Tag Archives: defence

Evolutionary, My Dear Wilkinson

The off season lumbers on with the owner poking at a wound that fans thought had scabbed over, but it turns out might still be a little raw underneath, and the league patting itself on the back with an awards season that even Grammy organizers think is getting a bit too niche. The players are all off doing whatever it is they do when they’re not kicking a ball about most days and the fans are entertaining themselves in the only way they know how when there is no football to focus them: stoking the drama fire to keep out the cold.

The backroom staff will be working though. The work for 2014 doesn’t begin here, those wheels have been in motion for a long time, but it certainly ramps up a notch as Caleb Porter and, yes Merritt, Gavin Wilkinson start to push pieces across the table, charting the march to silverware liked generals in an old World War II war room. Continue reading Evolutionary, My Dear Wilkinson

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Thorns FC: Utter Rubbish

utterrubbish


Before my hip went bad I played keeper for a basement-league co-ed recreational soccer team in Portland.

You can imagine what the quality of our play was like.

I had a centerback that played in front of me who had been a decent amateur defender before his wheels had gone, but even then, as he tried hopelessly to contain the disaster in my penalty area, he retained a fine sense of defensive positioning and tactics; he knew how the game was supposed to be played and he had a keen appreciation of the difference between that and how we actually played.

So when, for all his hard graft, we would ship yet another goal Ed would typically look around at the wreckage of the defense strewn all about him, make what I always suspected was a very Scottish noise through his nose, and growl;

“Well.  That was utter rubbish.”

Portland Thorns FC lost Wednesday night 2-1 to a pair of late Boston goals.

After going up on a Weimer strike in the 52nd minute the Thorns defense left Lianne Sanderson unmarked in their own 18 fifteen minutes later and she slotted the ball past a charging LeBlanc to even the match.

A draw would still have seen PTFC through to the playoffs, but shambolic defending descended on PTFC again in the 84th minute, when Heather O’Reilly ran onto a nicely weighted long ball and from there had an uncontested run at goal, and converted it handily.

Add to that a knee injury to Alex Morgan and you had an evening that was pretty thoroughly utter rubbish.

Portland has manage to back into the playoffs only because the woeful Washington Spirit defeated the Chicago Red Stars in a freakish 1-0 match – terminated in the 81st minute after long electrical storm delays, if you can believe that.  Only in the NWSL…

We here in Portland should not be celebrating this.

Given the shambolic defending on display at Dilboy Stadium tonight the Thorns would be lucky to prevent three U-12s and their parents from putting four past Karina LeBlanc if they were to meet in the semifinal.  Recreating their ugly mistakes in the loss to FCKC last Sunday the Thorns backline had another series of appalling breakdowns tonight and lost a match that the team should have won or at least drawn.

What will happen next week in Rochester I have no idea, but if current form holds nothing good.

Coach Parlow Cone’s contributed her inexplicable player selections and substitutions to the troubles Wednesday night.

Starting Ramirez for Dougherty might have made some sense had the defensive problems we’ve seen been largely on the flank rather than through Kat Williamson in centerback.  But what the heck was going on with her match substitutions?  Wetzel for Foxhoven at the hour might have made some sort of sense had it stiffened the defense; that it did not – both Boston goals went in after the sub – calls it into question.

But Ellertson for Shim at 85 minutes, down a goal and needing the equalizer?

I honestly don’t know what else to say other than, well…

I had hoped that the Thorns would rally in Boston after the wretched display last Sunday.  I had hoped that Rachel Beuhler would woodshed her defenders and make them swear a blood-oath to give up their firstborns rather than ship another soft goal between the kickoff tonight and the final whistle in Tukwila.

I had hoped the Coach Parlow Cone would have devised tactical plans for the last three matches so cunning that Boston, Western New York, and Seattle would each end up in turn standing in a stymied huddle in midfield at the final whistle wondering what the Girls in Red had done to them.

Instead this team is a mess right now, sliding towards the playoffs in the worst possible condition.

I want to be hopeful.  I want to continue to believe that this and last Sunday were just hiccups.  I want to believe that the Thorns will regroup, charge into Rochester and slap the Flash around, storm into Tukwila and hammer the Reign, and from there roar into the playoffs with a shout.

But back in the day I wanted to believe that my team could win Co-ed Rec League IV.

And that turned out to be just utter rubbish, too.

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.

