Best Laid Plans

Valencia’s miss wasn’t part of the script. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. It was meant to flash off his boot, beyond the despairing Troy Perkins and into the roof of the net, setting off a riot of noise and smoke in the massed ranks of the Timbers Army only yards away.

That was what should’ve happened.

What did happen was Trencito’s tame effort was easily saved by a grateful Perkins, and moments later the referee’s whistle signaled the end of a very fruitful week in Cascadia for Montreal Impact, and left the Timbers with a sole point to show for an opening home double header.

There was another storyline-in-waiting out there late night. The stage seemed set upon Perkins’ return for him to outshine Donovan Ricketts, and I’m sure there were at least a couple of people in the organization who feared that happening more than anyone.

Despite hearing a few folks on the way home expressing sadness or anger at having traded Perkins for Ricketts, the fact is that Ricketts actually had a pretty good game. He came up big a couple of crucial moments, and he had no chance with the two goals Montreal scored.

The first goal, a looping overhead by Camara after the Timbers failed to clear a set piece, was simply a very good (or very lucky) strike that rendered Ricketts a spectator. The second goal came from such short range that there was little but hope to get lucky that Ricketts could do.

The match ended 2-1 in favour of the visitors, who have to be credited with a display that was as resolute and disciplined in defence as you’re likely to see in MLS.

Nevertheless, it’s another game where the Timbers have dominated possession and territory but lost the opening goal, fallen behind by two and been left chasing the game.

I had a sense going into the game that the first goal would decide this match. Scoring first is always a good thing to do, but given the way this game was set-up, I felt that here it would be decisive.

The reason for that was that both teams fit together like puzzle pieces. One one hand you have the attacking, possession-based Timbers, on the other the defensive, counter-attacking Impact.

Had Portland gotten the first goal it could’ve drawn the Impact out of their 4-1-4-1 shell, allowing Portland to pick holes in their defence.

The first goal, when it did come off the boot of Camara, meant Montreal were able to focus on getting numbers behind the ball and letting Portland push on further, with the hope of springing a quick counter for a second goal.

That goal came an hour in when Will Johnson gave up possession on a poor pass in midfield.

montreal2goal

The pass from Bernier was very well weighted, but the move highlighted a couple of issues for the Timbers last night.

The Easiest Position

Caleb Porter clearly wants to see his full-backs pushed on and contributing to keeping an attack going, even if they’re not necessarily the guys we’re looking to to hit the byline and get the cross in. This is especially true with Michael Harrington who is hampered by being a naturally right-footed player playing on the left side.

This limits Harrington’s options in those final twenty yards to the byline, inevitably forcing him inside to his right foot to whip it to the back post.

Ryan Miller is at least on his natural side, and plays an attacking game, but on a night when his touch and passing seemed to be off, he becomes more of a liability than an asset.

passingaccuracyMiller wasn’t the only guy to see his pass accuracy dip from last week, but his was the sharpest fall. 21.4% fewer passes reached their man, and each of Miller’s defensive colleagues also saw their numbers dip.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste continues to impress on the defensive side, developing into a very promising defender, but his on-the-ball work still needs a bit of refinement. Despite getting some minutes last season, he’s still got a lot to learn, and picking when to go long is one of those things that will come from more work on the training ground and more game minutes. For me, there’s still a few too many “Spencerballs” lofted forward in a seemingly indiscriminate way.

To return to the outside backs, Porter likes to see them pushed on and involved at the best of times, even moreso when the team are chasing a goal as in Montreal’s second goal.

It’s a high-wire act as you have to balance the defence and attack, and be especially wary when facing a team that is built to counter-attack. The cheap giveaway by Johnson caught Harrington and Miller up the field, giving the Impact a 4-on-2 against Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste.

The ball takes Silvestre out of the centre, and with no-one else getting back in time, the finish is a pretty routine one for Felipe.

