming the same starting line-up at Sunday) pressing the two centre-backs and goalkeeper and Diego Valeri keeping a close eye on Bernier, the Timbers can force Montreal down the channels, or into going long.
Having forced Montreal outwide, more pressing by the full-back and close marking by the midfield and attack limit their options, with (in this example) Nagbe and Johnson moving into place should the ball be given up to execute a quick one-or-two pass attack.
With Montreal likely to set up with two tight banks of 4, and Bernier sandwiched between harrying and pressing, it may be difficult for Portland to play their way through while still being mindful of keeping it tight in defence. Pressing deep in the Montreal half can force a turnover that does away with the need for Valeri or Nagbe to pull a rabbit from a hat, though a bit of magic from either wouldn’t go amiss!
(It’s Just Like) Starting Over
So, how do the Portland Timbers line up? I would expect the same starting 11 from last week, but would not be surprised to see Alhassan rested in favour of someone who might give a little more “bite” to the pressing.
Freddie Piquionne is still waiting on a visa to join up with the team, so I would expect Ryan Johnson to continue as the #9 though he would be prefect to play out wide in a game like this as he brings a strong defensive ethic to his attacking instincts. I expect Porter will stick with what he knows, and what’s worked so far, than risk throwing Trencito in for a start at centre forward this early in the season.
I don’t expect a flurry of goals in this one. I do expect some nervy moments, some tension and frustration, but with a bit of patience and concentration I see no reason why the Timbers shouldn’t win this one. The first goal, if there is one, is vital and it’s here that the Timbers have to believe that the first half against New York really was the exception, and rely on the defence keeping the Impact out.