Four games into the 2013 season and the Timbers have been behind by two goals in three of them, coming back to snatch a couple of points from the jaws of defeat.
The Timbers have also been behind by a couple of goals on their previous three trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and had shown none of the determination to get back into the game that Caleb Porter’s team did this time around. Rather than go to the customary 3-0 defeat, the Timbers rallied to draw 2-2 thanks to two goals from Will Johnson.
There’s something to be said for that kind of resilience. I’m not sure we’d get it in previous season, and I certainly don’t think we’d get the tactical changes by Caleb Porter that have, mostly, worked to turn a match around in Portland’s favour.
But, there’s also something to be said for not gifting teams a couple of goals head start before trying to reel them in. The Timbers have been schizophrenic this season, with two almost entirely different sides seemingly starting and finishing the games.
To underline the disparity, if points were awarded for winning individual halves the Timbers would have zero from all the first halves, and a goal difference of 1-6, but would have won three and drawn one of the second halves, outscoring the opposition 6-2.
Losing five goals in the opening two matches, winning only one point from a home doubleheader, seems to have chastened Porter somewhat. The return to fitness of Jack Jewsbury has allowed the coach to adopt a strategy that stays true to his fundamental beliefs in ball retention and tactical flexibility while looking add a bit more defensive protection by playing the club captain as a deep lying midfielder.
Jewsbury played his part in the Timbers’ draw in Seattle, so his inclusion against Colorado came as little surprise. It seemed to make perfect sense in terms of Porter’s strategy in playing at altitude. Keeping the ball, and making the Rapids players hustle after it was a part of it, and the team played a little deeper and pressed less, presumably to conserve energy.
The problem was that we never really made Colorado work all that hard without the ball. Part of the reason was that our passing was so poor at times we simply gave them the ball back, and let them control the tempo of the game.
The two halves against Colorado see the Timbers record their lowest PPM this season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passing accuracy against the Rapids was also at an all time low. Colorado never managed a PPM of over 5 either, as the game was played at a much slower tempo than either of the home matches this season.
While much of the Timbers’ passing woes were self-inflicted, the Rapids also did a good job of pressing the Timbers backline. Porter quickly had to adjust the way the team brought the ball out of defence.
Clearly, after seeing the pressure the Rapids were putting on in the first ten minutes, the signal went out to Ricketts to go long. A subsequent attempt to play out from the back also led to the opening goal for the Rapids in 17 minutes.
It’s easy to criticise Jewsbury here because he’s the guy who’s nearest, but not near enough, to the shot from Powers, so the initial question is “why didn’t he close the shot down?” Chara lending himself to harrying after the ball in the corner left Jewsbury with two players to keep an eye on, and he does what he can to close the shot down but it was a helluva strike. Do this play over again and Jewsbury gets a block in, or the ball is ballooned over the bar.
I don’t even think it’s Chara’s fault. He was doing his job in a system that asked him to be something different from moment to moment. Played in the middle with Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury, the way the team were set up with attackin width from Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, Chara also had to cover across to the right-side as Valeri doesn’t bring a great defensive game to an unfamiliar position on the right flank.
He was doing that there, looking to help turn the ball over in a dangerous area. The problem is that despite recognising the need to add some defensive steel to the team, Porter hasn’t yet found the right blend.
To accommodate Jewsbury in the centre, we’ve sacrificed Valeri out wide. He’s played there for a bit against Montreal and Seattle already, and not really shown his best side in the role. The quandary for Porter is that Valeri’s ability makes it tempting to rely on him too much, and that to do so would make the team too one-dimensional and risk teams developing strategies solely to “deal” with Valeri. So we want to find ways to utilise his ability in ways and areas that make it much harder for opponents to adjust to, which makes sense, but as we do so we lose much of what he brings to the attack in the meantime, with no guarantee that Valeri will ever be suited to play the wide role in an attacking three.
There have been long spells in the past couple of games where you wouldn’t have known Valeri was on the pitch. In order to get involved in the play he has to come inside, and this leaves the team unbalanced down the right, pulling Chara across.
In the last match, this made it difficult for us to carve out decent chances at goal, in the first half especially. Since switching from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-2-2-1, we’ve closed up the defence a bit but lost some attacking thrust. Though we picked up a bit in the second half against the Rapids, it was still only half the number of shots we got off in the second half of the New York match.
Part of the problem is that Valeri isn’t a natural striker, and 26 goals in over 170 games before coming to Portland suggest he’s not the guy to make those runs. He works best in the “hole”, making the passes that pick out those attacking runs, but we’ve been unable to get him there in the past couple of matches.
It leaves Caleb Porter a selection headache and that headache’s name is Jack Jewsbury.
Part of the reason I questioned Jewsbury’s spot in the team was that I couldn’t see any way to fit him in that didn’t hurt us in some way. I put him behind Will Johnson and Diego Chara for a spot, but that’s not to say he doesn’t add to the team when he’s selected – a passing accuracy of 85% against Colorado is way above the team average, so in terms of circulating the ball well, he does okay. And I don’t blame him for the first goal for the Rapids.
However, in the 135 minutes that Jewsbury has played in the last couple of games, the Timbers have scored one and conceded three. In the 45 minutes he’s been on the bench, the Timbers are two-zero.
Clearly that’s far too small a sample to conclude anything major, and those 45 minutes have been when the Timbers a chasing down a single goal deficit, so you’d expect some more attacking play – hence Jewsbury’s removal for more attacking options of the bench.