Montreal Win The Battle

The other issue I think the goal above reflects is the change in system that Porter implemented at half-time. I wrote in my post on the New York game that Porter had made several tweaks at half-time that brought out the best in his team, leading to a stirring comeback. He was busy again this week, with more marked changes.

formationchange

The above shows the average positions for each player during the first half, and the first 25 minutes of the second.

Ben Zemanski made his Timbers debut, replacing Kalif Alhassan at half-time, as Porter sought to find a way through the massed ranks in blue.

It was more than a simple personnel change though, as it brought with it a change in formation. The previous 4-3-3, which takes more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, became a 4-1-2-2-1 with Zemanski dropping behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara and Diego Valeri vacating his central role for Alhassan’s previous station on the right.

Pre-game, I’d highlighted the midfield battle as being key to the game. Montreal, in the first half at least, won the battle and, by making the changes he did, Caleb Porter seems to have thought so too.

We’ve been here before, of course. There were times under John Spencer when the Timbers would seemingly roll into a match without giving the opposition’s tactics a second thought. This bloody-minded “let’s make them adjust to our tactics” approach is all well and good when you have the talent to pull it off, but when you have the roster of an, at best, mid-table team, then a bit of preparation and adjustment goes a long way.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers are a better technical squad than Spencer’s, and having run into a situation where his tactics weren’t working against an opponent that was doing it’s work well, Porter didn’t vacillate on making a change. He was decisive and made a bold choice to get Valeri out of the middle – and away from Bernier – and pit him against the (for Montreal’s defence) relatively inexperienced Jeb Brovsky, right under the noses of a riled-up Timbers Army.

The game was marked by the lack of space allowed by Montreal, and the attacking three of Nagbe-Valeri-Alhassan were stifled by it in the first half, where every halfway heavy touch, or marginally off-target pass was pounced upon by a blue shirt and cleared from danger.

The addition of Zemanski would also go someway to denying Montreal space to work in front of the Timbers defence, an area where Di Vaio, Felipe and Arnaud had gotten some joy in the first half.

Wary of quick counters, Silvestre and Jean-Baptiste played a fraction deeper to kill any space over the top. Where playing a little deeper had had a knock-on effect that seemed to throw the attack out of sync against New York, it worked here because Zemanski’s presence there kept it glued together.

However, by essentially ceding that central attacking midfield zone, the Timbers allowed Bernier a bit of freedom. Now, if you’re playing a team who have a “destroyer” in there, someone whose sole job is to win back the ball, you can make this move and take him out of the game because he has little to contribute to their attack.

Bernier is a little different. He can play. Credit to Montreal for staying disciplined, and Bernier for not getting carried away and abandoning his post – a luxury afforded by being a goal up – but that didn’t stop the player moving up when the opportunity arises, as it did when Will Johnson gave the ball away an hour in.

With Valeri in the middle, maybe Bernier still moves forward to play that pass, but with no-one there, there was no reason for him not to.

It’s perhaps telling that Porter’s next change saw him abandon this new shape in favour of how the Timbers started – Zemanski going to right back to replace the out-of-sorts Miller, Trencito taking over out right and Valeri returning to the centre.

Portland would eventually get their goal from Ryan Johnson, who caught Camara sleeping on a Ben Zemanski ball to the back post, and would come close to an equaliser, but it wasn’t to be.

Before all that though, Montreal had a chance to go 3-0 up, but were thwarted by Michael Harrington on the line.

Communication Breakdown

pooroffside

The chance above is a simple case of a defence out of sync. Entirely to be expected given the turnover there this off-season, but still annoying to see.

Silvestre steps up, leaving his man free. No-one else does. In a flash, Montreal have gone from having seven Timbers outfield players between the ball and goal, to a one-on-one against Ricketts.

The team are still seeking the right balance at the back, but Porter’s options are rather limited. For sure, the club have a lot of centre-backs on their roster, but I’d harbour doubts about Horst or Danso playing this kind of system, and Mosquera’s standing in the squad seems unclear, at best. That leaves Tucker-Gangnes, but Porter may be resistant to throwing the rookie into a system that is still being figured out.

