After a slow start, the much-promised Rostergeddon got into full swing on a day that would’ve reminded many fans of English football of Transfer Deadline day. All it needed was Harry Redknapp in his car telling a reporter that David Horst was a “great lad, great lad, really like ‘im.”
What we got was five players on the way out (with another whose status is up in the air), two players coming in (and another potential) and a Breaking Bad-esque pile of allocation cash.
The first deal confirmed was that of Kosuke Kimura to the New York Notcosmos. Kimura had staggered around the right-back position like a punchdrunk boxer for much of his time in Portland. Whether that’s due to his own deficincies or coming into a team with no real direction, that’s up to you to decide, but whatever the reasons, the move was one that was always likely to happen.
Kimura, who also found time to fit in an unsuccessful trial in Poland since the season ended, was joined by a second-round draft pick to New York, with the Timbers getting the homegrown rights to Bryan Gallego, a centreback who just so happens plays his college soccer for Akron Zips. You may have heard of them.
Given Porter’s background and experience of the college game, no-one will have a clearer idea of who he wants in the SuperDraft, so it’s interesting to me that he’s given up a draft pick to make this deal work. Of course, there’s a long way to go before the draft, plenty of time to wheel and deal for other picks, but the acquisition of Gallego’s homegrown rights is illuminating for a couple of reasons, I think.
Here’s a player Porter has worked closely within Akron, and it seems rates highly enough to give up a draft pick to get him. Being a homegrown player, Gallego wouldn’t have been eligible for the SuperDraft (as is my understanding, which could be way wrong), so is this a roundabout way to “draft” a guy Porter really wanted? Whether Gallego steps up this year (he’ll be 20 in March so, without getting into my pet peeve about youth development in the States, it’s not that crazy an idea) or he’s one for 2014, it also points towards a change in philosophy at the back for the Timbers.
It’d be fair to say that we’ve had a lot of guys with heart and spirit, but who are limited in technical ability. That won’t fly under the system Porter favours where the defenders have to be comfortable on the ball and able to play an intelligent, possession-based game. Clearly, Gallego already knows what Porter wants from his defenders, and Porter likes what he sees from Gallego.
Next came the news of Eric Brunner going to Houston. A sad one, but not unexpected. I’d written about the potential of Brunner’s leaving and while I leaned towards him staying (I thought Danso would be first to go) the news of his departure didn’t surprise me.
Brunner’s injury really took the wind out of the defender’s sails. He had a good 2011, and looked set to form a partnership with Mosquera at the back, but in his enforced absence he was usurped by David Horst.
With Horst holding down the position, Mosquera a lock and Jean-Baptiste hungry to push on in 2013, Brunner found himself squeezed out. A fine servant to the club in his time in Portland, Eric leaves with the best wishes on the Timbers faithful.
Michael Harrington’s arrival was the next announcement. The last time we picked up a former Kansas City starter who’d found himself relegated to the bench, it worked out pretty well! Harrington will give us options at both left and right back, and seems like a very solid addition to the squad.
Next up was the departure of Steve Purdy and Lovel Palmer. Purdy had been unable to really cement a place in the team since the move up to MLS. I liked what little I saw of him, but given his sporadic appearances in the team, it was of little surprise to see the option on him declined.
Lovel Palmer. I’d written about how I couldn’t see a future for him in Portland. I’ve been critical of him in the past, and justified in (much of) it, so I can’t say I’ll miss having him on the team but, nevertheless, I’m sure he gave his all. It just wasn’t good enough, consistently enough. Fare thee well.
Steven Smith was next to go, announcing it himself on twitter. This was one where I thought “oh no” at the time, but the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more it made cold hard sense. Talk is that Smith would’ve needed DP wages to stay, and with Spencer going (and Boyd likely to go), there was little to hold Smith here on a personal level. There will be no shortage of offers back “home”.
The “final” announcement was that of the signing of Will Johnson from RSL. The Canadian international has been an important part of the RSL midfield over the past few years, and it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in in 2013. There are times we’ve lacked a bit of bite and spark in the middle, and Johnson will provide both of these in spades.
The MLS released the Re-Entry Draft list shortly afterwards. It would be worth keeping an eye on as the Timbers have the #3 pick and the draft is a good way to fill out the squad and/or pick up pieces that can be traded on later.
It certainly raised a few eyebrows among Timbers fans when Rodney Wallace’s name appeared on it.
It’s important to note that the club and player have a couple more days to thrash out a deal that would see Wallace stay, and Merritt’s omission of Rodney from his “so long and thanks for all the fish” tweet would suggest the intention is to work something out. The talk is that the Timbers want to negotiate Wallace’s salary down. I’m not his biggest fan, but he is a decent squad player. He’s just not worth the money he’s currently pulling, in my opinion.
All in all, a pretty good day for the Timbers. Too early to make definitive judgements, of course, but it’s a start to Porter’s reign that fills me with cruel, cruel optimism!
Five out, two in and a complete revamp of the defence is underway. Given that so much of Akron’s play under Porter was built from the back, it makes sense that the gaffer would start his own rebuilding there.
