Category Archives: Timbers Tactics

The Four Axemen

As the dust settled on a convincing 3-0 victory, four players more than most would have had an extra reason to want to bask in the moment.

Rodney Wallace, the confounder of low expectation; Darlington Nagbe, maturing with every match; Jack Jewsbury, essential now more than ever, without the armband; and Diego Chara, no longer our little secret.

No other players had logged so many minutes in a Timbers kit as these four before 2013 kicked off, clocking a combined 18,000 minutes of football for Portland.

Their combined start against Chivas USA was their 25th, stretching back to a 1-0 win against San Jose in April 2011. In fact, all four of the Timbers wins in 2013 so far have come in the six matches the four have started together. In those six games, the Timbers have earned 14 of their 18 points.

It’s a sign of Porter’s exemplary use of experience to alleviate the turnover of the past ten months or so. Under John Spencer, the club very much placed themselves out there as a young club, that would work harder than everyone else. The average age of players bears this out, in that first year at least: the Timbers average age was 24.9 against a league wide average of 25.6, and a play-off average of 25.8.

On first glance the Timbers 2012 average age of 26.8 would seem to indicate that they had taken care of any issues with inexperience, but that includes the signing of Donovan Ricketts (post-Spencer) and ignores one crucial factor – the marquee signings of Kris Boyd, Hanyer Mosquera, Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o were all very impressive, but the one thing they shared in common was having never played a minute in MLS.

In 2011, the players that took the field for Portland averaged 31 MLS appearances, pre-Timbers. By 2012, even allowing for players having built some experience the previous year, that figure had risen only to 39.9 appearances before their first appearance in a Timbers kit. Take out Ricketts and Kimura, and that figure drops to 35.

The four guys mentioned above brought experience at a reasonable level in Europe and South America, but all would take time to adjust to soccer in the states. That carries an efficiency cost, and when you’re taking hits in key areas like attack, and central defence, you’re going to run into problems.

None of these guys will feature under Caleb Porter, but that doesn’t mean that Porter has shied away from buying in experience from abroad, the difference being that in Mikael Silvestre, Diego Valeri and Frederic Piquionne we have guys with French and Argentine caps, as opposed to Scottish and Cameroonian.

The experience of playing in the best leagues compensates for some of that footballing culture shock as you generally don’t build up long careers in the best leagues without having to work well in various different styles and formations.

Rather than back up his building of Scots-Colombian axis in the north west with established MLS campaigners, Spencer made a mess of it.

Jack Jewsbury and Troy Perkins stand apart in this regard, as two guys who brought a ton of MLS games, 294 between them, to the team and made them count. Neither of the next three guys with most MLS games in 2011 would be still on the roster in 2012 – Cooper, Goldthwaite and Brown.

2012 saw him bring in three guys who’d kicked a ball in MLS before suiting up for us: Eric Alexander, Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito. I’d say that was three clean swing-and-misses.

Those guys had a pre-Portland total of 130 MLS games, and combined for 54 in 2012, only 24 of which were starts. All have gone for 2013.

Caleb Porter, while doing much the same as Spencer before him in that half of the guys making debuts for the club are also making their MLS debuts, has added some quality MLS experience.

For Kevin Goldthwaite, Eric Alexander and Mike Fucito, read Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, and Ryan Johnson. Porter’s three had 421 MLS appearances between them, and have have all featured in every match so far, giving freedom to guys like Diego Valeri to adjust and settle in, and bringing out the best in Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe.

Rodney Wallace

Wallace has been the story of the season so far for Portland. In a way, his story has often mirrored that of the club. He started the first 19 matches in 2011, but only 3 of the last 15 as the club’s early optimism ended in what looks in hindsight like the final couple of hurdles, but in reality was killed in a horrible run from May to July.

His 2012 was disrupted by injury, never quite getting started before hitting another bump in the road, just like the team as a whole.

Thus far in 2013 he’s started in the sidelines, and forced himself into the limelight just as the team has really started blossoming into something potentially very special.

If he can stay fit, and continue his good work then there’s no reason why this can’t be a breakthrough year for Wallace. He came into the season 6th in the Timbers All-Time minutes played, and has overtaken Brunner into 5th, but is still 1500 minutes behind Nagbe in 3rd. There’s no reason for him to see that gap widen as Porter seems to have found the ideal role to get the best out of him on both sides of the ball.

Wallace ZoneHe never convinced me at full-back or as a winger, but Porter has him playing out of a zone, rather than with a defined role. Zonal attacking, if you like. This allows him to go outside or in, or switch sides with Nagbe, all safe in the knowledge that at least one of Harrington (or Jewsbury), Will Johnson or Chara will have his back.

Playing with the brakes off, which isn’t to say he neglects his defensive duties as he’s one of the teams most effective players in closing down.

The main axis of Timbers defensive actions, running from Wallace to Jewsbury
The main axis of Timbers defensive actions, running from Wallace to Jewsbury

Wallace isn’t the only player Porter has taken the brakes off. Darlington Nagbe, while still frustrating, is showing signs of maturing.

Darlington Nagbe

Nagbe crossed over 5000 minutes for the Timbers this year, and into 3rd overall ahead of Troy Perkins and has started 42 of the Timbers’ last 45 games, so even though he will be only 23 in July, he’s already a key part of the team and has a wealth of experience under his belt.

With Wallace on the bench, Nagbe started the season on the left, cutting in onto his natural right foot but he’s shifted to the right side to make room for Wallace.

This move gives the Timbers guys in wide attacking roles who have more options of what to do going forward. With Nagbe on the left, 99% of the time he’s going to cut inside, and defenders will know that and expect it. Wallace can go round the outside as well as cut inside, forcing defenders to hesitate or wait for the attacker to make the first move – a great advantage to quick guys with lightning feet like Wallace and Nagbe.

Nagbe will still naturally comes inside more, but this means he can exploit any space created by opponents putting someone on Valeri, who’ll pop up on either flank throughout the game, or by the movement of Ryan Johnson up front.

Getting the best out of Nagbe was a puzzle that stumped John Spencer. We saw him played all over midfield and attack, rarely settling on one role before being move to plug another hole somewhere else. The problem wasn’t so much that Spencer was a bad coach who couldn’t find Nagbe’s role within the team, as it was that Spencer was a poor team builder who didn’t put the bodies around Nagbe that would allow him to naturally find his role.

Nagbe, more than most, benefits from being able to play without having to think about it too much. Under Spencer he was put under the constraints of a narrowly defined position, and it asked Nagbe to do more thinking than playing.

With a guy like that, you want him to go out and there and just let it happen. Know what you should be doing when the other guys have the bal, sure, but when we have it, you want him working on instinct. It’s no coincidence that if you were to list the top five Nagbe moments, they’d all be instances where he seemed to do things that surprised himself as much as anyone else. At the other end of the scale you’d have the bad misses, or the flubbed final passes that came when he’d be given too long to think about it.

With a solid base behind him, and the right group around him in attack, we’re starting to see a more confident looking Nagbe. Even in games where’s he’s not having a great night, he’s not hiding or letting his head drop.

Jack Jewsbury, similarly, didn’t let his head drop when the captaincy was given to Will Johnson and he started the year injured. His return to the XI had coincided with an upturn in the club’s fortunes.

Jack Jewsbury

Number one in minutes played, Jewsbury became the first player to reach 100 on-field hours for the Timbers. He also leads the club in all-time goals and assists, and has over 260 MLS appearances in total.

Making Jewsbury the captain made perfect sense in 2011. He was the guy with most league experience, while Perkins and Cooper were both coming back to the league after a spell in Europe.

A stellar first half of 2011 was followed by a less than stellar 2012, and I wasn’t the only one who wondered where Jack fit in this year. The debate was still going only a month ago.

The answer is wherever Caleb Porter needs him, be it midfield, full-back, or filling in at centre-back if needed. Despite the perception that Porter’s arrival would see the team look towards youth, in this early phases at least, the opposite has been true.

The average age has risen slightly from 26.8 to 27, with only two of the Timbers top ten in minutes played under 26 years old (Nagbe and Jean-Baptiste). The average age of that top ten is 28.4.

Porter knows the value of experience, and recognised a gold mine in Jewsbury. He’s shown himself adept on either side of the defence and his steady head on the back line has helped the team cope with a rotating cast of characters in the centre.

We saw a bit more attacking from him against Chivas, largely let down in the final third by his crossing as only one of his six attempts were successful, but his steady passing in the opponents half made up for. Discounting crosses, 9 of Jack’s 12 passes were successful.

Valeri Jewsbury

Getting the ball into Valeri’s feet is crucial to the Timbers, something Chivas tried to counter by putting a man on the Argentinian, and Jewsbury is good at doing just that. No surprise to see Valeri log so many actions close to Jewsbury’s busiest areas.

It made sense, and it forced the Timbers into more cross balls than was ideal, but it didn’t stop them from picking holes in the Chivas defence to lay the ball through as Chivas failed to compensate for the speed that Portland can play at, often turning defence into attack in seconds.

At the heart of this ability to transition so quickly is Diego Chara.

Diego Chara

Everyone knows about Chara’s defensive exploits, and there are probably a few guys who could show the physical evidence of it. But he’s more than an engine to gather yellow cards, he’s shown this season that if he’s given the chance, he can add value to the attack.

CharaBrk1

Every bit as solid a passer of the ball as Jewsbury, Chara hasn’t really had the chance to show what he can do in attack as he’s been seen as the defensive enforcer in midfield. Will Johnson and Chara are both able to play as the holding player or the going one, and as they play together more their reading of each other will only get better.

Chara finds himself, for maybe the first time in his MLS career, closer to the top of the assist table (joint 4th, or 2nd if you want it to sound even better) than the foul table (5th). He’s still putting in a great defensive shift every game, but he’s had some of the burden taken off him by Will Johnson alongside, and the way Porter expects everyone to contribute to defence.

The rest of the league are starting to take notice of Chara now, as much more than “that guy who fouls a lot”, and I’m sure there are a few Timbers fans who are only starting to realise just how good Chara can be as the guy who drives attacks from the back.

As with Nagbe it’s about more than simply getting the player to play “better”, it about putting guys around him that allow him to play more naturally, and we’re seeing that from Chara now.

These four guys will likely end 2013 as the top four in the Timbers all-time minutes played table. As it stands, Wallace needs only 700 minutes or so to pass Perkins.

For all Spencer’s mistakes, he actually had the core of a really good team all along, he just didn’t know how to use it. His loss is Porter’s gain as the new coach has been able to lean upon their collective experience as he sets about redefining what soccer means in the Soccer City.

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The Outsiders

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.

MON Harrington LBIn 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.

NY Miller RBNew 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.

Percentage of passes made in opposing half
Percentage of passes made in opposing half

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.

RBRetreat

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…


Defence

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.

Passes refers to Number of Pass Attemtpts in one half
Passes refers to Number of Pass Attemtpts in one half

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.


Attack

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.

HarJewLB

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%).

HarLBRBatt

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.


Mo’ Problems

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.

Defending By Numbers

Football, at it’s core, is a really simple game. So simple that the key to winning football matches can be easily summed up in two points:

1 – Score more goals than the other team.

2 – See point 1.

But that simplicity masks the complexity that makes football such an addictive sport. Yes, the goal is to outscore the opponents, but there is almost no end to the ways you can set a team up to do that, with the Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, “we’ll beat you 4-3” approach and the George Graham school that looks to grind out 1-0s at either pole.

As the game has become more athletic and technical, teams are increasingly looking to sports science and performance analysis to give themselves some kind of advantage. This move towards a more analytical approach can be seen in the increasing investment in such areas by top clubs around the world. MLS will be rolling out the adidas miCoach system to all clubs in 2013, while OPTA and ProZone continue to carve out a lucrative niche in statistical analysis. Caleb Porter is an avowed disciple of this more modern, analytical approach and the Timbers recently announced the hiring of a performance analyst as they seek to find that edge that will turn hard-fought draws into a well-deserved wins.
Football isn’t a game that lends itself readily to statistical analysis in the way that, for example, baseball does. There are few equivalents of the 1-on-1, pitcher vs batter, battles that baseball throws up as 22 players on a 8500 sq yard pitch for over 90 minutes simply throws up too many variables to be distilled succinctly into a neat column of easily digestible figures.