Paying the Penalty

The Timbers continued their long streak without a penalty, having gone the entire 2012 campaign without getting a single spot kick, despite what many fans thought was a clear foul on Ryan Miller.

The incident happened shortly before half-time, and in waving it away, referee Edvin Jurisevic denied the Timbers a chance to go in at the break on level-terms.

For me, it looks like a penalty. There’s not a great deal in it, but it certainly seems like the Montreal player instigates contact with no real attempt to play the ball. Ryan Miller perhaps goes down a little too easily, but the referee doesn’t seem to have thought he’d dived since he didn’t book him, so he must’ve read the contact was fair.

He wasn’t (or was he?) helped by his assistant, who should’ve had a good view of the incident, and neither was he helped by being so far behind the play.

refereeposition

The referee starts running when he is about 13 yards behind the ball. It takes approximately 4.1 seconds from here till Miller is bundled over.

Going by the general fitness test standards for a professional referee (sustained running at around 4.5 yards/sec, and sprinting at 6.6 y/s). Let’s be generous and say that Jurisevic is one of the faster, fitter refs, meaning that you would expect him to travel between 23 and 35 yards from his starting spot until contact is made in the box. This would leave him, at best, a good 25 yards behind play, on the “blind side” of any push.

Running Out Of Time

Caleb Porter and this team are not going to be judged on these first few matches, but the longer that the same old mistakes are made, the tougher it becomes to keep a long-term focus on the project.

Porter has shown a willingness to change it up, and adjust as the game is flowing to find an advantage for his team which is a definite step forward. Some of the passing is nice to see, and there are times when the attack really clicks, and it become a joy to watch. There are some positives, for sure, but the worry is that despite shaking up the defence, we’re still making the same mistakes.

Montreal also posed the question of what Porter would do when a team set-up with the sole purpose of letting his team have the ball fifty yards from goal, then killing the game when they got anywhere near the box. In that regard, I might give Porter a C, maybe even a B-. He made a bold stroke to change the game, and got caught out by a loose pass in midfield, and then changed back and came within a swing of the boot from grabbing a last-gasp draw.

Having given the lesson, other teams will have noted how Montreal managed to do what the much more expensively assembled New York couldn’t, and muzzled Portland’s attack for much of the game.

In what seems like some kind of wooden spoon play-off, both the sides that Montreal beat will face each other next week, but it’s no wooden spoon at stake, it’s the Cascadia Cup.

Portland travel to face Seattle next week knowing that there would be no better time to record Caleb Porter’s first MLS win. Seattle have the distraction of Champion’s League football before then, but there’s little doubt that the Timbers will face a massive test in the kind of game that gets remembered.

RCTID

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15 thoughts on “Best Laid Plans

  1. My question for those more knowledgeable. It seemed last night that we could not get one-touch passes working inside the 18. Instead of crisp exchanges we saw lots of two- and three-touches with even some dribble attempts thrown in.

    It also seemed to my untrained eye that we were reluctant to take a shot without a give-and-go from another player. Could it be that Montreal picked this up on the films and concentrated more on disrupting either of those anticipated passes than on defending against the first player’s direct shot?

    That is, in the second half I began to wonder why our forwards were losing the passes so frequently in front of the net. Then I focused on the Montreal defenders. They seemed to be cheating toward the pass rather than fully filling the ball-path to the net. The give-and-go is effective to catch up defenders,unless they are expecting it. Then upon the pass the defender steps up to intercept the return pass.

    I am willing to be wrong here, which is why I am putting this in question form.

    1. there’s no point at shooting if its just going to be blocked by the defenders. everyone around me was screaming “just shoot it” all night long. but nagbe and valeri were both receiving the ball with their back to goal and as soon as they turned there were mtl defenders everywhere. forcing a shot just to have it blocked is essentially the same thing as passing it right to an opposing player. gotta work for shots that actually have a chance at beating the keeper. the end goal is to score a goal, not rack up “shots” or “attempts on goal” or “corners.” the only clear shots they were giving us were harrington from about 20 yards out, and he clearly isn’t comfortable trying one from that range.

