Nine games into 2013, and so far the Timbers have started four different players at right back, as well as two guys at left back, neither of whom are natural left backs. Crisis, right?
This mirrors, somewhat, the situation in the centre of defence where calamity has piled upon catastrophe and confusion to leave the club in a situation where Donovan Ricketts, a man who seemingly runs the risk of straining a shoulder brushing his teeth, as the one constant figure on the back line. We’re screwed, yeah?
In past years this defensive crisis would have been the point as which Timbers fans buckled in for another bumpy ride, but this year the team are on a seven game unbeaten run, with three clean sheets in the last five games.
So how has Porter got his defence working despite the fact that all common sense is telling us that it shouldn’t?
The coach got a rude awakening in the first couple of matches, losing five goals and gaining a single point from two home games.
In those early couple of games the Timbers played with their full-backs as auxilliary wingers. Both Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller were upgrades of what the team had there before, but both ran into familiar problems in trying to play such an attacking system against teams, Montreal especially, who are happy to sit in and hit on the counter.
New England’s game plan was very similar to Montreal’s, but they left with only a point. Progress, but learning how to deal with these kind of ‘we’ll sit here, break us down if you can’ teams will become an increasing factor for Porter’s team as their reputation grows as a team to be respected and feared.
Porter had his full backs play a little more conservatively after the opening couple of games, replacing Miller with Zemanski in the starting line-up and reining Harrington back a little.
This system served them well over the next couple of games and, following a tweak that saw Jewsbury replace Zemanski, they picked up a couple of home wins and clean sheets. This despite those four games seeing four different centre-back pairings start.
This stability was coming at the cost of attacking incision. There was plenty of pressure, sure, and certainly a chance or two, definitely, but most of it was reliant on someone producing a bit of something special to spark the attack into life and you can only rely on that so often. The introduction of Rodney Wallace against Houston added a,for some,surprising source of this attacking“x factor”.
Where Valeri is the maestro, looking to conduct delicate symphonies with the ball, Wallace is the rocker who kicks the door down and just does his thing without a care. His direct running, and ability to dovetail nicely with Valeri, Nagbe and Johnson, causes nightmares for defences when he’s on form, and he gives the team someone is attack who will happily attack round the outside as well as coming in.
Nagbe doesn’t really offer this on the right side, as he is much more at home cutting into the middle. Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri have popped up there on occasion, but you’d prefer both to do their work in the middle the park.
Neither Zemanski or Jewsbury offered as much of an attacking presence down the right as Miller had. The sacrifice was worth it for the sake of adding some defensive stability as Jewsbury’s extra body at the back helped mask problems in the middle.
However, as the team emerged from an impressive four point double header against San Jose, Caleb Porter faced up to the problem down the wings. The previous four games, while bringing in eight points, had seen the team record their four lowest shot tallies of the season so far.
It wasn’t as simple as getting Jewsbury to attack, or even bringing back Ryan Miller, because the positive effect Jack had on the defence seems to outweigh any supposed benefit you’d get from Miller over Jewsbury in attack, or asking Jack to do something un-Jack like attack.
The change Porter made seems so obvious in hindsight, but before that…
Michael Harrington had shown in those early couple of matches that he could play as an attacking, over-lapping full-back without neglecting his defensive duties. This is important as much of Portland’s plan is predicating on keeping the ball, yes, but also on winning it back quickly. In “Statement of the Obvious of the Week’, the Timbers do best when the opposition don’t have the ball.
The match against New York saw the visitors record 199 passes in the first half, but that half exists only as a nightmare where Silvestre forgot where or who he was for 45 minutes, so if you exclude it from the record, opponents that have fewer than 200 passes have scored once in over 300 minutes (the second half vs Montreal). The flipside being that we concede a goal a game in games where the opponents can average over 200 passes per half.
Both Jewsbury and Harrington made a big difference on defence. Despite playing the MLS Cup finalists and the Supporters Shield winners over three games, the Timbers restricted their opponents to an average of 192 passes per half, compared to the 203 over the first four matches.
Even as the Timbers dropped their own pace, going from 6.5 passes per minute across the first two matches to 5.3 in the next two, the fact they were able to starve the opposition of the ball was key to‘fixing’ the defence, and they did this by forcing the other team to misplace their passes, dropping their success rate from 72% in games one to four to 66% in the three games, leading up to Kansas City.
Porter wouldn’t want to sacrifice those defensive gains on a gamble that‘everything was all right now’. Despite Futty and Silvestre being due to start their third match in a row together, equalling the record of Jean-Baptiste and Silvestre, the coach wasn’t about to fall into the trap that a few good results meant that everything was fine back there.
Harrington had been an unsung hero over the season so far, overshadowed by bigger and flashier stories like that of Diego Valeri, or Ryan Johnson, or Will Johnson or Donovan ‘Save of the Week’ Ricketts, despite having all the hallmarks of a patented Portland disaster at left-back. A guy not playing in his natural position, on a back line that was in flux and coming off a season where it had set new standards for ineptitude. This shouldn’t work.