Yet, such a study isn’t an entirely fruitless endeavor. Mining the numbers can still throw some light into the darkness, even though it always pays to remember that it isn’t an exact science, and much remains for individual interpretation of the numbers.

Soccer Analytics is growing, with sites such as Zonal Marking, Soccer By The Numbers and Soccer Analysts good examples in this field.

While I don’t think that analytics gives all the answers, I do believe it can, and should, be part of the discussion we have as it has much to inform our “gut” reaction. There have been plenty of times when I’ve come away from a match thinking that this player or that has had a stinker, then when I look at the numbers, they seem to tell a different story. By taking both and playing them off each other, and seeing what each can tell you about the other, you can come closer to the “truth” of it, if such thing is even possible in football.

So, accepting that finding answers in soccer analytics is more complex than simply drawing up a table and seeing who ranks top, let’s see what the numbers can tell us about how and why teams do that most crucial of things – score goals.

Well, actually, before doing that let’s take a detour by first of all looking at the problem from the other side – stopping the other team scoring.

The Upgrade Revisited

In my previous post I took a look at the Timbers goalkeepers as I tried to judge whether the front office had called their “upgrade” right. Such an approach was never going give a definitive answer, but the figures certainly seemed to suggest that Donovan Ricketts had delivered some performance improvements over Troy Perkins, though Perkins’ figures would subsequently rocket in Montreal and cast a shadow over Ricketts’.

There are too many intangibles to definitively call one way or the other. The change in style from John Spencer to Gavin Wilkinson, the fact the figures don’t take into account the quality of chances, or a goalkeeper’s distribution and communication with the defence in front of him. Respective ability of cross balls, or quickness off the line, or agility, or, well, the list goes on.

A good point was raised in the comments of that article by “Thunderbear” (I assume that’s his/her surname and not their first name) that “Perkins was traded just after Spencer was fired and after a couple of miserable team performances like the 5-0 loss in Dallas and the whipping in Utah that really affected Perkins’ statistics”.

In the five matches Perkins played under Wilkinson, the team shipped 13 goals. In the previous 17 starts, Perkins conceded 22. That’s quite a jump, I’m sure you’ll agree. The drop in shot stopping after Spencer left is really quite stark – the overall figure drops from 70.8% to 47.8%, with an In-Box Save rate (IBSv%) of 38.5% for those five games.

Even expunging those games from Perkins’ record, there is never more than a few percentage points between his save percentages and those of Ricketts in Portland, suggesting again that, at worst, the front office broke even (on the pitch at least, the salary debate is a whole other issue).

TimbersGK

There is unlikely to be any single reason why Perkins numbers dipped so badly in these few games. The removal of a head coach is bound to unsettle some, and the change in formation and playing style wouldn’t have helped, in the short term at least.

Yet Perkins faced the same number of shots per game, with slightly more coming as In-Box Shots (IBSh) than Long Range (LRSh), but not a great leap. Certainly not in the order that might go someway to explaining why the goals just rained in.

This brings us to the part of the discussion that was missing in the previous post – the defence.

Analyzing The Defence

Analyzing defensive performance, and measuring the difference between a “good” defence and a “bad” defence is more difficult than it may seem at first glance. The bottom-line metric for any defence is the goals against column, and on that measure you could confidently, and correctly, declare that in 2012 Sporting Kansas City had a good defence, while Toronto FC had a bad one.

But it’s not that simple. Perhaps a defence was let down by poor protection from their midfield. Luck is a factor too, as in the defender who pulls off a great last-ditch sliding tackle, only to see the ball richochet off a teammate and into the path of another attacker for an easy goal, or the player who never scores hitting that one-in-a-million screamer into the top corner from 35 yards. There’s tactical issues – was the coach leaving his defenders exposed by pushing on his full-backs, or playing too wide or narrow?

However, given that a defence is ultimately there to prevent goals being conceded, it’s against that baseline they must be measured.

Taking the clearances, blocks, interceptions, recoveries and fouls as examples of “defensive action” we can see if there is any relation between how busy (and where) a team is defensively effects the number of goals they concede. Note, I haven’t included tackles as I’m not really happy with how OPTA measure them in terms on tackles won/lost, and I’d have to go through every game to judge for myself whether it was a “good” tackle or not, and then there’s the old truism that the best defenders finish the game without grass stains on their shorts because they never need to go to ground in the first place. So, yes, it’s not a comprehensive tally of every Defensive Action, by any means.

There is also the issue of defensive distribution of the ball, which is something I hope to return to in future, but for now let’s set it aside and judge a “good” defence purely on stopping the other team getting on the scoreboard.

DARecvsGA

As you can see, broadly speaking the more Defensive Actions (DfAc) a team performs, the less likely they are to concede goals, though it’s by no means definitive, especially with only 19 data points to work with. Still, it does seem to point towards some link between the two factors.

If you take Recoveries out of the equation, then the trend is more pronounced.

DAvsGA

Backing up this link is that of the six best defences in terms of goals against (Kansas City, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Chicago, Vancouver, Houston), three occupy spots in the top five of most Defensive Actions (minus Recoveries) – Chicago (4th GA / 3rd DfAc), Seattle (2nd / 1st), Vancouver (4th / 5th).

DefAct

The big anomaly is Kansas City who are 18th in terms of DA, but are 1st in goals against. Kansas City had a high proportion of their DfAc in the back four (71.41% against the league-wide average of 66%) and, interestingly, they were 3rd in terms of fouls committed with, again, a higher than average proportion of these fouls being committed in defence (37.1% vs 30.8%). This would suggest a lot of pressing and a no-nonsense, physical approach to winning the ball back. This is largely due to keeping shots against to a minimum. No team conceded fewer shots than Sporting, and they were also good at keeping teams at distance with only 47.3% of shots conceded coming from within their own box – only Vancouver have a better record in this regard with a 46% IB:LR balance.

Those that do get through are met by a keeper in Jimmy Nielsen who performs above average in all areas of shot-stopping.

GKranks

This perfect combination of tight defence and excellent shot-stopper combined to produce the fewest goals conceded in the regular season in 2012.

The Difference Makers

Sean Johnson of Chicago Fire actually posted very similar figures to Nielsen, yet whereas Nielsen let in 27 in 34 starts, the leakier Fire defence meant that Johnson conceded 38 in 31 starts as his goal was peppered by 40% more shots than Nielsen’s. So, the value of a tight defence is clear.

Yet Chicago “worked harder” in defence, with vastly more Defensive Actions than Kansas City. Where the teams also differed markedly, and perhaps this gives us an insight into the wild swing in shots against, is in possession of the ball.

I have my issues with the way OPTA measure possession, but as a metric of “ball control” it can be generally relied upon. It’s still a poor measure of which team is “better”, and terrible in terms of predicting outcomes – 17 of the 19 teams posted higher average possession rates in matches they lost than those they won – but it can tell us which team was controlling the ball, even if it can’t say where and how they were doing it.

poss

Kansas City posted the 5th highest possession rate at 52.1%, while Chicago were 17th on 46.8%. This would seem to indicate that Sporting operated with a “keep ball” philosophy, seeking to minimise the opposition’s time on the ball. Chicago on the other hand worked best when they could spring fast attacks, giving up possession and, it would seem, inviting teams onto them, leading to an increase in shots and goals against. Only Vancouver and Toronto saw less of the ball than the Fire in 2012.

By taking Kansas City’s high possession and their high foul rate and defensive work mentioned previously, you can start to build up a blueprint for why the Sporting defence was so effective. They choked other teams of possession, and created a high number of chances (though they were actually very wasteful in converting these chances, but we’ll come to that in a future post), but when they did lose the ball, they were efficient, yet physical, in their attempts to win it back. Through this pressing and harrying they limited shots against to the minimum, but had one of the league’s best goalkeepers to take care of what did get through.

This all serves to underline how difficult it is to apply analytics to soccer in a straightforward, “the numbers don’t lie” manner. It requires a more holistic approach where a number of factors and measures can be combined and torn apart to indicate towards conclusions.

As we saw with Johnson and Nielsen, the value of a good defence cannot be under-estimated. If you were to take an “average keeper” and put him behind the Kansas City and Toronto defences, you would expect to see a difference of 20-22 goals per season, from around 29 goals to 51. Yet both keepers would perform identically.

This is all very simplicity, and ignores many of the intangibles that I’ve talked about already, but it can at least give us an idea of the importance of a good defence.

If we were to flip it around and take an “average defence” and put it in front of two keepers at either end of the scale in shot-stopping the swing would be in the order of 15-18 goals per season, from 36 to 52 goals against.

The difference between best defence & best keeper and worst/worst would be from 25 goals to 63. In actuality Kansas City conceded 27; Toronto FC conceded 62.

Looking at the other end of the table, Toronto bottomed out in both goals against and DA. As I said in the previous article on Timbers keepers, Milos Kocic actually performed reasonably well – marginally better than Ricketts across all of 2012 – but when your team allows more shots at goal than all but 2 teams in 2012, you’re going to struggle to keep them out. Indeed, even the heroic Nielsen would’ve expected to concede upwards of 40 goals when faced with the barrage Kocic did.

The two clubs that allowed more shots than Toronto were Chivas USA and Columbus Crew, however Andy Gruenebaum posted numbers than ran Nielson close in shot-stopping whereas Dan Kennedy’s were good, rather than great. Gruenebaum conceded 13 fewer than Kennedy. A very valuable keeper!

The other factor is that Chivas conceded the highest proportion of IBsh:LRSh (55.5%). Given the importance of preventing IBSh – teams are almost 4 times as likely to score in the box than out of it – each percentage point increase in IBSh:LRSh represents something in the order of an increase of 1% in goals against.

To Portland

Portland were 17th in GA, and their IBSh:LRSh rate of 52%, above average, gives some idea of their problems in 2012. Despite putting in a lot of “defensive work” – they rank 8th in DA – and being “midtable” in terms of total shots against, where they really struggled was in preventing teams getting shots on target.

There would be little surprise to Timbers fans to learn that Portland were one of only 6 clubs to commit over 50% of their fouls in midfield, with Diego Chara the main culprit. Of those six clubs, only DC had a goals against record that ranked in the Top 10. Instinct may tell us that committing a foul in defence, on the edge of the box, may be more dangerous than committing a foul in midfield, but to score from 20 yards out direct from a free kick requires great skill. It is why, to me, someone like David Beckham is so feted – merely decent-to-good in most areas, where he excels is in those kind of dead ball situations.

In fact, the three goals against records in the league were from team that committed a higher than average proportion of their fouls in defence.

From 35 or 40 yards, the dynamic changes. A team can then throw forward their big guys, and a decent delivery, rather than pin-point in the case of getting a ball up-and-over or round a wall in limited space, can be good enough for someone to get on the end of it, and serve up a great opportunity to score.

There are certainly cases where the foul is preferable, and a team would rather take their chances defending a set play, but in general terms, giving away so many opportunities for a team to put the ball into the box to be attacked by numbers cannot be a good thing.

Blocking, pressuring, or generally employing sound defence can go a long way to making it difficult for the opposition to get a shot on frame. Only Colorado Rapids were worse than the Timbers at keeping opponents off target, but Matt Pickens did a better job than Perkins/Ricketts in keeping shots out and so the Rapids conceded 6 fewer over the season.

ShotsAg

Even though the Timbers took a similar number of shots as they conceded, when you compare the accuracy rates you start to get a good idea of the Timbers problems in 2012 – 36.5% of shots against called the Timbers keeper into action but only 31.1% of the Timbers’ shots were on frame. The figures are even worse in the crucial IBSh category – 41.9% to 32.7%.

Given how long this post is already though, I’ll return to the attacking sphere in a future post.

In terms of possession, as you saw in the chart above, the Timbers came in 13th with an average of 47.85%. Under Spencer that figure was 45.38%, which would’ve dropped them to 17th. It rose to 50.16% when Wilkinson took over – around LA Galaxy level of ball control.

So what you had in Portland was a team that didn’t really control the ball particularly well, and didn’t do a good job of preventing opponents from getting shots on frame. The goalies performed adequately, but when your defence is leaking chance after chance, adequate simply isn’t going to be enough.