      1. I agree. Montreal, especially with a lead to defend, were set up very tight at the back. There were a couple of shots in the second half where Timbers shots were blocked, or enough pressure was applied that they were never “clean” shots at goal.

        Defending late on, they had 10 outfield players in their own half, and really packed the space in front of and in the box so that the only way we were going to get through was by some amazing skill from Valeri or Nagbe, a set play or by switching it quickly and looking to get Johnson (and Trencito when he came on) one-on-one with the full-back, rather than the guys in the middle.

        Brovsky and Camara are decent players, while Nesta and Ferrari were great players, but there’s still a clear talent differential between the two pairs. It was Johnson catching Camara asleep as the back post that got the Timbers their goal, and then Nagbe beat Camara and set up Valencia who was free of Brovsky for the latest chance.

        I think the recognition that we faced a core to Montreal’s defence and midfield that was packed with experience and quality led to the change at half time, and why Valeri went wide early on in the second half – to attack the (relative) weak spots in the Montreal defence.

      2. Camara may be a decent player, but he shut down Nagbe all game long.

        Valeri’s moving wide didn’t really work as he just drifted inside. In retrospect, I’d almost have thrown Will Johnson out there and moved Valeri back into a deep-lying playmaker role – let him spray passes to Harrington, Nagbe, Will Johnson and Miller on the outside, and have them start crossing it into the box earlier.

      3. I think the fact that Porter changed back to the system we started with tells you that it wasn’t entirely successful, but at least he tried to switched it up and find another way through than just beating his head off the wall time and time again.

        Camara did a decent job in defence, but you’re more likely to catch him sleeping for a moment than the guys in the middle, and so it was with the Timbers goal, and Nagbe blowing past him so easily late on for Trencito’s chance.

        Alhassan was pretty anonymous for much of the first half, Valeri isn’t suited out wide, and in Harrington on the left we had a right-footed guy who didn’t seem to have the confidence in his left foot to go past his man on the outside and work a cross from the byline, so we struggled to really use that extra width at Jeld-Wen this season. Bad week for Zizzo to get injured, and I’m surprised we didn’t see Wallace on sooner after it became 2-0 and the need for a way through became greater.

      4. I understand. But I was talking about the team mechanisms of shooting, or something like that. Porter’s system uses a lot of “A passes short to B, who passes back to A who shoots”. In fact, most of the shots seemed to do this.

        Later in the game I watched the Montreal defenders more closely. It appeared to me (again, an untrained eye) that the defenders were anticipating that short pass-and-back and were defending as if they knew the player would not take the first shot, that the Timber would HAVE to pass to another then get it back to shoot.

        This enabled them to shift slightly so that instead of, say 70-30 defending against the shot vs. the pass, it went 40-60. So while the shooting lane was covered, it seemed they were so confident the Portland player would make that short pass that they could disregard to a point the threat of the direct shot to focus on intercepting that short pass back.

        Thus, Portland player A gets into the 18 and passes to B, who passes back to A who shoots or tries to shoot. Last year, player A might have tried shooting instead of the quick pass, and player B might have passed to player C or tried shooting himself. This year, that first AB-BA pattern became predictable.

        Or are there really not pink elephants lining the backline?

      5. Looking back at the NY game, the Timbers shot long quite a bit (and got two goals from those as a result). Even in the Montreal game the Timbers shot from long, they just didn’t put it on goal very well, either because of blocked shots or because they sent the balls into the stratosphere (a la Zemanski).

        In this game, the Montreal defense was so tight that the Timbers had to keep passing it off. They were turned away from goal quite a bit to receive the ball as well and were trying to hit players making runs. Long runs down the middle, or into the middle from the sides were difficult with the way they packed, and I feel like those are the plays that often result in a long attempt on goal. Montreal was asking to be attacked down the wings with crosses which our fullbacks have shown not to be great at so far this season, plus we don’t have great presence in the middle except for Ryan Johnson and even then he’s being marked by one of the two big CBs.