In correcting for over-balancing in attack in the first couple of games, it seems we’ve slipped a little too far the other way. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that in fitting Jewsbury into the midfield three, we’re inevitably going to lose some of our attacking threat by asking them to do jobs they’re not best suited for.
Valeri out wide on the right didn’t work. Porter adjusted, adopting a diamond formation. Chara went right, and Valeri came back into the centre. Though this seems better designed to accommodate Jewsbury and still play Valeri in his best position, it then asked Nagbe to play a role he’s not suited to.
We’ve seen Darlington used in a variety of positions as Spencer tried to figure out how best to use him. For me, Nagbe’s key area is that area left of centre, 30 yards from goal. That’s where you want to see Nagbe getting his head up, with the ball at his feet, and running at defenders. You don’t want him 50 yards from goal, linking up play, though he can do that, and I don’t think you want it spearheading the attack. As I said, he’s a guy I want running at players with the ball, not timing runs in behind them.
If anyone knows how to get the best out of Nagbe, it’ll be Caleb Porter. He’s put him out left thus far, asking him to make those diagonal runs at goal. Somewhat underrated is Nagbe’s defensive game – he works hard out wide, and his tracking back is night and day to that of the Timbers’ other mercurial wide attacker, Kalif Alhassan.
He’s not a striker though, and Piquionne isn’t here to watch Nagbe play that position ahead of him too often this season.
The diamond really limits your wide attacking options, and puts a lot on the full-backs to do the leg work. Ryan Johnson will also drift wide to add to the threat, but with the 4-2-3-1 the opposition have to deal with runs either side of the full-back and a mobile striker.
To be fair, it was from Johnson (Ryan) drifting out wide that the Timbers got back into the game, after a somewhat questionable penalty decision had put the Rapids up 2-0. Johnson (Ryan) crossed a sweet left-footed ball to the near post, where Johnson (Will) lost his man to head home.
A case could be made that the value of playing a designated sitter in Jewsbury is that it frees Will Johnson and Diego Chara to be a little more forward thinking and spontaneous, but I didn’t see enough of this from either player to compensate for losing the extra attacker to play Captain Jack.
The problem is that despite being there to add defensive steel to the team, as long as there are issues behind Jack, goals will be lost despite him.
David Horst started in place of Mikael Silvestre, the only change from the Seattle game. Horst’s game is a little different to Silvestre’s, and perhaps not as suited to the possession style Porter wanted, especially as the Rapids harried the backline.
The natural assumption to make would be that Horst is 3rd in line, and that Silvestre will resume duties alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. That makes sense as Jean-Baptiste has started the season fairly well, and has most to learn from playing alongside Silvestre. There are still moments where his relative rawness is all too apparent, such as the lead up to Colorado’s second goal.
It’s a bit of rash play from a rookie defender, though I wonder if he does that with the Silvestre guiding him. The next time a similar ball comes across, I’m sure he makes the right choice. That’s part of the learning process, and it can be cruel at times but as long as they’re all new mistakes, and not the same ones over and over, then at least you’re learning from them.
Mosquera’s leave of absence puts a large question mark over his future, and Futty Danso looks to have fallen behind Dylan Tucker-Gangnes. I can’t help but bring to mind the scenes of David Brent in The Officfe specials, turning up at the old office uninvited when I think of Futty. *sadface*
So, a veteran, a couple of rookies and a host of guys who served time on one of the league’s worst defences last season. It’s not rich pickings, and finding the right balance and system that minimises our defensive deficiencies without also sacrificing our attacking verve isn’t going to be done in a few games.
Is Jack Jewsbury the answer? I’m not sure he is, but the fact is the Timbers return from two tricky road trips unbeaten. Can’t say that’s been the case too often. That we’re still doing things the hard way is concerning, though. It may be that until we settle on a back five, and they start to find a rhythm together, we’ll see more performances like this.
It comes as no real surprise though. I wrote before the season that I thought we’d see a more pragmatic approach from Porter early on. It was easy in those days to get carried away with videos from Akron and speculation about what Porter would bring to the Timbers.
As Caleb Porter himself has noted, it’s a results business at the end of the day. I don’t think the Timbers would be over the top in their expectations for this season given the scale of the turnover, but there’s no reason why they can’t find themselves in contention for being one of the five best of nine Western Conference teams.
These early months will see a lot of tinkering and experimentation to find the right balance, but if the Timbers are to reach the playoffs, they need to stay in contention through a very tough schedule. The next four matches see the Timbers play 2012 playoff teams. If the Timbers have grind out some wins through the next eight games or so, there’s no reason why they can’t push on as the schedule eases up through the run-in.
With two home matches coming up, Caleb Porter has the chance to spend that extra bit of time with the players on some issues. How Porter lines up will tell us a lot about how far along the coach himself feels the team are. We could see Jewsbury start, and give the diamond another go, or perhaps at the expense of Diego Chara who has been at about 85% of his old Chara-ness for me – still better than most, but just a little down of his usual standards. Perhaps we’ll see Alhassan recalled, or Piquionne start with Johnson going wide, and we revert to the 4-2-3-1.
I suspect what we’re seeing right now is the very reason Jack Jewsbury is still on the roster. He’s not the future of the team, and his presence is somewhat awkward is some respects, but he can help with the transition towards the team that the Timbers will be.
The Porter era was labeled “Timbers 2.0” by some, but really what he have right now is more a pre-release Alpha. Timbers 2.0 will actually be launched sometime during Q2 or Q3 of 2013.
It’d be nice to win, and damn entertaining, to win 4-3, but right now I’d take a scrappy 1-0 with the ball cannoning in off a defender’s knee as long as it represents a step towards a bright future without having to sacrifice results.