Conclusion

Well, the conclusion is that it’s difficult, nay, foolhardy to draw firm conclusions from data alone! There needs to a be a dialogue between the figures and what we see on the pitch with our own eyes. That instinct for what you’re seeing is a valuable commodity.

By drawing from both wells, we can draw a couple of fairly obvious conclusions off the bat. A good defence makes a big difference. A good goalkeeper also makes a difference, though perhaps not as much as the guys in front of him. A case could be made for seeking value in goal, while ensuring that the big bucks are reserved for shoring up the backline. In Kocic the Timbers have value at the back, but it remains to be seen whether investments in the defence and midfield will bring about marked improvements. It’s here that the leaps forward will have to be made if the Timbers are to progress in 2013.

The mid-season change wasn’t ideal. For whatever reason, it really seemed to throw off the defence and Troy Perkins, but the ship was steadied somewhat by the arrival of Donovan Ricketts. However, as a whole, the team underperformed. They let too many shots in, and from crucial areas, to expect much more than the 3rd worst defensive record.

A “better” keeper may have helped somewhat, but the key factors were repeated breakdowns in defence and midfield. There was a 71% drop between DA on the back four and DA in midfield, where in 4 of the 6 most miserly defences the drop was less than 60%, suggesting the better defences defended more as a whole rather than two distinct groups. This disjointed approach to defence led directly to a disappointing, but predictable, outcome. There is also the issue of too many fouls being committed in midfield, inviting teams to throw the ball into the box and put our defence to the test. A test the Timbers defence ultimately failed.

I’d expect to see a more cohesive approach to defence under Caleb Porter. We’re starting to see that in preseason, as the team look to press high and in numbers. I think the signing of Ryan Johnson is particularly significant in this regard as no forward player was more defensively active than Johnson was in 2012. He’s there to do more than just score goals or provide assists. The more I look at the numbers, the more his signing seems like it could be potentially the single most significant move the Front Office have made in the offseason.

Denying teams space in and around the box will be key as neither Kocic nor Ricketts have shown themselves to be especially proficient at short range.

I’d also expect to see the team climb the possession table. It is noticeable that, of the top six possession teams in 2012, five made it to the post season. Possession of the ball doesn’t guarantee goals, but the old adage that the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball seems to hold true. Porter will seek to do more than simply keep the ball though, he’ll seek to use it with purpose in attack, and it’s to the attack that I’ll look in a future post.

Goals, all we really want is goals…

It was probably the most epic new chant created by the Timbers Army this year. One memory in particular stands out to me. The day this chant was born. In the May 5th game against Columbus Crew.  Walking to my spot in the top of 104, slightly late from half time having been helping at the 107ist table, I decided to walk along the gangway between the one and two hundreds to avoid the crowds of folks still waiting for beer or a free toilet. I have a distinct memory of entering in around 108 and hearing this chant going, smiling to myself because I’d quite enjoyed learning it in the first half. Then proceeding a little further down and seeing Shawn Levy in his midsection capo stand leading the chant with great enthusiasm, jumping around and maybe even dancing a little! I thought to myself I love this chant.

Why did I love this chant? Well no doubt that a part of it was because of its homage to the sadly departed MCA. But there was something more. I think this song connected to my footballing soul. I think this song connected to the heart of the Timbers Army.  And, perhaps crucially, it connected to one of the biggest points of disappointment that we had in the stands. Goals are at the very heart of the game of football. It doesn’t matter how much you appreciate good defending or a solid hard working midfielder you still love goals. We all do. Every football fan across the world loves goals. It’s why, whether or not we like the teams on every level, we are more likely to tune in to watch games which we think are more likely to produce goals. It’s why we are instantly inclined to think that a 0-0 was probably boring and that a 3-4 game was probably a classic. It’s why we have goal of the week and goal of the month competitions. Goals are the pinnacle of a football game. The troubling thing is that the Portland Timbers don’t score many of them.

I am not much for analyzing football by numbers. But sometimes they do highlight certain points well. So, allow me to hurl a few at you to digest. It’s probably not news to you that Portland scored the second fewest goals, 34, in the MLS only behind the woefully poor Chivas. Yes, even Toronto managed more goals. We were also recorded the third worst defence. No doubt I feel the defence needs to improve, but I think most of our attention should be on getting the attack to work. I think that if the Timbers got the attack to work better they may even find their defence naturally improving. There could be a whole blog entry dedicated to that theory but in brief: a good attack helps the team to keep possession, something the Timbers are generally woeful at. When you have the ball more the opposition has less possibility to score. Also, when the Timbers are chasing games, which is too often the case, they leave themselves exposed at the back. A good attack would score more and thus help to prevent this.

Allow me to indulge you with some more numbers. After two full seasons in the MLS, this is the Timbers overall scoring chart:

  1. Jack Jewsbury- 10 goals
  2. Kenny Cooper  – 8 Goals
  3. Darlington Nagbe- 8 Goals (6 of these in 2012)
  4. Kris Boyd – 7 Goals
  5. Bright Dike- 6 Goals
  6. Jorge Perlaza- 6 Goals
  7. Eric Brunner- 4 Goals
  8. Rodney Wallace- 3 Goals
  9. Danny Mwanga- 3 Goals
  10. Futty Danso- 3 Goals

For the record: Boyd, Cooper and Dike all have a very similar strike rate of around 1 in 4. Cooper’s strike rate significantly improved when provided with better service at NYRB. Is it possible that better service could see Dike or Boyd hit high up on the scoring charts? Oh, and for a laugh… the other Timber player with a 1 in 4 strike rate is Kevin Goldthwaite.

And the assists totals:

  1. Khalif Alhassan- 8 Assists (6 of these were in 2011)
  2. Jack Jewsbury- 7 Assists
  3. Sal Zizzo- 5 Assists
  4. Eric Alexander – 4 Assists
  5. Franck Songo’o- 4 Assists
  6. Diego Chara- 4 Assists (All in 2011)
  7. Darlington Nagbe- 3 Assists
  8. Rodney Wallace- 3 Assists

So Jewsbury is the most consistently producing offensive player. A defensive midfielder is consistently out producing wingers, attacking midfielders and even strikers. Beyond that, Jewsbury isn’t even a particularly special defensive midfielder. He is solid and pretty consistent and he can pass a football reasonably well. But those attributes have been enough to see him become our most productive player. This highlights what, in my opinion,  is the biggest problem in the team. A severe lack of creativity. There are plenty of striking things to be revealed in these little lists.

nagbealhassan

After 2 years of MLS football and 47 appearances Khalif Alhassan has notched up 8 assists and a solitary goal. In his 61 games Darlington Nagbe has produced 8 assists and 3 goals. These are two of our more skillful attacking players, and yet so little production. With Nagbe and Alhassan the problem is evident on many levels. These are young players who are incredibly inconsistent. They can go from looking like European bound superstars in one game, to looking like a player that would struggle in the USL.

This is not a unique problem to Portland Timbers young players. After one season with Manchester United Cristiano Ronaldo had been described by many as a “one trick pony”. It was quite a popular opinion that he was a “bag of tricks” who wouldn’t produce much. What was the problem? Ronaldo, was very inconsistent in delivering end product. He could do 5 stepovers in 2 second, blow a player away and then fail to deliver a good cross. He’s shooting was inconsistent too.  Fast forward a few years. There may be many things to call Ronaldo, not all of them pleasant, but unproductive is not one of them.

Season by season he matured in Manchester, and then in Madrid, into one of the worlds very best footballers. There are countless other examples of players going through this process. Nagbe and Alhassan’s inconsistency is very, very normal for young, flair based players. The problem is that they are two key players in Portland’s offense and that most of the other attack based players share the same fate.

Franck Songo’o has unquestionable talent. With the skill he had he should be one of the top performing players in the MLS. But he is limited by his inconsistency.  Alhassan, Nagbe and Songo’o are an exciting trio of players. However, they are not just limited by consistency, they are shackled. But not just them, the whole offense is shackled. Because these three should be our primary source of provision for strikers. But the strikers are feeding off scraps. Zizzo’s return to fitness in the later half of the season offered a boost here. He is more consistency in his performances and especially in the area of delivery. But, I would also say he has less ability.

After the Timbers first MLS season I naively thought that Nagbe and Alhassan would magically progress in the off season and help the Timbers set the league on fire in their second season (burn, destroy, wreck and kill!). I believed in the progress of young players, in their development into better players. Perhaps I have been playing too much FIFA and Football Manager, where young players will always develop if you play them. It’s probably fair to say that Nagbe has improved a little. With the more limited game time it’s hard to see anyway in which Alhassan has improved. Now, I see that Nagbe and Alhassan have two things working against them in the current set up.

Firstly, they have often been two very important players in the offense. There is pressure to perform. Any professional should be able to handle pressure of course. But a lot consistent pressure to perform on a young and developing player is not conducive to the development of said player. Just think how many times you sat in the stands last season, and even more the season before, hoping that Nagbe or Alhassan could pull something off to help create a goal.

In every league around the world young players are hyped as the next big thing. Pressure is heaped upon them, as they are labeled the next so and so and so. There are two great examples in the Premier League this season in Raheem Sterling and Tom Cleverley.

The talent both youngsters possess is evident. It’s also evident that both are far from finished article. But that didn’t stop the hyperbole. After a particularly impressive display for England Cleverley was actually compared to Iniesta. Here is a player still struggling to hold down a place in the Manchester United midfield (the weakest area of that team) being compared to one of the worlds finest creative midfielders. Raheem Sterling had his fair amount of ridiculous over the top praises and comparisons too. But, whilst they may have pressure to perform from over expectant fans and media there is not too much pressure from within the team. Manchester United have Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Nani, Valencia, Kagawa, Scholes and Carrick to supply the passes for Van Persie up front. If Cleverley is struggling to make those incisive passes in a game then Manchester United will probably get by without them. Even with Liverpool struggling as they are they still have several players in addition to Sterling capable of creating chances.

The addition of Songo’o certainly provided us with another player to pin our offensive hopes on. But, as mentioned earlier, his struggle was the same. Whilst Zizzo is more consistent, you still would not say consistency is a strong point of his. Four attacking midfielders/wingers and wingers whose struggle with inconsistency only served to heap more pressure on themselves and left Boyd, Dike et al casting a lonely shadow upfront waiting for service.

Any kind of service. 

nagbe

So, rather than being able to participate and develop themselves in a successful attacking unit Nagbe and Alhassan (and Songo’o and Zizzo for that matter) were left to try and overcome their demon and provide the team with the creativity it needed. At times during the season I think I could almost see the burden sitting on their shoulders. I think that perhaps that pressure stifled the creativity of Nagbe and Alhassan. Particularly Nagbe. He often seemed scared to run at players and take risks because he felt the pressure to supply the right pass or move to provide the goal. There will always be pressure on youngsters to perform but the system at the Timbers has not served to alleviate any of this pressure. There is a huge difference to being a young star winger in a great offensive unit, and being a young star winger who is the hope of the offensive unit. The former is more likely to bring the successful development of a young player.

The second thing is that Nagbe and Alhassan don’t have another player to look up to in their development. Songo’o is the closest thing they have and he is also relatively young and struggles in exactly the same areas. This is very much related to the first problem. If the Timbers had one,  one is surely not too much to ask, attacking midfielder or winger who was experienced and a consistent producer it would make the world of difference. They don’t have to be all that dynamic or exciting. They just have to have been there and done that. They just have to be consistent. The type of player that could stroll up and put an arm around Nagbe in training and give a word of advice. They type of player who could consistently put in 4 or 5 good crosses or through balls EVERY game. In an instant the pressure on Nagbe and Alhassan drops and they are spending time everyday with a player that can assist them in their develop.

Mr Porter, in the chance you are an avid reader of Slide Rule Pass, which I assume you are as it is the primary location for all your Portland Timbers blogging needs, I plead with you. I beg you. Please, please, please sign someone who can fulfill that role. May I suggest it would be a most excellent way to sign the new year! (P.S I don’t think McCourt will cut it for this role). This would be a huge step in the right direction offensively and could even be a step toward fulfilling the identity of the team. I believe it would help this team tremendously in their development. Even if it costs us sacrificing one of Alhassan, Nagbe or Songo’o I think it would be worth it to get the best out of the other three and offer better service to our lonely strikers. I don’t suppose it will suddenly make us a great team challenging for MLS titles, but it will certainly elevate us.