  2. I think that you’re correctly seeing a tendency (that Montreal seems aware of) for Portland attackers to opt for the pass-off rather than the shot. I think that this is why our coaches have said that they wish Nagbe, for instance, was more selfish in his play. He always looks to pass instead of seeing himself as the shot taker. What makes it more frustrating with him is that he’s physically equipped to burst ahead enough to get the opening for more snap shots.

    Other than Valeri, our mids are not comfortable shooters. Is it lack of confidence, or knowledge they just can’t do it except at very close range?

    1. its hard to get it up and down over the d from 20 yards out. everything trying to go through was being blocked. nagbe an valeri were mostly receiving the ball with the back to goal. gotta try to get a defender leaning wrong or flat footed and pass through it, that’s the only way.

  3. I think Bucky has a point here; against a bunker you HAVE to be able to gets shots on frame from distance to pull the midfielders away from the backline and open space. Instead the Boys kept trying to play Porterball and force the pass inside; with seven or eight Italians (or did it just SEEM like that many…) within a step that won’t work and it didn’t.

    I honestly wouldn’t have given Porter much above a C or even a C- last night. A maybe give Schällibaum the A- for coming in with a game plan that worked and a team disciplined enough to make it work. But regardless of credit or blame the bottom line was that a bunker defense trying to string together a series of short passes is nearly impossible. The speed with which the defenders can – and did – close down means that every possession in or near the 18 is likely to result in loss of the ball, and the more passes the more opportunities for getting one picked off or tackled away. I thought that Porter as a “student of the game” would have come up with alternatives; packing the 18 and lobbing in short, soft chips, trying multiple diagonal runs, or (as above) shooting on frame from 20-25 yards. Instead we kept trying to force the ball inside. IT worked, once, but since we’d already shipped two, well…

    Hopefully the backline is coming together. Because otherwise it will be another long, long season…

  4. Two games on the road, six points, nearly two shutouts. Considering what they did the first two weeks of the season, can we consider Montreal a legitimate MLS Cup contender?

    1. I personally don’t think so. We’ve seen many teams that come out of the gate playing a strict, tactical game that works until other teams figure out how to unlock it. They may still have a good showing this year, but they’ll have to do a lot more than sit back and counter game-in and game-out to be a contender. They probably will, but we need a lot more time to see WHAT more they do, HOW MUCH more they do, and how well it works before we have even the slightest idea of their chances, I think.

  5. I agree with TimberGreen. The way that Montreal upset the high and mighty last week opened some eyes. (Hey, we at least scored against Montreal).

    But as you get into the season two things start to happen: (1) there are fewer surprises because you have to prep for one or two games almost every week, and when you get a break it is likely some of your key players won’t be there; (2) the timing and fluidity of play between mates improves. Thus early in the season it is much easier to bunker in against a team because it requires split-second coordinated activity to beat the bunker. The further you get in the season the more likely it is that the bunker will face a duo or trio of players who can work so closely together that they can take advantage of even small holes in the defense.

    The one exception might be if Montreal has the combination of talent that allows them to score regularly WHILE pulling off the bunker thing defensively. Lots of defensive-minded teams end up losing 0-1 for it only takes one goal to beat a team that doesn’t score.

    So my question is, was last week and this week a fluke, or will this Italy-North team with the Swiss coach be able to consistently score 1-3 goals a game while bunkering in? If they can, they will be dangerous.

    Another way of asking the question, was Montreal this weekend a bigger threat to us than was New York?

    1. I’d say yes, Montreal is a bigger threat. NY didn’t impress me nearly as much. Two of their goals were lucky and their D was crap. Both of Montreal’s goals were legit and their D is sensational.

      But as Timber Green pointed out so sagely, it’s still early days. Every team in the league will adjust, adapt, and evolve. Every GOOD team, that is.

  6. We have definitely shown that we are vulnerable to the quick counter attack. Teams that clog the middle and are designed to counter will be more difficult for this team to deal with. We have never been very effective with the long shot so it makes sense for teams to challenge us to beat them with it. If we could find a right back that has a consistent cross we could spread the field better. Miller seems to get most of his blocked.

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