Twitter has been buzzing with anticipation for days and right at the stroke of noon, the Portland Timbers made their first official MLS offseason announcement. Here’s a rundown of the transactions:
* Timbers acquire allocation money (what jersey # will allocation money wear?) and the rights to homegrown player and current Akron Zips defender, Bryan Gallego, from the New York Bulls in exchange for Kosuke Kimura and a 2013 2nd round draft pick.
Rumors of Kimura being sent to the Red Bulls came to light on Sunday afternoon. The rest of this deal though didn’t become clear until the Timbers dropped the press release. Word is the Timbers received over $100,000 in allocation money (not confirmed) along with a promising defender who is very familiar with incoming coach Caleb Porter. It remains to be seen whether Gallego, who will turn 20 in March, will forego returning to Zips for his junior year. To get anything promising in return for Kimura who, despite his love for the badge, really struggled from day one with Portland, is a positive takeaway as far as I’m concerned.
* Timbers acquire defender Michael Harrington from Sporting KC in exchange for allocation money.
In a league not known for strong fullbacks, Harrington had the unfortunate luck to try and crack a starting lineup with two of the better performers in the league: Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers. Harrington carries a steeper price tag than I would like ($125,000), but if he can solidify a position that’s been weak for the Timbers since coming to MLS, it just might be worth it.
* Timbers acquire allocation money from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for defender Eric Brunner
This one stings a bit. If there was a guy you could count on to bring it in every match he played it was Eric Brunner. It was a difficult 2012 campaign for Brunner has he spent over three months out of the lineup while recovering from a concussion he suffered in a May match against Vancouver. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, not always known for his appropriate goodbyes to players, had nothing but praise for Brunner:
“Eric is a great person and quality player, and these types of decisions are never easy. We very much appreciate his service to the club over the past two seasons, both on and off the field. The opportunity in Houston for Eric is one that he is excited about. He is well-liked and will be missed”
* Timbers acquire Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake in exchange for allocation money
The news of this move was broken on Sunday as well, and even with the other news today, this is by far the most exciting of the transactions.
Johnson is one of those players you love to hate — as long as he’s on the other team. Johnson will provide some much-needed tenacity as well as some outstanding skill on the ball. This is clearly a move orchestrated by Caleb Porter, who likely sees Johnson playing a huge role as a winger or attacking center midfielder in his possession-based attack.
While he is a Canadian international, Johnson does not occupy an international slot on the Timbers roster.
* Finally, in other moves
The Timbers declined the options on defenders Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy. Both will be eligible to participate in the MLS Re-Entry Draft this coming Friday.
It also appears that left back Steven Smith will not be rejoining the team in 2013. Nothing has been announced by the team, but Smith did post this on Twitter:
We’ll have more about the Steven Smith move once it’s officially announced by the Timbers.
2012 is rife with talk of apocalypse, and there were certainly times that the sky seemed to be falling in on the Timbers. A managerial sacking, fans protests, twitter meltdowns, cup embarrassments, defensive horror-shows and, bizarrely, a late season triumph.
Thinking of some of the defining moments of the Timbers year, it would be easy to think of Spencer’s sacking, Porter’s hiring, the Cal FC defeat or Perkins’ trade as the big moments, and they probably are, but the lack of a definite article in the title is deliberate as I want to take a look at 6 other moments that I think would, in their own way, come to define the Timbers’ season.
1. The Late Collapse vs Real Salt Lake
Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon When: March 31st, approx 19:45 What: There was still an air of optimism in Portland as the Timbers kicked-off against RSL. A opening day win, heralding the arrival of Kris Boyd with a debut goal, had been followed by a gritty road draw and a narrow road loss while RSL were coming off a home defeat to Chivas USA.
Despite the setback of going 1-0 down, the Timbers roared back with a brace of classy Darlington Nagbe goals to lead 2-1. The minutes ticked away, James Marcelin came on to help close the game out, the Timbers were looking at a 7 point haul from their opening 4 games, with a visit from Chivas USA up next.
And then, disaster. Two goals in the dying minutes overturned the result, giving the visitors a 3-2 win. Like a pin popping a balloon, suddenly the early belief and confidence was gone.
Another defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory result against Chivas the next week – throwing away a lead to another late winner – only cemented the belief that it was going to be another long season.
2. Eric Brunner’s injury vs Vancouver Whitecaps
Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon When: May 26th, approx 18:06 What: With the second worst defensive record in the Western Conference in 2011, bolstering the defence was a priority for the Timbers in 2012 and, in the signing of Hanyer Mosquera, they thought they had their man to partner Eric Brunner in the heart of the back four.
Brunner had emerged from 2011 as a fan favourite, and a rare bright spot at the back for Portland. It was always going to be a case of Brunner + A.N. Other at the back, or so it seemed.
The partnership between Mosquera and Brunner took a while to get together thanks to injuries and such, but it looked like the club had finally found a solution in the middle, even if the full-back positions continued to perplex.
A concussion sustained early in the match against the Whitecaps saw Brunner removed at half-time. It would be September before Brunner saw action again, thanks in part to a further knee injury, when he came on as a late game sub. By this time, David Horst had made the position beside Mosquera his own.