The Aesthetics

Football has no place within the much debated world of aesthetics.

Actually, this could be considered a faulty or incorrect statement. Let’s try it again.

Football exists very tenuously within the realm of aesthetics.

Books have been written about this, columns have been written about this, tomes by intelligent men and women exist on the ideals of football.

Where does the abstraction of the team fall between the idealistic vision of “The beautiful game” and the current vision of what it takes to win in MLS?

The vision currently is thus, while MLS has taken strides towards an existence within the realm of the 4-3-3, the tempo pass, the creative midfielder, it still exists within the proposal of the 4-4-2, or (providence forbid) the Catenaccio. While certainly not many, or really any teams in MLS play with a full sweeper behind the back four, overload one side (preferably the right) push up the field and attempt to cynically disrupt the offense to counter attack, there is a certain current methodology towards winning MLS cup.

The current back-to-back champions of MLS have indicated this with the almost Italian philosophies of Bruce Arena and LA Galaxy. Bruce sets up a star powered team to play on the counter attack, inviting pressure upon the Galaxy and dictating the game with a deep lying creative midfielder (now gone) to play the ball up the field to streaking forwards. There is a reason why seemingly the Galaxy play tight and then seem to open up the game with late goals. They invite play through the middle, to their defensive side and frustrate their opponents leading to their opposition pushing more players into the attack. Then the hammer blow comes down as the midfield and full-backs are caught up field with only a center-back left to protect.

There is also a reason (or few reasons) why Galaxy were poor at the beginning of the season and started to play well later. Many fans point towards Robbie Keane’s form in the second half of the season after returning from the Euro’s, almost as though he had flipped a “Give-A-Shit” button. However, one can merely look at the rock of stability in Omar Gonzalez and the solidifying of LA’s defense through the addition of the “Should have been 2011 MLS MVP” to the back line. With Juninho covering in the midfield and the fluctuation passion of a disinterested Landon Donovan, the 2012 Galaxy eventually morphed into a version of a team that was reminiscent of the 2011 Galaxy team in terms of effectiveness.

LA plays a bizarre version of possum as they press and retreat. As well, Bruce Arena doesn’t just stick with one particular style. Reacting against the opponent they will at times shorten the field by moving the back line up (as they did against Seattle to great effect) which makes the field much smaller to play within. This has the effect of increasing the need for “touch” players for the opposition, something which is lacking in a general sense within MLS. When shortening the field, the midfield and defense of LA is given a shorter path to pressure the ball, enabling them to spring the attack quicker into the opposition end. With quality in defense and counter-attack, the Galaxy used the not-so-great ball outlet of Christian Wilhelmsson who frequently ran the touchline as a pressure valve.

Now, this works when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to all-star players like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. This move also fails more often than not when you have David Beckham receiving the ball and pinging passes to players like Chad Barrett and Adam Cristman.

Houston themselves play within the realm of a 4-4-2, and play with a sense of positional discipline that would make Roy Hodgson pleasure himself repeatedly. They are underrated in the league within the realm of movement, fluidity and passing as they do attempt to play the ball. Paramount for Houston, though, is defensive rigidity, responsibility and ability. They play tough through the middle of the field, hitting anything that moves with slight shoulders, grabs and challenging headers. This kind of defensive presence through the midfield often leads to ugly games as typically teams within MLS are more than happy to mix it up physically.

What all this brings us to is the amazing challenge that Caleb Porter has taken on in Portland. He steps into a world that currently revolves around “two-banks-of-four” Houston Dynamo and “Catenaccio light” LA Galaxy.

Certainly there has been some success within the league with teams that attempt to play the ball “see: Real Salt Lake and Miami Fusion”. However, even Real Salt Lake hasn’t had unmitigated success playing the pass and move game within the confines of MLS. Their win within MLS cup came during their transition to playing on-the-ground/passing football and came two years after Jason Kreis was put in charge to change the direction of the new team.

Throughout 2012, Timbers fans were able to see the truly varied approaches of multiple head coaches at their position. With the start of the 2012 season, they were able to see more of a wing approach. While lip service was given to portray the team attempting to play through the middle of the field, the team typically still pushed the ball out to the wings and attempted to dump the ball into the box. Quite often this lead to immediate turn overs and midfielders/wing players getting caught up field with the immediate destruction of the full-backs happening. When build up play happened with the full-backs overlapping up the field and playing balls with the outside midfield players near the corner of the penalty area, the impact was that the Timbers typically took one too many touches, got caught in possession and then the full-backs and outside midfield were caught up field.

Quite often this would lead to break outs in the Timbers defensive end with players like Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury attempting to break up plays with fouls, or getting bypassed on the way to the back line.

With a lack of defensive integrity at the back, John Spencer attempted to fix this problem by limiting the amount of times that his full-backs or midfielders got caught up field. Without a true midfielder capable of delivering the ball through the middle of the field, the Timbers would often sit back and try to “not get beaten”. The problem with this is that not only did this kill the offense, but the 2012 Timbers were not talented enough at full-back and center-back to play a defensive shell game. Games would vacillate between defensive slog fests where eventually Portland would be beaten by the mental defensive mistake that always seemed to happen, and offensively open games where the Timbers couldn’t sustain leads.

This ultimate nadir of this tactical confusion was the Timbers 1-0 loss to amateur team Cal FC in the US Open Cup. Portland created a mind-boggling 37 shots with 15 shots on goal and 0 goals (including a missed PK). Out of those 15 shots on goal, there were really none that challenged the keeper. There was so little confidence in the team finishing their shots that they could have played for 500 minutes in a row and probably not scored a goal. At that point the Timbers had managed to neuter the confidence of offense AND have a defensive catastrophe… at home…. to an amateur team filled with valets and dishwashers.

Certainly John Spencer wasn’t a one trick pony, but it seemed that his train of thought in adaptation and recognizing trends was simply not fast enough at the time. When he attempted to play Lovel Palmer at defensive midfield to man-mark against Kansas City the experiment worked (although in a method of nihilistic frustration as the Timbers rarely threatened and won the game on an own goal). However, he then extrapolated that this formation and deployment would work in the next game against a Montreal side that had no intention of playing the same method into the Timbers hands. This resulted in a 2-0 loss on the road with more offensive ineptness.

With John Spencer sacked and in the rear view, Gavin Wilkinson took over as head coach of the Timbers. While fans that watched his coaching style before bet on the inevitable return of the long ball tactics he used during the USL days of the team, the real tactics he used were a bit different. Wilkinson (in conjunction of the hire of Caleb Porter) took the shackles off the full-backs and asked them and the midfield to attempt to attack. This, in combination of the poor defensive form, the lack of ability of players in the midfield to play defense, and the inevitable confusion that happens with a coaching change lead to some terrible performances by the Timbers. There were suggestions that Wilkinson was attempting to implement the changes that Porter would envision in 2013, there were suggestions that the team was getting shadow coached by Sean Mcauley. Either way, the team’s defense was routinely exposed in the early going of Wilkinson’s tenure leading to a number of truly horrific games.

As time elapsed, the new defense and offensive scheme coalesced into a slightly more congealed attack and defense. Mind you this congealed presence DID NOT improve the Timbers ability to win, score goals, and prevent goals. The performances of Steven Smith became more composed down the left side, and even though the right back position remained a sieve the entirety of the year, the Timbers found themselves ready to play for the right to lift the Cascadia Cup against their hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders.

They imploded instead.

On the road, Wilkinson started two full-backs (Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace) that were largely relegated to bench and reserve appearances as they both had proven over the course of the season their lack of the basic ability to play in defense. As well, Wilkinson started a fourth choice Center-back (Futty Danso). These choices were supposedly to increase the athleticism in the team and replace a nebulous injury (athleticism a trait that Wilkinson has frequently touted as important to him and to Porters new offense). The Timbers were absolutely destroyed on the road and thrashed like a limp rag as the defense and midfield were unable to contain, press or even think on the ball.

Somehow, despite this loss, the Timbers were still able to play for the Cascadia Cup….. again on the road… This time the game to win was against Vancouver.

And this is where any kind of beautiful aesthetics went out the window completely.

Wilkinson set out a side with a game plan to play cynical, aggressive, pressing football with a long ball emphasis that would have made Charles Reep proud (Reep was one of the foremost English proponents of long ball play). Wilkinson restored the three players in the defense with their progenitors and had his defensive line push up as high as possible. This was not to have the intent of playing the pressing and drop game that teams like Barcelona implement (in which Barcelona press up high in order to decrease the space available to the opposing players and the size of the field, and then upon possession of the ball they drop deep in order to expand the field to give their players the ability pass freely around a large space) he did this in order to destroy the flow of the game.

The Whitecaps didn’t possess the ability (or, at the very least, decided against it) to play the ball on the ground and break the defensive line. The first 15 minutes of the game showed the kind of football that would have made Ronaldinho cry in shame. The ball barely even noticed the grass as it logged more frequent flier miles than an airplane. The Timbers had no real intent of keeping possession; they merely attempted to push up on the opposing Whitecaps players, disrupted their game and then kick the ball up to the front as fast as possible. The goal for the Timbers came about from some of the scant amount of decent play, as the deadlock was broken by a wonder strike late. Nine times out of ten that game finishes 0-0.

Tactically the game plan was a simplistic master stroke. For the un-invested fan the game was a giant pile of shit.

The problem here for Porter is that the method of press, kick and rush worked and does work. Granted this was against a slumping opponent who was suffering from their own offensive identity problem. However, MLS is still in the development phase in terms of players and (as well) in terms of tactics.

Porter’s Akron teams, as well as his ill-fated US U-23 team, attempted to build the offense from the back and prioritize the connection of the back four to the midfield. He attempts to play the game with two ball handling center-backs (the impetus of the attack) and 8 midfielders. The idea is that with possession and quality control you minimize the amount of time that the opposition can have to attack your own defense. His Akron team would pass the ball around in their own end with the free ease of a team on the training ground. The left back would push up, interchange positions with the midfield, then exchange the ball in rolling triangles between them and the center-back as the ball would make it over to the center-backs, the keeper, the right back, the midfield and then back across to the left back again.

The issue here is the ethos and rigidity with which Porter and, to a certain extent, Merritt Paulson see the game. The downfall of Porter with the U-23 Olympic team was the inability to adapt tactically to a situation or team in which a difference from his preferred tiki-taka style was needed.

The premier trophy in MLS has now been won and contested via counter attacking defensive first style and defensively rigid two banks of four style for the last two years. One can look at the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes in terms of a current MLS style of offensive execution. When implementing the towers of (either/or/and) Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, San Jose operate within the realm of the big man/smaller man, goal poaching, defensive stability, somebody hit somebody, physical play that exists within MLS. Kansas City operated with such a pressing style within MLS that it leads to questions about the playability of their style. They use such physicality in their pressing and play that it became a question of “what is a foul and what isn’t a foul” towards the end of the year. Their style was such that it could be influenced heavily by the appointment of referees who have their own particular way of viewing physical interaction and the way in which players play. These philosophies worked (for the most part) as Kansas City, with their high octane press and disrupt style, only gave up 27 goals on the year (lowest in MLS); and San Jose, with their disrupt in the box and service to goal poaching striker formula, scored 72 goals (highest in MLS) on the year. Certainly one could look at LA’s Goals Against number from this season as very high, but you must remember that prior to the return of Omar Gonzalez and the refocus of the team to their defensive responsibilities that the defense was a sieve. Colorado, as well, won a MLS cup with a rugged defense, a big man up top and a direct style.

It is within this scope of “what works in MLS” that we see what John Spencer was heading towards. His attempted focus on wing play, physicality, playing to a big man, defensive rigidity would and should have worked. Spencer’s major problem was the quality of the players obtained by and for him. With unwise trades and acquisitions Spencer and Wilkinson traded players they could have used for players that weakened the defense and midfield significantly. Spencer’s philosophies are those philosophies that work for Dominic Kinear. The difference is that Kinear has consistently picked the right players (sometimes at the DIRECT expense of the Timbers) and Spencer did not.