The Defence Rests

After a win last weekend that gave hope – albeit of the remote kind – that the Timbers could make the play-offs, the team did their level best to extinguish those flames in the return fixture against Colorado Rapids as the old road woes returned.

Even though I had my doubts about the home performance against the Rapids, I understood why Wilkinson lined up the same XI again. The team has been pretty settled of late, and while they were getting results it’s hard to argue against sticking with the same formula.

However, the Timbers started slowly and within the first minute the Rapids had hit the post and Timbers fans settled in for the now-familiar bumpy ride.

That initial chances came when Kimura misread a long ball and got caught out. Not the first time Kimura had misjudged things, and won’t be the last. It’s a startling statistic to think that Kimura has played in 11 or the Timbers 27 matches this season (39.3% of total game minutes), yet has been on the pitch as the team has lost 24 of the 46 goals it’s shipped (52.2% of goals lost). It’s a chicken and egg situation – is the defence so much worse because Kimura is there, or did Kimura come in as the defence was already slipping bearing in mind he played under John Spencer only once and so has been here through the shocking run of results under Wilkinson.

I like the Japanese full-back (going forward, mostly) but this is a game he’ll want to forget. A terrible return to his old stomping ground.

The Timbers went 1-0 down early on when Kimura tried to clear the ball with an odd head flick that did nothing but set up the Rapids attacker. With less than 10 minutes played ,the tone had been well and truly set. Indeed, there was a marked difference to how the Timbers approached the first 10 of the home match, compared to here.

In the first match, we were able to get the wingers involved in the final third early on, whereas here we spent much of our time going from side to side with very little forward penetration. It was possession that just kind meandered nowhere in particular.

Any time the Timbers did get into a position to attack the Rapids rearguard, the final ball was invariably lacking in quality.

Up top, Dike was having a hard time getting involved in the play, often having to come deep to get a touch. His running, which had been an asset in previous matches, wasn’t up to the standard here as he seemed to make the wrong choice more often than not.

He tries to run in behind the defender, which is admirable, but you can see quite clearly that Dike would have to thread the ball through the eye of a needle to get it to him. The better decision would’ve been to offer himself up for a ball to feet, and link the play, or to go the other way and try to create a space for Nagbe to drive towards.

Toiling in attack, the Timbers were looking decidedly shaky at the back. Kimura looked rattled after the initial five minutes, and never seemed to recover (how he made it full-time, let alone half time, I can’t explain other than Wilkinson really didn’t trust Kawulok) while the midfield were allowing the Rapids too much room to put passes together.

The Rapids 2nd goal was a fine example of the midfield failing to do it’s defensive work.

At each point along, you can see how much space the Rapids players have to pass or cross. Songo’o perhaps should’ve got across to close the cross down a bit sooner after Smith was dragged away by the intelligent outside run. Kimura lets his man get away from him, and neither of the defenders is quick enough to react to the rebound.

The second half followed much the same formula as the first. Wilkinson decided against any changes at half-time as presumably he was loving the possession, a fact he brought up in a post-match interview as a source of pride as we’d kept the Rapids to only 50.6% of the play instead of the 60% they had when we last visited. I’m sure the Rapids were crying into the pillows that night as they lost that crucial 9.4% of possession that meant they could only equal the 3-0 scoreline, while restricting us to fewer shots on target, stats fans.

In a way, beating Colorado in Portland may have been the worst thing that could’ve happened as it lulled the team into a false sense of security. I felt we were very fortunate to get a win out of them, and said on twitter before the match that my fear was that the Rapids wouldn’t miss the kind of chances they did last week again.

Still, I’m sure that the coaching staff would take that on board and change it up for this match. Nope? Still, they’d definitely change it at half-time when we were 2-0 down and toiling badly. Right?

The change did finally come midway through the second half when the Ghost of John Spencer made a like-for-like change in throwing on Kris Boyd for the ineffectual Bright Dike. Dike had missed a glorious chance earlier when he blazed a deep cross from Zizzo high over the bar. It was the first time we’d really managed to work that ball down the channel inside the full-back, with Zizzo – the team’s best, and some might say only, performer on the night – scampering to reach Kimura’s pass at the byline.

On another night, Dike would’ve blazed the ball into the night and fans would’ve been raving about his performance once again, but such are the margins a striker works with that he misses it and is hauled off soon after.

Boyd had a cameo role in the Timbers best chance of the night.