And yet it did, because, in a bold new strategy, the front office had gone out and signed someone good. Like, actually very compentent at kicking the football and running and such. It’s a revelation.
Still, there he was playing on the left when his natural position was on the right.
Porter’s idea was to switch him to the right, and put Jack on the left.
With Wallace in the side, the team didn’t need someone to go past him on the outside to lend width to attack, which keeps the opposing defence stretched across the field. We saw less of Harrington the wing-back and the lack of attacking thrust from Jewsbury down the right was hurting the attack in that it allowed teams to play tighter, negating space to our creative players in the centre.
The switch of full-backs allowed Porter to take the leash (somewhat) off Harrington, freeing him to attack more, while Jewsbury sat in on the left. On a single game basis against the Wizards, the strategy made sense – it put the more solid Jewsbury against Myers, while Harrington’s attacking threat might put the shackles on Zusi.
The team lost two goals, having lost one in the previous three matches, but they emerged from Kansas City with three points, becoming the first West Coast team to do so in their new stadium. Harrington gave a little more in attack, and Jewsbury did what Jewsbury does, only he did at on the left.
The switch from Harrington to Jewsbury on the left was pretty seamless, with Jack adding a little more passing stability, upping the success rate from Harrington’s average of 79.7% to 85.2%, with the biggest jump being passes from within his own half (74.9% to 83.3%).
The difference is on the other side, where we’ve seen someone more akin to the guy who started the season on the offensive, and that has helped the attack, without sacrificing defence because Jack’s got it covered.
New England was a frustrating match. The Timbers took more shots than any other match this season, but failed to score for the first time in 2013. The chances were there to win it, but poor finishing, good goalkeeping and bad luck combined to thwart the Timbers, while avoiding scares at the back too. We lose than game to a sickening late goal last year, is all I’m saying.
Games like this are going to happen along the way. Nagbe had an off day with a couple of glaring misses and bad choices, while we struggled to get any consistent interplay between attackers going. It wasn’t helped by the full-backs posting their lowest figures in attacking – the two players combining for only 17.8% of play in the opposing half, thanks to a drop from Harrington from 67% attacking play (passes in opposing half) to 52%.
I’m inclined to put this last match down to a dash of ‘bad night at the office’ syndrome and New England offering a style that Caleb Porter hasn’t quite found the answer to. Yet. He will, I’m sure.
I like Harrington at right back. I like him, flat out, regardless of his passionate hatred of children and small, frail puppies, but I think he offers than little bit extra at right back. I’m not sure where the leaves the defence though. Jewsbury is going nowhere, especially with the loss of Mikael Silvestre, so what roles Ryan Miller, Ben Zemanski and Ryan Kawulok have in the short-term at least is hard to say. Zemanski can at least fill in in midfield, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miller deployed in the ‘Wallace role’ on the right at some point, but it’s hard to put any of them before Harrington or Jewsbury. And then there’s Sal – Zizzo’s, inconclusive but mostly encouraging, try-outs as a right wing-back were not for shits and giggles.
Besides, we’ve been given a pretty good lesson on the value of depth, and we’d be fools not to heed it, so let’s not take the fact we have guys who can’t get in the team as a bad thing.
The gaffer’s bold, and innovative, choice to fix the defence from the outside-in by bringing some stability to the full-back, Jewsbury adding an ‘old head’ to the back four, worked and the switch of Harrington to the right is the right step on the way to ironing out the kinks in attack.
Given the injury to Silvestre, I doubt the full-back position will see much change over the next few matches. We may see them switch back to counter a specific threat, or exploit a perceived weakness, but I like Harrington and Jewsbury watching the flanks.
Now Caleb Porter has to fix the middle, having jerry-rigged it through the last couple of punishing matches. Pa Modou Kah, signed to play havoc with tweeters and bloggers who liked to abbreviate Alhassan’s name to #KAH as well as cover for the fact that we HAVE NO DEFENDERS, joins after a few years in the middle east. He’ll be 33 in July, and will cover for the 36-in-August Silvestre while he is out injured. At 22, you might have expected to see Dylan Tucker-Gangnes in there by now, certainly in leagues around the world, but still wet behind the ears from college he seems to be one for further down the line. The potential for four of the back five to be over-30 against FC Dallas is pretty high.
In setting a foundation to put the team in contention for the play-offs, Porter has turned to experience, and it’s those experienced players that have been among his best performers. Ricketts, Jewsbury, Silvestre and Harrington have all stepped up this year and, just as Porter’s tactical malleability is putting lie to the notion that the Timbers would be playing like a knock-off Barcelona every week, he is showing that he is much more than guy who only gets the best out of kids.
The Timbers have one home match in the next five, with two trips to Eastern Conference teams and a visit to Dallas to face a team with five win and four clean sheets in five home matches this season.
Porter’s team have already taken big strides this year, but getting a return from their trip to Texas may be his biggest step yet. Any result is likely to be built upon shutting their opponent down, but grabbing the all-important goal will rely on guys like Harrington and Jewsbury striking the right balance between defence and attack.