Which brings us to a major problem for Porter, that is… the Players.

This is a league in which defensive work rate, athleticism and gritty hard nose play are en vogue. MLS teams typically don’t possess the financial ability, the scouting or the stature to lure technically skilled players to the league. Those that have been brought over haven’t always worked out, for a number of reasons. As well, many technical players may not want to play in a league that is currently dominated by very physical play. What Porter was able to obtain at Akron is not going to be readily available within the ranks of professionalism. With Akron, Porter was one of the (if not THE top) alpha dogs in college soccer. His prestige alone made it easier to pitch the ideal of playing fluid football to blue chip prospects with technical flair.

With the Timbers, Porter will have to operate with a manager and owner overseeing his every move, a salary cap, and teams like Los Angeles who are more than willing to unload a couple million dollars towards available players who have never heard of Caleb Porter, Akron, and Portland. His navigation of player acquisition, his ability to work with youth prospects and find diamonds with inexpensive players will be key to his ability to implement some kind of fluid football. As well, his ability to translate his requests to Gavin Wilkinson will be one of the key components that will determine his success and failure. If Wilkinson is unable to obtain the talent that Porter requires, if he decides to imprint his own ideals on the player selection, or simply if he scouts poorly… Porter may find the seas enormously difficult during his tenure as coach.

It is a cop out to say that time will tell, but that is the trope to use here. Important milestones for Timbers fans will be the acquisition or discovery of authentic and useful full-backs that are comfortable with the ball and proficient (at least one of the two) in attack. As well, another milestone will be the acquisition of an attacking midfielder. The Timbers desperately need a player that can control the ball, the tempo of the offense and provide service. The 2012 Portland Timbers starting lineup simply does not have the technical ability or poise to play with Porter’s system. It remains up to Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson to find these players. As well it remains to be seen if MLS is at a time in which stylistic possession with the players available under a strict salary cap can defeat counter attacking or negative-branded tactics.

As for now…. All that Timbers fans can do is wait and see.

Porter’s Timbers

The Portland Timbers confirmed one of MLS’s worst kept secrets today when he announced that Caleb Porter would be their new head coach, taking over following the completion of the Akron Zips’ season in time for the 2013 MLS season.

The move to Portland will be Porter’s first foray into professional club management after a hugely successful time at the University of Akron, where he oversaw the development of a number of current MLS stars including the Timbers’ own Darlington Nagbe.

Many expected the Timbers would go with experience after the disappointing end to the John Spencer era, but owner Merritt Paulson was effusive in his praise for Porter, saying “Put simply, I believe Caleb Porter is the best young soccer coaching mind in the country.”

The lustre was somewhat taken off Porter following his failure to guide the US U’23 team to the London Olympics, but clearly the front office heard enough from him to convince them that that failure was a mere blip in the career of a hugely promising head coach.

Background

Caleb Porter moved into coaching relatively young after injuries curtailed his playing career at 25. His first coaching job was as assistant to Jerry Yeagley, and then Mike Freitag, at Indiana University and Yeagley, in particular, was a massive influence on the young coach.

Porter had played under Yeagley before turning professional, where the experienced coach sought to channel Porter’s natural intensity for the good of the team. The player had earned the nickname “Jean-Claude Van Damme” for his habit of tearing off his shirt to intimidate others during summer caps.

“Not in any ways was he a dirty player,” Yeagley said of Porter, “he was a hard player.”

Porter, a defensive midfielder, was a key part of that Indiana team and would later be drafted by San Jose Clash in 1998, but the intensity that had made him captain at Indiana bubbled over on his debut, where he managed to get himself sent off.

His career in MLS never really got off the ground, and knee injuries put an end to it altogether in 2000. Back at Indiana, he was mentored by Yeagley and his skills as a coach developed quickly, and soon made him stand out such that the University of Akron hired him to take over as head coach there in 2006.

With the Zips, he took a team that had a single NCAA Round of 16 appearance in the previous ten seasons and developed them into a powerhouse of US College soccer.

Porter’s eye for detail and man management abilities soon had the team firing on the field, while his eye of talent saw some of US soccer’s brightest prospect turning up in Ohio.

Porter was an enthusiastic adopter of technology, embracing statistical analysis systems like Match Analysis to give his teams that little bit extra edge that would, eventually, take them all the way to the NCAA final in 2009.

Although they would lose out on penalties to the University of Virginia, Porter had done enough in his time in Akron to attract the attention of DC United following the resignation of Tom Soehn after another poor season for the Black-and-Red.

Few could’ve blamed a young coach, fresh off some success, for having his head turned by the bright lights of Major League Soccer, but Porter chose to stick with the Zips, signing a new five year contract.

The decision would prove to be a good one for Porter as 2010 saw the Zips go one better when they won the national championship, fired to success by a certain Mr Nagbe, who won the Hermann Trophy that year, as well as Perry Kitchen and Darren Mattocks.

International

Caleb Porter during his stint in charge of the US Olympic qualifying campaign
Caleb Porter’s time as USMNT coach was not a roaring success
Porter’s sterling reputation at college level led to his appointment last October as head coach of the US U’23 team that would seek qualification to the 2012 London Olympics. It was a role that allowed him to retain his position at Akron, following his signing a 10 year contract after his 2010 championship success.

Despite big promises and high hopes, the qualifying campaign came to a crashing halt after a loss to Canada and a draw to El Salvador that saw the US eliminated.

It was a grave disappointment to all US Soccer fans, and Porter came in for much criticism for failure. Blame was laid at his door by some for his supposed “tactical inflexibility.” That’s a phrase that should get every Timbers fans worried after the experience of John Spencer where the Scot seemed unable or unwilling to deviate far from a throwback 4-4-2 style that was consistently being out-thought by other MLS coaches.

With the national team, Porter sought to replicate the attacking, possession based system he utilized at Akron. You don’t have to dig very far into Porter’s history before references to Barcelona and Arsenal abound regarding his team’s playing style.

In his early years in Ohio, he had his team playing with a fluid and mobile 4-4-2, but has changed it up recently, moving to a more “European” 4-3-3. One that that has remained constant has been Porter’s adherence to playing attacking football.

“We want to be known for playing the game in an attractive, attack-oriented way,” Porter has said of his Akron team. “We [want] people to see us win, but also feel good about the way we won.”

Porter places a high value on playing the game in an aesthetically pleasing way, and being proactive in their approach. His team’s will commonly look to keep the ball, and move it around at great pace, switching up between bouts of quick, short passes and long ball into space.

The key to this style of play is repetition, repetition, repetition. What the fans see on game day is the mere tip of the iceberg, beneath the surface lay countless hours of work on the training ground, drilling players and pushing them to develop tactically and technically.

While I don’t think Porter should escape all flak for the national team’s failure to make the Olympics, international football is a completely different beast to that of the domestic game. He wouldn’t be the first club coach to find life difficult in the international arena, and he won’t be the last.

Where club football affords you the time with your players to work on the intricate details of your tactical system, at international level there simply isn’t the time. You have to quickly mould together a diverse group of players, who are all likely playing in different systems domestically, and quickly form a cohesive unit.

Perhaps Porter was too ambitious in trying to force through his fluid system in such a short space of time, but that shouldn’t be such a problem at the domestic level.

Some critics also pointed out Porter’s lack of professional coaching experience as a problem, the insinuation being that top players wouldn’t listen to this young, unproven in their eyes, coach in the way that they perhaps would with a Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley – both of whom also learned their trade as University coaches.

One of Caleb Porter’s biggest critics in this regard was the twattish outspoken twitter trainwreck football fuckwit pundit-turned-coach Eric Wynalda.

“Caleb Porter was just given a job to coach a bunch of professionals, which is something he knows nothing about. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he failed and the team failed and that we didn’t qualify for the Olympics. Does Caleb Porter do a good job? A fantastic job, and his job is to be a recruiter, and what he’s been phenomenal at is convincing 10 families to send their kids to his university so they can have a successful program. But asking him to stand in front of a bunch of professionals and tell them what to do wasn’t going to work. It was never going to work.”

Whereas I’m sure players would have a ton of respect for Mr Wynalda.

Caleb Porter’s Timbers

I don’t foresee this being such a problem at the Timbers. I don’t think players look at a coaches resume before deciding whether to respect a coach or not – that comes by by the coach interacts and gets on with the job. If it purely came down to Wynalda’s rather cynical view of professional footballers, there would be no career for Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Andre Vilas-Boas. All coaches with little to no professional playing experience, but who quickly won round players with effective coaching and man management. Well, at Porto at least for Vilas-Boas – let’s not talk about Chelsea – but you get my point!

So what can the Timbers fans expect for Porter’s Timbers? To be honest, I think we’ll see more of what we’ve seen under Wilkinson. It’s hard not to think that this is an appointment a long time in the inking, but which has seen the groundwork being put in place for some time now.

The way the team are playing is certainly on the road to how Porter would likely want the team doing. The key to how the club will progress will be in how effectively he can put his ideas across, and how far he can develop the talent already here or how much control he’ll have over the recruitment policy.

There are rumours that the Perkins trade was instigated, or at least okayed, by Porter. This may not exactly endear him to some fans, but if true then the trading of such a popular and influential first team player would suggest that Porter’s word will carry a lot of sway with the front office, though there will still be a not insignificant contingent of fans for whom Wilkinson’s seemingly perpetual presence in a position of power in Portland provokes a perdurable and passionate peevishness.

Some may question Porter’s loyalty to Akron, staying in the post till December and whether he’ll have enough time to implement the kind of changes he’ll likely have to to turn around the ailing Timbers. I don’t think it’s such a great concern as I’m sure, even though he won’t be discussing the issue publicly, he’ll be maintaining daily contact with Wilkinson and the coaching staff and keeping abreast of matters in Portland. It’s far from ideal, but I hardly think he’s going to rock up in the Rose City in December completely unprepared.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dead wood to be cleared out by Porter before the Timbers kick off their all-conquering 2013 season. Guys like Kris Boyd and Lovel Palmer, to name but two, don’t strike me as players who fit into Porter’s high impact, possession-led way of playing. The coincidental timing of an announcement that Jeld-Wen Field will be widened to 74 yards next season is most fortuitous as it will suit the direction that Caleb Porter will want to take the team in. It may – may – also shut up a few tumshies around the league, stopping them banging on about how small the pitch is. Let’s see how they like having a stadium full of rabid fanatics bearing down right on top of them now.

Of course, we’ve been down that road before with John Spencer given a lot of rope in regards to player acquisition, and it didn’t exactly work out great, but this is a clean slate. The potential Caleb Porter has as a coach is great, and the ambition of Merritt Paulson is no secret.

Marrying the two could, at last, produce a side that delivers true and lasting success to a fan base that has already proven itself loyal to the team through the most trying of period. Imagine the noise they’ll make when the MLS Cup comes to it’s spiritual home in Soccer City USA.

#RCTID


[post_ender]

The Change Up

Three months ago I wondered whether a radical change in tactics might be a way for the Timbers to put an end to a disappointing start to the season. It didn’t happen, and John Spencer abandoning his beloved 442 for something as radical as a 343 was always the longest of long shots, just like Sigi Schmid to passing up an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Spencer would be fired as the season continued on a downward spiral, with Gavin Wilkinson installed as interim coach with a brief to “find out more about the group”. That would be the group that he had a large hand in assembling that he’s finding out about.

Wilkinson has moved away from Spencer’s 442-shaped comfort blanket and experimented with a long front man, and a five man midfield. Whether it takes the shape of a 451, a 4231, 4141 or a 433, the team has still struggled to find form like I struggled to find a good metaphor to put here.

The problem, as far as this armchair manager sees it, is that we continue to make the same mistakes, patiently rearranging the deckchairs before ramming into every damned iceberg we can find.

The plan seems to be the same as it ever was: play it quickly out of the back, get it wide, ???, profit. The problem stems from the fact that we play with guys out wide who are attracted into the centre like Wayne Rooney to his local nursing home. Franck Songo’o, when he’s in the mood, is a fantastic player who’ll beat players with tricks and feints, but he tends to do most of that coming in off the flanks rather than getting round the defence to get a cross in.

