The Zizzo Experiment

Damn the Timbers determination to make sure that we couldn’t simply bask in the afterglow of a 4-0 win, trading a 26 year old Nigerian prospect for a 22 year old Argentine one in the days following.

To be honest, it seems like a fair trade to me, all sentiment from Bright Dike aside. The move for Piquionne seems like more than a stopgap-till-Dike and is a pretty clear indication of the type of “number nine” Caleb Porter wants in his team. Dike is potentially the MLS striker Boyd never quite was, but that doesn’t fit him into Porter’s thinking anymore than the Scot was ever likely to pull on green and white this year. Piquionne, Johnson, Valencia and even Nagbe are all highly mobile guys who, crucially, can play the ball into feet and work as part of an attacking system centered around the attacking midfielders. Dike will get goals for Toronto if he’s given a chance because, as we saw last season, even in a bad team he can cause havoc and profit from it, but to get the best from him you need to let him go be Dike and that isn’t part of Porter’s plans.

I honestly don’t know much about Urruti, so I guess I’ll have to wait and see there. Caleb Porter seems to know his stuff, so that’s good enough for me. I do “know” that he reportedly cost Toronto $1.3 million, which added to Valeri’s recent deal would put $4 million in the Timbers front line, before you even consider the likes of Nagbe, Wallace and Alhassan. Those are pretty impressive numbers and evidence that even if Porter and Wilkinson aren’t doing the headline grabbing transfer moves of the past, they are steadily putting the money on the pitch, and getting value for it which is a change.

Postscript: John Nyen has the definitive word on Bright Dike. One of us.


All this won’t distract me from my goal going into the match, which was to look at the performance of Sal Zizzo. The match against Toronto FC was the first time we saw the work started a year ago by Gavin Wilkinson put to the test in the league, with Zizzo starting alongside Jean-Baptiste, Kah and Harrington.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Portland were swamped with right backs, so much so that Ryan Kawulok was waived to make room for a central defender since it’s not like we didn’t already have Ryan Miller, Jack Jewsbury, Alvas Powell and Michael Harrington to cover us.

I have no doubt that Zizzo’s change from winger to full back is the reason that he was kept on the roster for 2013 as I don’t see much room for the old Sal Zizzo in Porter’s system. You have to put him behind Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe, Jose Valencia, Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri in getting a start in attack. Caleb Porter has made it clear that the roster won’t carry any fat, running it with an open spot through the summer and even sending the likes of Michael Nanchoff out on loan, so I don’t think there’s room for a sixth choice, old fashioned winger if he can’t bring something else to the table.

As a right back, Sal Zizzo makes more sense in Porter’s team than Jack Jewsbury. The addition of Alvas Powell has finally allowed Porter to mirror the attacking done down the left by Harrington, something he was probably hoping to see from Ryan Miller, but a slow re-acclimatization to MLS as well as injuries to himself and others throwing things into disarray forced Caleb and Gavin to dip into the market and fish out an 18 year old Jamaican wing back.

He still needed Zizzo, especially with Jewsbury and Miller struggling with injuries, Powell on international duty and Harrington is firmly entrenched at left back.

The first question was how he would do in tandem with Harrington. So much of Portland’s play calls on the full backs to work together to push and pull from the flanks, stretching and probing the opposing backline for weaknesses. Early on it was evident that the two had their roles worked out, with both pivoting in a one up/one back system.

There can be only one. Except when there is two. Sometimes none. It's pretty flexible, is what I'm saying.
There can be only one. Except when there is two. Sometimes none. It’s pretty flexible, is what I’m saying.

For much of the first half Harrington was the more front-footed full back, and the stats bear this out with 124 passes down the left flank in the first half compared to 72 down the right. There was a marked difference in the way Zizzo and Harrington were handling the ball in their own half in that first 45.

Zizzo Harrington passing 1H

Lambe, Russell, Earnshaw and Wiedeman's passing in the first half.
Lambe, Russell, Earnshaw and Wiedeman’s passing in the first half.
The Timbers seemed to a have a strategy to put pressure on Toronto’s right side, and it would make sense to lean up on the Harrington/Wallace partnership that we know works, but it would also seem that Toronto had the same idea, with much of their attacking play done of their left.

