This will be shorter than usual, thanks to time constraints, but there should be a longer one looking back over the full 180 minutes against San Jose. C.I. DeMann did a good job hitting the main points in his Six Degrees article. Besides which, MLS Live is still blacked out here, so I can’t sit down and re-watch it. There’s a few points I’d like to expand on that aren’t covered by the highlights, so they’ll have to wait.
Following the win last week, confidence was high going into the game. San Jose have still to beat the Timbers in MLS, and the Timbers stretched that record for at least another week with a 1-0 win.
Others have written more eloquently about the whole Alan Gordon farrago so I’ll just link to my favourite take on the matter by Roberto at 5mTKO, and I’d prefer to write about football than the wankers LARPing as 1980s style hooligans.
So, on to the football. Well it’s another win, which is always welcome, and it pushes the Timbers up to 3rd in the table, which is nice even if it doesn’t mean much this early on. The actual game, well, it was a bit of a slog, especially in comparison to the Houston match. It might not seem that way to glance at the stats, where you would see the Timbers’ highest possession figure of the season and that they had outshot the Earthquakes by 11-6.
A second glance though starts to hint at the problems the Timbers had. In terms of shots on target, San Jose had the upper hand by 3-2, and, perhaps most crucially, they won the “duels”, erm, duel by 55%-45%. The reason this figure has, in my opinion, a particular influence on the Timbers in this match was that Caleb Porter’s game plan seemed to be predicated on winning the majority of those battles.
First off, what is a duel? Well, Mr Opta defines a duel as a “50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match”, so you’re two big guys going to head the same ball, or the 50/50 challenge on the ground.
Secondly, why did the fact the Timbers lost these battles by 71-54 matter so much when the Timbers are a passing team, who look to (and usually do) control possession?
Well, as Porter himself has said in interviews, the Timbers aren’t one thing. There is, really, no such thing as Porterball. The game plan will change from week to week, and while some aspects will remain constant, the whole demeanour of play can change dramatically depending on circumstance.
Against San Jose the Timbers were a long ball team, more often than you might expect. The most marked example of this change in attacking philosophy is in the distribution of Donovan Ricketts.
Ricketts’ figures were broadly the same from Houston to San Jose: he went long (ie, over the halfway line) 63.6% of the time against Houston, 68% against San Jose; recorded passes went from 22 to 25, and overall success rose from 54.6% to 56%. Not much to write home about, but when you compare the two side-by-side it’s pretty cleat that Ricketts went longer against San Jose, and more of those balls were aimed directly down the middle, rather than trying to get it to the wide attackers.
There’s are three main reasons why Porter might’ve wanted the keeper to go direct. Reason 1, he perceived an aerial weakness in the heart of the San Jose defence. Reason deux, he wanted to take the weight off Futty Danso, whose ball skills might not be the greatest. Reason III, he just wanted to change it up and catch San Jose off guard.
To be fair to Futty, despite my pre-match concerns that he was the weak link at the back by some margin, he put in a decent showing. Got caught out a couple of times, but never panicked and his distribution was actually pretty decent – he had the same number of passes as Silvestre (47), but was successful with one more (41-40).
That Ricketts’ rockets hit their target more often against San Jose than against Houston (35.3% to 28.6%) didn’t translate into goal scoring chances. If you were to look at Ryan Johnson’s figures in that zone where Ricketts’ was mortering, he had 1 successful flick-on and 4 that were unsuccessful. So, even when Johnson was winning the ball, the Timbers weren’t really profiting from “going long”.
Winning the aerial duel is only half the battle though, as oftimes winning the second ball is more important. To get a sense of how the Timbers did in this regard we can look at “Recoveries”, defined by Mr Opta as “where a player wins back the ball when it has gone loose or where the ball has been played directly to him”.
For comparisons sake I’ve also included the same data from the Houston match. It should be pretty obvious that the Timbers weren’t winning enough of these loose balls in the San Jose half, so even if Johnson’s challenge was enough to put a defender off-balance, it mattered naught because the Timbers weren’t picking up the “second ball”.
Darlington Nagbe played long spells of the game as a second striker, but failing profit from the quick ball forward simply left him too far forward to really get involved. It was only when he dropped off that he seemed to come alive.
This failure to get the attacking players involved as much left us looking a bit like a paper tiger at time. All very impressive when you’re sweeping the ball around, but lacking any real bite. The possession the Timbers did have didn’t really force San Jose to exert themselves greatly to close down, which rendered much of the Timbers play impotent. If we’d been really working them, and making them hustle, even if we weren’t creating clear cut chances there and then you’d at least feel that it would pay off late in the game, but I never got the sense that San Jose were having to work particularly hard.
As you can see in this chart, the Timbers managed to get 3 attacking players – Johnson, Nagbe and Wallace – involved more than most against Houston, but in this last match only Wallace remains, and he had more of a defensive onus on him with Wondolowski playing on the right of the San Jose midfield/attack.
What we also saw was less of the high pressing we’ve seen from Porter’s team. This may have been part of the overall attacking strategy in that it was designed to allow San Jose to play a little further forward, hopefully opening up the space in behind for Nagbe to profit from a Johnson flick-on. It never happened, and by the time the Timbers did get the goal it was very difficult to change tack and go for the jugular as they did against the Dynamo, instead looking to bunker down during an, at times, nervy last few minutes against nine men and a hobbit.
I doubt we’ll see the same strategy next week from Porter’s boys. We may see more of a return to the high-press, fast-pass style, or Porter may yet have more rabbits to pull out of the hat.
Yet, despite it not quite working as he’d have liked, Porter still ended the night with another “W” on his record. At this stage, it’s good to see us winning without playing particularly well for long stretches of the game. With a makeshift defence and the team’s most creative player not in the 18, Porter’s boys found some way to get through it and beat last year’s Supporters Shield winners while limiting them to their fewest shots at goal since the opening day of 2012.
That’s not bad going. Not bad, at all.