This has the effect of narrowing our attack to a dull point, handing the emphasis for providing width to the full-backs. Mo’ problems as we have full-backs whose delivery from wide areas could be politely described as fucking shite, so even when we do work a good overlap there’s an odds on chance that the only person getting their head on the ball is going to wake up in hospital with a case of concussion and the faint memory of walking past a football ground.

The other issue is that when the pass doesn’t go out wide, and our nominal “wingers” are coming inside, the middle of the pitch can get more congested than Harry Knowles’ arteries. So, we run right into traffic, lose the ball and are caught with our pants down and full-backs way out of position.

Being the kind of football nerd that spends time thinking about these kind of things when I could be doing something more productive like shouting at traffic or seeing how many Ritz crackers I can eat at once (6), I thought if we’re not going to think out of the box – which is a shame cos, really, what have we got to lose at this point? – why not find a way of playing that requires the minimum of tweaking?

Taking the 433 that the Timbers lined up with against Goats USA as the basis, I came up with something that does much the same job, but better I think, and with a dash of Barcelona in there, cos why the hell not?

The “Christmas Tree” formation – a sadly fitting title given the way the Timbers defence have been dishing out gifts this year – is a variation of the more traditional 433 where the two wide attackers are played more centrally, in behind the striker rather than flanking him, or supporting from wide.

Or, as Jonathan Wilson puts it in Inverting the Pyramid:

The 4-2-3-1 is just one variant of the five-man midfield. One of the attacking midfielders can be sacrificed for an additional holder, producing either a 4-3-2-1 – the Christmas tree – or the modern 4-3-3. Co Adriaanse seems to have been the first exponent of the 4-3-2-1 at Den Haag in the late eighties, and Terry Venables experimented with it with England ahead of Euro 96, but it was at the 1998 World Cup that a side using it achieved its first notable success, and it entered the mainstream.
  

Aimé Jacquet’s problem was accommodating Zidane, one of the greatest playmakers the world has known, but a player of limited pace and almost no defensive instinct. His solution was to give him effectively a free role, but to do that without destabilising his team defensively, he followed the Italian convention and fielded three midfielders whose function was primarily defensive – Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembeu. Youri Djorkaeff was included as a further creative presence, with Stéphane Guivarc’h as the lone centre-forward. He was much derided – and it may well be that, from a technical point of view, he is the worst centre-forward ever to win a World Cup – but he performed his function, which was, broadly speaking, to provide a focal point and hold the ball up for the creators behind.
  

AC Milan are the best modern exponents of the 4-3-2-1, although theirs is rather more attacking than France’s had been. When they won the Champions League in 2006, Kaká and Clarence Seedorf were the advanced midfield presences, with Andrea Pirlo operating as a regista behind them, flanked by the snapping and snarling of Gennaro Gattuso and the unfussy efficiency of Massimo Ambrosini. Again, though, the key is fluidity, for both Pirlo and Ambrosini are comfortable advancing and Seedorf, equally, can play in a more defensive role.

Against Chivas we saw the Timbers play with one holding midfielder in Jack Jewsbury, with Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara ahead of him – Nagbe concentrated more on attack, with Chara performing the box-to-box role.

In the 4321 I propose for the Timbers, the holding midfield role could be retained (given to Chara (#21) in the example above, but it could easily be Jewsbury, or Lovel Palmer if you secretly really hate football and want it stamped out), with the two in-front both performing box-to-box roles. We’ll come back to that defensive midfield role in a bit.

Though it might seem at first glance that we’ve lost an attacking player, because we have as there’s no longer a “front four” as there was in the 433/4231, but I think it would allow us greater attacking flexibility and potential.

The key to this change, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out, is “fluidity”, and having the attacking midfielders – Songo’o (#8) and Nagbe (#6) above, but it could also have Alhassan, Richards or Mwanga in there instead – moving out of the most congested area of the field and into space, rather than the other way round, with support coming from the two deeper midfielders, Eric Alexander (#17) and Jewsbury (#13).

The fact is that we essentially play the same way every week and teams know it. The personnel changes and there might be variations on the theme of 442 or 451, but it tends to shake out just the same. They can sit two or three players in midfield and know that they can shut down much of our attacks by simply waiting for us to run blindly into them. They can take their chances that we won’t hurt them down the wings, as we generally won’t, and look to spring us on the break when we get frustrated or panic, and meekly hand possession back to them.

By having Songo’o and Nagbe start in the centre with instructions to stay mobile, we can start to pull players around and look to open up spaces for our deeper midfielders to step forward into.

Keeping possession of the football is something that the Timbers have struggled with. It doesn’t seem like keeping the ball was as important to Spencer as “going direct”. It’s a very British mentality, though one that’s becoming rarer as footballing cultures from around the world have exerted their influence on the game in the UK.

Clearly, that approach isn’t working, so let’s change it up. Let’s keep the ball instead.

Here Steven Smith (#14) has the ball out wide. He can look to go down the outside, either with a run or a pass for Songo’o, or work it to a midfielder inside, or back to Futty Danso (#98). By having that extra man in midfield, we give the player on the ball an extra body to find.

It might not making for blood-and-thunder, “exciting” football, but I’d rather see us work the ball back to defence and across the pitch without advancing than trying to force something to happen and turning the ball over.

So if we have to go back, and then work it across the defence and back again three or four times, then so be it. While we’re doing it, the opposition are having to constantly adjust and move to cover space, while we’re letting the ball do much of our work.

Keeping the attacking midfielders mobile, and being patient in possession, allows us to probe for a space or weakness, rather than launching the ball towards “the big guy” up top and hoping we can profit from a knock-down.

And that’s another thing: the long ball is gone. No longer will JELD-WEN Field be a no-fly zone for light aircraft, fearful of being struck by another errant Troy Perkins punt.

Keeping the ball begins at the back. Generally speaking, whenever the keeper has the chance to get it up the pitch it signals that the opposition have just been thwarted in an attack, so why the hell are we giving it back to them? It’s like spilling someone’s pint and then throwing your own drink over them for good measure – why make things more difficult for yourself and invite trouble?

I want to see the central defenders either side of the box, with the holding midfielder close by, and the ball rolled out to feet. These guys in turn should be looking for a pass to feet rather than putting their foot through it like they just caught it in bed with their wife. If these guys are covered, a long throw to the full-backs or one of the deeper midfielders looking for space.

I’m not saying never ever go with a long ball. If the opportunity presents itself to send someone into the clear with a quick ball up the pitch, by all means, but I hate seeing players resorting to a lazy punt as a matter of course. It’s an abdication of responsibility – “it’s not my fault he didn’t win the header” – and causes more problems than the occasional time the ball may break kindly is worth.

As you may have noticed, there’s a change at the back too. In possession I’d want my central defenders pushed out wide, with the holding midfielder dropping back to create a line of three. This is very much like the system Barcelona use where Busquets is often the guy to plug in at the back.

The thinking here is that is provides cover for the full-backs who’ll be expected to play on the front foot, and take the game to their opposite number.

Currently, if we lose the ball and the opposition attacks the gap left by a full-back caught up the pitch, we’re left with a central defender having to cover across, making up ground on the attacker, and a 1v1, or worse, in the centre. As players scramble to cover and get into shape, it’s easy to lose an attacker for the split second it takes for them to get that half-yard they need to get in behind.

With the three at the back, the flanks are already covered, with the defender of the opposite flank able to squeeze back in should there be runners from midfield.

The defenders also serving as linking players, helping to circulate the ball.

In attack, the important thing is to give the player on the ball options.

In this example, Smith has a number of options. He can go round the outside (a), looking for the run of Songo’o, whose run would have to be matched by his marker lest he be allowed to get in free and clear behind the defence. His run would allow Alexander to step forward into space.

The option for the cross (b) is still there. You could look to get Boyd (#9) in here, or if the Scot has dropped off and taken a defender with him, Nagbe making a late run against the full-back at the back post.

Both (c) and (d) let the player shift it inside, and the important factor here is to keep the ball moving quickly. One and two touch football, looking to work triangles and keeping it simple. The option to go back (e) is always there, and the ball can be shifted across to the other side where the opposition defence can be probed from another angle.

All this is very easy when it’s written down; it’s a different matter in real life. There’s been a noticeable drop in the speed the team plays at as guys look to take a couple of touches before moving it on and this, allied with the team playing towards the busiest area of the pitch, contributes to the side’s inability to create enough of the clear cut chances needed to win games.

Do we have the players to play a quick passing game, and is Boyd mobile enough? Perhaps not. You can tweak and experiment all you like with formations, but if the XI on the pitch simply aren’t good enough, you’re going to lose most matches regardless.

Given Wilkinson (coincidentally, this is how his name is pronounced in Kiwi) is there to see what the players can do, I’d like to at least see him ask the question of the players. Let’s see what they can do. Though, perhaps it’ll be down to Sean McAuley to experiment further given his appointment – I don’t understand why we’re hiring assistants when we don’t yet have a head coach, but there you go – seems to have, at least in part, been designed to free up Wilkinson to concentrate more on his peerless work as general manager.

The club is stuck in a kind of listless limbo state at the moment. The playoffs are like Lindsay Lohan’s career, a distant memory, and there’s no threat of relegation to light a fire under a team that have themselves spent much of the last couple of weeks under a bus. With no manager, and no direction, it’s little surprise the team are drifting towards the least satisfying climax since Snooki’s boyfriend sobered up mid-coitus.

With little to play for, the Cascadia Cup excepted, all the fans can look for is some signs for hope next year. We could start by at least trying to play good football.

The Timbers Take Wing

Portland Timbers fans are still basking in the afterglow of a fine derby victory, and with the dust still settling I thought I’d look back at one of the aspects of the Timbers play that really encouraged me – the wings.

Alhassan put in another good shift down the right, backed up by Jewsbury, but here I’m going start with a focus on the left wing.

Franck Songo’o has frustrated me so far this year. There’s been flashes of skill here and there, but he’s been entirely inconsistent and at times has seemed to lack focus and purpose in the final third.

I’ve also doubted his winger credentials, especially in light of his performance against LA.

Songo’o tendency to drift infield really hurt the Timbers in that match. He was coming in off the wing, and running right into the most congested part of the pitch, with LA packing three men in the centre of midfield.

He showed much more discipline against Seattle, sticking to his role a lot better.

For me, it was Songo’o best game in Timbers green. I’m still not convinced he’s an out-and-out winger, but his display against Seattle showed that he can play that wide role effectively, especially when he has Steven Smith on his shoulder.

The reintroduction of Smith down the left flank was a massive boon to the team. Where Songo’o may drift infield, and narrow the attacking line, Smith will pop up out wide and force Seattle to leave gaps in the middle, or give the Scot a free run at the byline.

Songo’o and Smith would combine out left in the build up to the first goal, scored by Kris Boyd.

As well as the combination of Smith and Songo’o down the left, another very encouraging aspect of the play was the way that they switched play from flank to flank.

Too often we’ve seen the Timbers work the ball down the channels, run into trouble and simply cede possession to the other team, but against Seattle we saw them switch play from one side to another with real purpose.

Here we see the team winning the ball deep, getting it forward quickly down the right and then working it across the pitch, right in front of the Seattle defence. Unfortunately the pass into the box is a poor one, but notice Smith once more making himself available down the line – finding himself level with the ball at both the start and finish of the move.

Another example of this crisp passing across the pitch to stretch the Seattle defence begins with Smith and Songo’o wide left and ends, via Nagbe and an onrushing Jewsbury, with Alhassan in wide right.

Alhassan’s dinked shot/cross (who knows with this guy) drops just wide of the post, but agains you see the team moving the ball with poise and precision.

This kind of crossfield passing is only possible with willing runners from fullback positions and hard-working guys in the middle who make themselves available for the ball, and move it on crisply.

No-one sums that role up better than Diego Chara.

This was probably my favourite passage of play, even though it didn’t come to anything in the end. I simply love Chara’s work here. He’s the first on the scene to take the ball from Smith, and then at every stage of the move, he’s always available to take the ball back. He doesn’t do anything flashy or highlight-reel worthy – his passing is simple and measured – but this kind of play in the middle is what allows the team to move the ball across the field at pace and keep the opposition moving, allowing the Timbers to probe for weakness.