It was well worked, and came out of nothing, right up until the finish from Chara who showed why he’s more the guy you want giving the ball to the goalscorer, than trying to be one. Had that gone in, it might’ve set up an exciting end to the match, but it didn’t. Wilkinson as good as threw up his hands and gave up, chucking on every striker who happened to cross his eye line in some mad scientist attempt to conjure up a goal without seemingly having any idea how that would happen.

The Rapids nabbed a third when a deep corner saw Jewsbury lose his man, the ball was nodded back across and Kimura was bullied out of the way, with Castrillon’s header slipping through Ricketts.

Another frustrating night and the play-off dream is as dead as the look in Michele Bachman’s cold, shark-like eyes. In attack we were lifeless and flaccid – Franck Songo’o was largely anonymous and Nagbe struggled to make his presence felt through the centre – and in defence, well, there is no defence.

Kimura had a shocker, that’s for sure, but none of the defensive line really emerge with much credit from a bad night at the office. The breakdown of this defence was, for me, summed up in one little moment in the second half.

This little passage of play is indicative of the kind of sloppy errors we’re making the back, time and again. What David Horst hopes to achieve here, I’m at a loss to explain. Presumably he wants Smith to follow Akpan so he can, what, close the ball down or go mark Castrillon? But closing down the ball is Jewsbury’s job, and Smith has enough on his plate with Horst having a brainstorm beside him. As it is, Horst kind meanders into space, does nothing, and the ball is simply knocked in behind him, leading to a good chance to score.

The lack of communication is shocking at times, and here we have a defender who doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing. And this breakdown from a back four that have played together more than any of the other 20-plus configurations we’ve seen this season.

And yet, despite that almost 10 hours of game time, as well as countless hours on the training pitch, they still play like they only just met in the tunnel before the match.

It seems that, with these four, Wilkinson has (for now) settled on his defence. Continuity is important, especially in a defence where split second timing can be crucial, in stepping forward to spring an offside trap for instance. The fact is though, for me, this defence looks no better now than in their first match together. The same mistakes kept being made, and by the same people.

Looking at the central pairing, there have been five configurations. Horst/Mosquera has been used most often (855 minutes) with Brunner/Mosquera 2nd on 519 minutes. Danso with Mosquera or Horst both log 360 minutes, and Brunner/Jean-Baptiste is on 336 minutes.

As you can see, Brunner/Mosquera has been the most steady central pairing, and one can only speculate as to how the season may have unfolded had Brunner remained injury free. As for the “worst” pairings.. Well, they share one common factor. David Horst.

I love his heart and passion, but I question his defensive “brain”. Too often he switches off, or makes the wrong choice and we’re not a team that are going to outscore opponents 4-3. We can’t afford liabilities at the back.

No doubt the injury to Brunner has forced the coaching team’s hand. Danso, it seems, has paid the price for his part in the 5-0 drubbing in Dallas, presumably because someone had to be punished for that. And yet, in his three matches with Mosquera, other than the Dallas debacle, he helped keep two clean sheets, with the defense leaking a single goal over 270 minutes of play. Again, taking that 5-0 result out of the records, when Danso was in the defence, the team lost a goal (on average) every 70 minutes – better than any other central defenders’ figures (Brunner 61, Jean-Baptiste 56, Mosquera 54, Horst 47).

A similar thing happened to Horst after the 5-3 loss to LA, but Danso hasn’t been able to find his way out from under the bus since Frisco as Horst holds on to his place in the team. With Brunner’s appearance on the bench, it would seem like Horst’s time is up any game now, but it’s still perplexing to me why Danso has paid such a high price for a bad game, while Horst is a continued source of anxiety in defence.

Meanwhile, Jean-Baptiste has returned from a loan spell and can’t get a look in. I liked how he shaped up earlier in the season. He’s raw, there’s no doubt, but he need to play to smooth those ragged edges down.

I worry that his time out may have mythologised Brunner’s talents, as there is a habit for fans to inflate the abilities of those that aren’t playing. Regardless, we need him back, as much for Hanyer Mosquera’s well-being as anything else!

I’m sure that, for all his credentials as an attack-minded coach, Caleb Porter will be making sorting out the defence a priority in the off season. Until we can be confident about what’s behind us, we can be sure in going forward.

The Timbers have a weekend off to mull this result over before picking themselves back up for the visit of the mob from up the road. Cascadia Cup glory beckons.

#RCTID


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