This would make sense for Toronto, and a couple of early lapses in marking could’ve given the Toronto players a sense that they could exploit this guy’s apparent weakness.

Zizzo Def Wobbles

In the end Zizzo, and Jean-Baptiste alongside him, stood up well to the pressure and helped deliver the team’s first clean sheet in a while. True, for all they may have pressed before the floodgates opened, Toronto aren’t the team you judge the quality of your defence by but Zizzo stuck to his job well, and ensured that we didn’t become too one-dimensional in our play.

I’m sure there was nothing in Zizzo having Porter right beside him for the first half, but I’m sure the coach would’ve been letting his full back know exactly how he was doing on there.

Zizzo Holding Back

Zizzo’s defensive work improved as the game went on, but is still very much a work-in-progress. With 4 interceptions he led the team, and was generally asked to much more defensively active than Harrington was down the left. This isn’t to say that he didn’t offer some upsides in attack too, as you might expect from a converted ex-winger.

Zizzo Attacking Width

This underlines another recent development that Porter has been able to institute that is built about a strong belief among the players that they can still find space when outnumbered and work the kind of quick pass and move play that would draw your opponent onto you. This was a feature of Portland’s best attack when it seemed that every pass was finding a Timbers player in at least a couple of yards of space. It would’ve been difficult to do this earlier in the year as players were still finding out about each other, and downright impossible in previous years where players lacked the technical ability or trust from above to pick it up.

These kind of moves were rare though, and we saw a more contained showing from Zizzo. Despite Porter mentioning in his halftime interview that he was seeking more attacking width, he either didn’t ask for it or get it from Zizzo.

Zizzo 2H push

This was a rare instance of Zizzo joining the attack, and his cross leads to the kind of calm defending you would expect from a team captained by the lesser Caldwell brother, but by and large the second 45 brought more of the same, just a bit moreso.

Zizzo Harrington passing 2HPorter got improved defensive distribution from Zizzo, and that was perhaps thanks in part to the likes of Earnshaw and Wiedeman looking to put pressure of Kah rather than Zizzo and AJB as well as, no doubt, a few words in the full backs ear.

In the second half the Timbers favored their right by 92 – 73 passes, a reflection of the first half, but Zizzo’s contribution was largely to feed the ball into the creators and let them do the work. He was pretty much a spectator in every goal.

By no means was it a flawless start, but Zizzo showed enough to give Porter some confidence that, for 2013 at least, he has cover up the right side he can rely on to come in and work to a plan while still staying true to his roots as a “get it and run with it” kinda guy.

International duties and injuries excepted, it seems likely that Powell will take the starting spot back as soon as he is available, but Zizzo’s place on the roster now allows Porter to be gentle with bringing Jack Jewsbury back into the fold. A team with Jewsbury over Zizzo at right back is no more or less likely to reach the playoffs, but one with a fit and contributing Jewsbury in the postseason is a damned sight better off than the one without him.

Zizzo is always a player I’ve liked, but I’ve restrained myself from writing too much about him for fear that the Curse of Perlaza would strike again, but his story is an interesting one that might get lost as favorites depart and each game becomes so much more important than the last. How much of a role he still has to play in the season remains to be seen but I feel happier knowing he’s there for now at least.

4 thoughts on “The Zizzo Experiment

  1. Remember the end of last season, when Zizzo was sending in crosses and Bright Dike was punching them home? I was sure we were seeing the future of the Timbers. It seems I was wrong…

  2. Great analysis, as always. I like the mention of drawing players over to one side, then working the ball around to the weak side, which seems pretty simple in theory. It seems to me that WJohnson is always so good at that, and a lot of what has been missing from our attack, And he does it in one pinpoint pass from the midfield, so you don’t have to use 2-3 passes to get the ball across the field from fullback back to mid to the other fullback. Just curious if that’s what’s been missing, and if others have noticed the same.

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