Even when he does lose the ball, he’s straight onto it and wins it right back.

Someone like Chara is essential as the Timbers don’t have a passer like Beckham, who thinks nothing of launching a 50 yard crossfield pass. Instead, the Timbers looked to rely on quick, short passes and runs to work the ball across, with only one crossfield pass attempted (not including set pieces).

Once more it was the Smith/Songo’o combination down the left that combined to forge a great chance for Danny Mwanga to write himself into Timbers folklore by scoring against Seattle with his first touch at Jeld-Wen Field.

The team has oft been criticised for being predictable in the way they play. They’ll be direct, they’ll try and get it wide and cross it in. Teams have capitalized on this and neutralised the flanks, driving the team infield and into trouble as we’ve often lacked the short, quick passing game needed to carve open a team through the middle.

We finally saw a glimpse of that game plan clicking into place against Seattle. Smith has already made himself indispensable at left back, and Jewsbury is solid enough at right back – thought I still think that’s an area that needs to be strengthened with real quality.

Given this team’s tendency to find something that works one week, and blindly try to replicate it the next week without thought for the change of opposition I still worry that we seem to lack a Plan B.

It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Alhassan in the next match. Jewsbury isn’t the willing runner that Smith is round the outside, so isn’t going to cover for a player who drifts inside as well as the Scot, and that could leave the team lopsided and forced down dead ends. It may be that Zizzo’s time has come.

Timbers’ Galaxy Quest

LA Galaxy host Portland Timbers for the second time this season with neither team in sparkling form, though the Timbers can at least point to an unbeaten month of May after 3 draws and the win against Chicago. LA’s form has been little short of catastrophic, with only 1 win in the 8 MLS matches since they defeated the Timbers 3-1 in April. They’ve lost the last three, as well as losing to Carolina Railhawks in the US Open Cup.

Bah, the Open Cup…

How the Timbers react to their defeat to Cal FC will be one of the big questions hanging over the side. The sour taste that the defeat left in the mouths of fans has lingered, and both players and fans will be looking for a palate cleansing victory this weekend.

During the break the Timbers have added Danny Mwanga to the side, sending Jorge Perlaza to Philadelphia, and you would expect that Mwanga will be in line for a debut against LA. The developing partnership of Mwanga and Boyd will be an interesting one to watch.

LA Galaxy Team Problems

The Timbers have every right to feel that this is a very winnable match. They aren’t facing the same team that swept to an MLS Cup triumph last year. This LA will have lost Robbie Keane to international duty, are nursing a long injury list and have Mike Magee and Michael Stephens suspended as well as Landon Donovan publicly expressing his ennui. Also is not well at Beckham FC, and Bruce Arena has had to fend off talk of dressing room unrest.

This will force the Galaxy into a number of changes in line-up, with Keane, Buddle and Cristman all likely to miss out. Chad Barrett has started the last couple of matches with Edson Buddle, so it would seem likely he would lead the line against Portland, with the veteran ex-Sounder Pat Noonan also an option, though he has only started one of his nine appearances this season. Jack McBean, only 17, is an option but unlikely to be start. If Juninho makes it, I’d expect a front three of Nakazawa, Barrett and Donovan – assuming he’s fit to go after a raft of international matches – to start, with Beckham behind and Juninho and Sarvas providing the steel in midfield.

Magee’s suspension is a blow for them, but Kyle Nakazawa is an able deputy on the left. Nakazawa will be no stranger to Danny Mwanaga having been team mates at Philadelphia (Mwanga even contributed an assist to a Nakazawa goal last season), and he possesses a threat from set plays, assuming Beckham lets him take any.

The midfield battle

A big key point for LA will be whether Juninho makes it. Juninho is very much the heart of the engine room for the Galaxy, and his absence is usually sorely felt. His box-to-box, all action hustle allows Beckham to play a more advanced central role where his long passing and shooting can be more effective.

Though very much in the twilight of his career, Beckham’s ability to spread the play around will keep the Timbers back line stretched. The flashes of old brilliance are coming at ever-increasing intervals these days, but the Timbers won’t need any reminding about what he can do if given time and space 30 yards from goal.

Having Juninho and Sarvas in the centre also takes away some of the defensive responsibility from the ageing underwear model, which is probably just as well as it’s certainly not his strong suit.

There was a sense that Marcelo Sarvas had been signed from LD Alajuelense to replace his countryman Juninho, before the Brazilian was signed on a third year-long loan deal the following month. Though his playing time has been limited, Sarvas has done reasonably well when given the chance in a Diego Chara-esque role.

Winning this midfield battle will be difficult. The Galaxy have a number of ways they can go – Beckham may play out wide in a 4-4-2, or they can put 3 in the middle in a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 set up. Diego Chara’s ability to disrupt play is important, but whoever is alongside him will have to help out defensively to stop Chara being outnumbered by an onrushing Juninho, or Donovan/Nakazawa coming in from the flanks.

Donovan’s Threat

Though his form for LA has been below par Donovan remains a threat, coming in from wide or from deep with late runs, as the Timbers found out to their cost in the last match between the teams when he equalised just before half time. Given his talismanic status with the Galaxy, it’s unsurprising that he’s often given license to roam and this can make him difficult to track. He’ll also drop deep to pick up the ball and can, with a pass and move, set off quick attacking moves, as Colorado found out to their cost this season.

In Defence

The Timbers’ new-found defensive solidity will be put to the test. They have lost only 2 goals in 4, and kept 3 clean sheets in the past 6, so there’s every reason for a degree of confidence even though Troy Perkins has had come up huge a number of times for the team. Concentration will be key, and it’s vital that Chara gets support in the midfield to help protect the defence.

Hanyer Mosquera has also proven himself to be an astute piece of business. The heart of the defence at this point is certainly Mosquera & A. N. Other. His robust style sets the tone at the back, but his tendency to come out of defence and ball chase can leave gaps – the kind of spaces that a Barrett or Donovan love to find.

In the Galaxy they’ll face a defence that have often shown the same levels of competence as Alexi Lalas does footballing insight. Without Omar Gonzales to marshal the backline, it’s been seat-of-the-pants time for Galaxy fans. Almost every goal can be attributed to an individual mistake, or poor defensive co-ordination.

Goalie Josh Saunders will likely be back for his first start since the 2-1 win against Colorado, having played in the reserve match against the Timbers at the start of the month. The 3 wins LA have this year have all come with Saunders between the sticks, but the goals against average hasn’t changed much – in fact, it’s been marginally lower without Saunders – 1.57 from 1.67, or a goal every ten games or so.

He’s likely to be behind a back four of Dunivant, Lopes, DeLaGarza and Franklin. AJ DeLaGarza formed a good understanding with Gonzales last season, but this year he’s had more partners than Newt Gingrich, and failed to find chemistry with any of them. It’s likely that ex-Chivas man David Junior Lopes will start against Portland, with Lopes and DeLaGarza playing together four times this season – the most of any Galaxy centre-back twosomes.

Something In The Air…

DeLaGarza’s lack of height – he’s only 5’9 – is also a problem that teams have sought to take advantage of. With that in mind, getting good delivery in from the flanks has proven very fruitful for opponents this season.

DeLaGarza isn’t at fault in the centre here, but he does allows his man too much space to get turned and get a cross in, and by putting it between defenders, Sene is given the relatively simple job of nodding the ball home. The lack of a dominant presence at the back such as Gonzales really shows in this area, as no-one takes it upon themselves to attack the ball.

Here Gaul doesn’t close down Rosales, preferring to concentrate on the outside runner, while Donovan shows a lackadaisical attitude to getting back. The cross from deep is well measured to miss out the 6’3 Lopes at the front post, and let Eddie Johnson go up against the smaller DeLaGarza.

The Back Post

Taking “the big man” out of the equation and isolating DeLaGarza or the fullbacks has been a recurring theme for the Galaxy.

Again, it’s a far post cross, and Kamara reads it better than Franklin for a simple header, and even if Franklin didn’t have a brainfart, you’d put money on Kamara beating him to the ball anyway.

Neither first choice full-back for the Galaxy have covered themselves in glory this season. Their attacking play has carried any great potency, and their defensive work has often left a lot to be desired. It’s almost as if it’s not that easy a position to play.

It may be a result of the loss of Gonzales’ influence and organisation, but whatever the cause for the dip in form, both full-backs are playing like players not entirely sure of their jobs and with little confidence in the rest of their defensive team mates.  They’ve had real problems defending the channels, and a switched-on attacker can find himself in acres of space with a well-timed forward pass.

Timbers Attacking

The biggest problem the Timbers have faced isn’t shutting out the opposition, it’s putting the ball in the net. They’ve netted only 4 times in the 6 matches since the loss to Galaxy, and half of those were own-goals.

Given the way that Spencer has relentlessly had the Timbers playing – direct from back to front, get it wide – it almost seems like the Galaxy’s weakness at full back, and soft centre, are tailor made for the Timbers to shine.

In a way, given the weakness out wide this is almost the perfect match for the running of Perlaza. His channel running would cause the full-backs headaches, allowing the outside players to get space for the cross. Mwanga though has that ability, combined with a bit more of a physical presence.

With Boyd and Mwanga both likely to start – and 6’1 and 6’2 respectively – the height is there to really challenge the Galaxy defence, providing the delivery is good. Too often the Timbers have been wasteful from wide areas, but have in Sal Zizzo and Kalif Alhassan two guys who can measure a cross. But they also have guys like Mike Chabala who has an almost vampiric fear of a good cross, preferring the hit and hope and fail method.

Though neither Boyd or Mwanga are particularly dominant in the air, both would fancy their chances against the fullbacks or DeLaGarza. Indeed, DeLaGarza’s weakness in the air is something the team and player himself are all too aware of.

There is a tendency for the defence to drop a little deeper to try and limit the effectiveness of long balls forward for big strikers to win flick-ons, but this leaves this exposed to cross balls into dangerous areas as players are able to attack the ball 6 yards from goal.

The temptation may be to pump the ball long and look to win the second ball on knock-downs against DeLaGarza from which could allow the Timbers to get good possession in dangerous areas and keep the attack moving, with the outside midfielders getting forward to offer through balls in the channels between centre and full backs or a pass out wide, but they may find themselves thwarted in this by the presence in those areas of Sarvas and/or Juninho.

Late Game Jitters

Whichever teams holds it’s late game nerve could well come out on top. In April it was the Galaxy who grabbed a couple of late goals for the win and Timbers fans are all to aware of the teams late game performance. There hasn’t been a record as abject as the Timbers in the last 20 minutes since Paris Hilton got delusions of musical adequacy.

While the Galaxy have also suffered late in matches, conceding over half their goals in the final 30 minutes, they also score a lot late on – 60% of the goals they’ve scored this year have come in the final 30.

Both teams have thrown away leads late in matches, so the mental toughness of both XI’s are likely to be tested here. The Galaxy’s poor home form, coupled with fans unrest, could work to the Timbers advantage if they can get themselves ahead and frustrate the hosts and turn the crowd against their heroes.

Timbers Selection

With Futty on international duty with The Gambia, and Eric Brunner a doubt, it looks like David Horst will partner Hanyer Mosquera at the back. Horst didn’t cover himself in glory at the Cal FC goal, but no-one really came out of that game with credit. Steven Smith is taking his time getting back, and with Wallace picking up a knock it might mean a start for Mike Chabala at left back, with Jewsbury likely to continue at right back.

Given the emphasis I’ve placed on getting good delivery in from wide areas, I am worried about having Chabala’s Comically Catastrophic Crossing Cavalcade down the wing, but I do like him matched against Landon Donovan or David Beckham as I feel his defensive game is much more his strength.

In midfield Diego Chara is a lock, hopefully at central midfield, though you can never be sure. Out wide there’s Sal Zizzo, Kalif Alhassan, Franck Songo’o and Eric Alexander all competing for a spot. Personally, I’d go with Alhassan and Zizzo, but Zizzo’s impact as a sub may be something Spencer wants to hold in reserve until later in the game. I worry that going with Alhassan and Songo’o out wide, given both these guys’ propensity for dribbling inside, could leave our distinctly-not-first-choice full backs exposed to a double team as Franklin and Dunivant are allowed to break forward without worry.

Nagbe will likely start in his midfield/attacker role with Mwanga and Boyd up top, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mwanga start from the bench, with Nagbe partnering Boyd and possibly Alexander in midfield with Chara. I wouldn’t be entirely happy, but not shocked either. Brent Richards did reasonably well when he came on against Cal FC, and has done well for the reserves this year, but I doubt we’ll see Spencer drop any of the “proven” players to give Richards a debut in the back yard of the Champions.

Conclusion

All this being said, I’m feeling pretty confident about Portland’s chances on Sunday. While the Timbers have their own concerns and players missing, there’s a sense that finally the important players are coming back into the team. That’s not the sense you get from LA, who have Keane missing, Donovan’s form slumping and Beckham not getting any younger.

It’s been far too long to make amends after the Open Cup débâcle, and I’m sure the players are itching to prove that result an aberration.

If the Timbers defence can stick to their task and stay focused, then the foundations are there for the win. The LA defence is nothing to be feared. Pressure applied to the flanks with strong, dynamic play from the strikers could kick open the doors. If Real Salt Lake can beat Chivas at the same ground the night before, Spencer’s boys will know a win will put them up into 6th, with the play-offs firmly in sight.

#RCTID

Diego Chara & The Art of Fouling

The old saying that rules are meant to be broken is usually used to justify some sort of misdemeanor or blatant cheating. I think we’d all agree that cheating is rampant throughout football and are fed up of seeing a player throw themselves to the ground in complete agony only to discover in a nicely presented slow motion replay that nobody touched him. Yet that old saying rings true in football.

Players often know that a foul will be called and yet will commit the act anyway because fouling is an important part of the game of football.

I am not talking about dangerous tackles. I stand firmly on the side of seeing them eliminated from the game even at the cost of making it less physical and losing certain kinds of tackles. But it has a place tactically and in the flow of the game.

Diego Chara, energetic midfielder to the Portland Timbers, is a master of such acts. It’s a well known statistic to Timbers fans that Chara committed the most fouls in the MLS last year. Despite this Timbers actually committed 3rd fewest fouls in the league. There are several reasons why Chara is a “foul master”. Firstly, he is a central midfielders and central midfielders tend to commit more fouls than any other position. Particularly those who are of a defensive disposition, which Chara is even if John Spencer doesn’t agree. Secondly, he does not stop running (well until the 80th minute at least). He covers an amazing amount of ground and thus is usually close to where the action is. Thirdly, he has a relatively good understanding of the value of the foul and discernment of when to commitment one and when not to.

The deliberate foul is, in a sense, an art. Of course it’s not artistic in the form that many other elements of the beautiful game are but it is also not as brutal and simplistic as one may think in simply watching it. A player has a split second to weigh up the potential risks and gains of said foul. This applies to a legitimate attempt to win a challenge too. You have to determine what are the risk of potential injury to both parties (most professional players don’t want to deliberately injure other players beyond, perhaps, a bruise or something else small), the chance of winning the ball (if indeed you are going for the ball), the chance of receiving either a yellow or a red card, the position of the free kick and chance of opposition scoring from said free kick. All of these are thought about and processed usually within a second then weighed against the reward, and there is always some reward to a foul that is committed intentionally. This can be one of several things, and for the purpose of this article I will separate the type of foul by these categories.

The Professional Foul
Or, preventing a goalscoring opportunity or liklihood of an opportunity developing.

Professional fouls are deliberately imposed by an opposition player because of the risk of conceding a goal. Traditional definitions talk strictly of preventing goalscoring opportunities and insist on a professional foul being a red card offense but I think a slightly broader definition gives a better indicator of what they are.

I would define it as a foul committed to avoid a situation where the probability of a goalscoring opportunity is high. For example, where 4 players are advancing on a counter attack against 3 defenders or where a highly skilled individual player is advancing with a supporting attacker against 2 defenders. Using my definition of a professional foul it will almost always result in a yellow card and often a red card. Two examples immediately jump to mind from my years of watching football. The first of the classic last man professional foul. The second is from my broader definition.

The first occurred in a game at Old Trafford in the 1997/8 season. With four games left in the season Manchester United sit a top the premier league but under severe pressure from Arsenal. They are hosting a Newcastle United team languishing in mid table. The game was tied at 1-1 with just a few minutes left. Man United have the ball deep in the Newcastle half and Beckham’s cross is headed clear by Stuart Pearce and drops for Temuri Ketsbaia who manages to help it on to Rob Lee. Lee is inside his own half but there isn’t a single player between him and Manchester United goalkeeper Raimond Van Der Gaouw. He charges forward under pursuit from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who realises he won’t catch Lee in time and so chops him down about 10 yard outside the Manchester United penalty area. He gets up and already starts walking off the field even before the referee brandishes the red card. Solskjaer knew he was going to get sent off, but the reward was justifiable as Lee was likely to score and that was likely to result in a loss. It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that this is the only red card Solskjaer would receive in his whole career. He also only received 4 yellow cards, so this is not someone that can be accused of being a “dirty” player. It was a tactical foul for tactical reasons.

My broader definition is highlighted by an incident from the 2002 World Cup. The semi-final between Germany and South Korea is tied at 0-0. Germany are in the ascendancy and but South Korea launch a counter. Suddenly there are 4 South Korean attackers bearing down on 2 German defenders with Lee Choon-soo dribbling the ball. 2 German midfielders are closely in pursuit. Lee cuts inside beating one man and is facing the last defender with the option to beat him or square the ball to waiting attackers on either side. Michael Ballack sticks out a leg from behind and brings down Lee promptly ending a very promising attack for Korea. He is booked by the ref, and despite his protests it’s a justifiable booking. It’s significant because it’s his second booking of the tournament and mean he’ll be suspended from the final should they reach it, which they did courtesy of a goal from Ballack himself. It’s plausible here that Ballack was going for the ball. But he knows going into it that it’s a low probability challenge and that the likelihood is he’s going to commit a foul and it’s going to be a booking. It cost him his place in the final but possibly got his team there.

The later incident represents the bread and butter of the deliberate fouls of a defensive midfielder. They must know when an attack is progressing that it’s very dangerous and know when it’s acceptable to end that attack with a risky tackle. It’s calculated risk as sometimes you might end a promising attack with one such challenge only to find the resulting free kick nominated for goal of the week or expect a yellow card only to find its colour is red.

Watching Diego Chara I often see him commit these kind of fouls and I daresay they have saved the Timbers from conceding a goal on some occasions. Often I find myself quietly thinking “good one Chara”.

One particularly special example from Diego occurred in the away game in Houston. Kandji was rapidly advancing towards the Portland goal and several Dynamo players were joining him in the attack. It was something akin to a 4 on 4 breakaway. Then up stepped Chara, all 5ft7 of him, and he completely levelled the 6ft4 Kandji. Inexplicably the referee waved play on and the game continued but this was definitely a foul and probably a bookable offense. I can only assume the ref believed the contact was a normal shoulder to shoulder challenge that is permissible in football.

I fully believe that Chara thought the foul would be called and maybe even expected a yellow card but committed the offense anyway knowing that the Houston attack was looking very dangerous. To me, it was a moment of beauty and intelligence from Chara. Firstly, to recognize the danger and secondly, to so promptly to put a stop to a huge and menacing striker. It makes me smile just thinking about how tough Chara is considering his size. Pound for pound I am not sure many can compete with the wee man.

The Breakup
Or, disrupting the flow of the game and an opponent’s possession of the ball.

Football is a game that at its finest is free flowing and continuous. It’s one of the things that make it such a beautiful game. But sometimes you are in a situation as a player where you don’t want that to happen.

A great recent example of this was Chelsea’s performances against Barcelona. Branded as “anti football” by many people, Chelsea set out defensively with the intent of frustrating Barcelona and exploiting opportunities on the break. With a fairly large slab of luck it succeeded and we all know Chelsea went on, with another defensive luck ridden display, to win the Champions League.

A part of the game plan against Barca was to hound them and to break up their play (by either committing a foul, winning a tackle or forcing the ball out of play). It isn’t pretty to watch but sometimes it is necessary. Many teams have tried to outplay Barcelona and very, very few have succeeded in the last few years. The teams that have tried and failed consist of some that are much more talented than Chelsea. Chelsea knew that they couldn’t win playing that way. Whilst I deplore teams that use this as their primary way of playing football, against certain opposition in certain circumstances it is a necessity.

The breakup foul is a simple part of such a game plan. You commit a challenge that will draw a foul call from the referee simply to stop the flow of the game in that moment. It, assuming the opposition take a moment to take the free kick, gives players a chance to get back into position.

Of course this type of foul doesn’t need to be used as a tactical outlay for an entire game. It can simply be the decision that a player takes in a moment. This is one of the areas in which I see Chara excelling the most. He has a knack of knowing when it is wise to commit a simple foul to break up a play. He’s often getting cautioned (or warned about getting cautioned) for repetitive fouling because of this. It seems like half the time an opposition player gets the ball and the possibility of launching a quick attack is there, so is Chara hassling him. Sometimes his presence is enough, other times he can win the ball back legally. But sometimes he takes a quick tug on the shirt or sticks a leg in to commit a foul. This especially seems to happen when Timbers give away possession cheaply in midfield or in the opposition half. So often the possibility for a quick counter is denied because of Diego Chara and I appreciate it a lot.

The Aggregator
Or, frustrating opposition players to limit their effectiveness.

This particular kind of foul can be frustrating to watch and if abused can be dangerous but it can also be very effective. It very much overlaps with the previous sections as often fouls which break up plays can be extremely frustrating.

That niggling pest of a player who will not get off your back and keeps fouling you. Everyone that plays regular has experienced this kind of player and it can be incredibly frustrating. More often than not for me, in my extremely amateur level of play, it’s because someone doesn’t know how to tackle very well. But at the professional level this is simply not the case (save for the occasional lazy attacker).

Most teams, particularly in a physical league like the MLS, have players like this. They are constantly frustrating opposition players in the hope of nullifying their threat in a game. Frequently it works and sometimes even with amazing players. In his first couple of years at Manchester United Christiano Ronaldo was often hounded out of games. He would get wound up by consistent fouling, perhaps make a mistake or two and then drift out of the game. Players saw a weakness in him and exploited in it. He learned to move beyond that, grew up and, well, the rest is history. Certainly these niggling, frustrating fouls are not pretty to watch. A line also has to be drawn here. Being overly physically aggressive to irritate people is dangerous. That line is frequently crossed by individual players, particularly in attempting to cope with players that are advanced far beyond their skill level and that has no place in the game. It’s why the powers that be have clamped down on challenges from behind, two footed tackles and the like.

But, in my opinion, this is where Diego Chara succeeds. He rarely puts in dangerous challenges or looks out of control. Yet he often frustrates opposition players with his persistent tackles and fouls and his physical presence. This is why you frequently see opposition players start to get angry with Chara, and why he often has a smile on his face as they do. He’s doing his job.

As a fan of this wonderful sport I have come to appreciate this element of football. Of course it will never hold the same place as a beautiful dribble, a passing move or those goals that we crave so much. But it can still be appreciated. Indeed, if we are to appreciate a player like Diego Chara fully for what he is worth than it must be appreciated. Not every player can play “sexy football”, as Ruud Gullit once called it. Not every game can be filled with glorious moments. So we must learn to appreciate these seemingly mundane elements of the game as then we will never grow tired of it and will enjoy the truly beautifully crafted moments all the more.

Diego Chara’s place in the Portland Timbers is invaluable. Although, he may not of lived up to his early billing as an “attacking midfielder” or the promise he showed with some most excellent displays last year he continues to produce performances that aid the Timbers tremendously. His continual running, tackling and intercepting ability coupled with the understanding of when fouls are needed is crucial in helping to frustrate opponents offense. Of course he also has a decent ability on the ball, is quick to assist in offense and good at starting up attacks (he frequently will make the pass to Nagbe or one of the Wingers in a position that they are able to launch an attack).

Of course Chara is not alone here. There are many players who have successfully mastered this domain and most football fans could learn to love them even more if they can appreciate the art of fouling.


You can follow Andrew on twitter – @andyyax