The instability that followed – Danso and Horst would come in and out of the team – would see the team lose goals left and right before they finally settled on Horst. Horst looked out of his depth early on, but steadied to become a solid presence at the back, but one of the big “What if?” questions that hang over the Timbers season is “What if Brunner had never gotten injured?”
3. Kris Boyd’s goal vs Seattle Sounders
Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon When: 24th June, approx 13:16 What: Steven Smith to Franck Songo’o, touched off to the overlapping Smith, a low cross ball to the middle where an unmarked Kris Boyd taps it past the Sounders keeper.
Boyd’s goal put the Timbers on their way to a 2-1 victory against their great rivals – their first MLS victory against the Orcish minions from the North. It would also put the Timbers in the driving seat to win the Cascadia Cup.
The win came less than a month after the Timbers had lost 1-0 to Cal FC, the same team the Sounders would thump 5-0 shortly afterwards. If that loss had represented the nadir of the club’s fortunes, the derby win was the zenith, with hopes restored that the club could yet get it’s playoff hopes back on track.
And yet, a little over two weeks later, John Spencer had been sacked.
4. Kris Boyd’s misses vs Chivas USA
Where: Jeld-Wen Field, Portland, Oregon When: 28th July, multiple times What: Strictly speaking this is more than a single moment, but Boyd’s first half showing against Chivas would come to define so much of his season, and how it went into a tailspin.
Boyd was already getting criticism for not scoring enough goals, or justifying his hefty price tag, and it seemed to be weighing on the Scot. Gone were the natural, smooth finishes of early in the season – think, the flicked header against the Union, the calm finish against the Galaxy, the (wrongly) disallowed bit of skill and finish in the same match.
Now the finishes were nervy, jittery, rushed. In his desperation to score, he was hampering his natural instincts.
The first chance was much like that flash of skill against the Galaxy. Boyd heel-flicked a header down from Richards to control the ball, but rushed his shot, and sent it wide.
The second chance saw him caught offside, and of course he finished it with aplomb.
The third chance came only minutes later, and a nice touch left his defender for dead, but Boyd took the shot from a tight angle rather than the easy lay-off to Chara. Trying too hard.
The fourth chance came after a shot by Chara was palmed out by the keeper. Boyd swung at the rebound, barely connecting and only looping the ball up ineffectually.
Chivas would score the only goal of the game in the second half. Boyd’s time as a starter would come to an end only weeks later.
5. Bright Dike’s goal vs New York Red Bulls
Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey When: 19th August, approx 18:08 What: After a toothless showing in Toronto, Boyd was relegated to the bench. Bright Dike made his first-ever MLS start, after spending time on loan with LA Blues earlier in the season.
473 seconds. That is how long it took Dike to do what Boyd had gone 384 minutes without doing – score. Dike got on the end of Sal Zizzo’s low cross to put the Timbers in front, the first of five goals the striker would go on to tally before the season was out.
The Timbers would double their lead, but some poor defending, terrible officiating and an familiar late game sucker-punch resulted in a 3-2 defeat.
Dike’s form would bring him to the attention of the Nigerian national team, and would keep his more expensive team mate cooling his heels on the bench until injury ended Boyd’s 2012, and potentially his Timbers career.
6. Gavin Wilkinson’s experiment vs Seattle Sounders
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington When: 7th October, approx 17:00 What: The Timbers knew that a favourable result in Seattle’s backyard would guarantee them the Cascadia Cup. Interim head coach opted to switch out both full-backs and give starts to Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat.
Peeved would be one word to describe the fans’ reaction to Wilkinson’s tinkering. Fucking furious would be two words.
Excuses would be made for the changes, some more convincing than others, but the fact remained that the Timbers went north to play their biggest rivals, with silverware on the line, with two guys in the team who had never convinced in their positions.
The defeat put the Cascadia Cup in doubt, and it would take a first road-win of the season against a frankly awful Vancouver Whitecaps to seal the deal. Had the cup been squandered… Well, that’s another “What if?” and one that would be best written by the writers of the Saw franchise should the Timbers fans have ever gotten their hands on Wilkinson.
So, there we have my thoughts on six moments that would shape and define the Timbers season. Which would you add as your own?
With only 180 minutes left of the 2012 season, the thoughts of Portland Timbers fans are already turning to 2013. A huge job awaits Caleb Porter when he flies west in December as the squad needs some urgent surgery if it’s to be in any shape to challenge for a playoff place next year.
Players like Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara and Hanyer Mosquera can feel pretty secure in their positions within the team, while guys like Lovel Palmer and Mike Fucito may be starting to pack up their belongings in an old canvas sack as I type. For a large majority of the roster, though, this offseason will be one of great uncertainty.
Porter may decide that continuity is important to the team, and look to retain a large core of the squad, with a few additions and alterations here and there, but I suspect, in an ideal world, Porter would much to prefer to rip it up and start again, largely from scratch. There are precious few guys in the current roster who you would say fit into the mould of guys who can play the way Porter wants his teams to play, with quick, accurate passes and incisive movement.
With that in mind, I’ll take a quick look at seven of the guys I’d put into that “questionable” bracket and try and guess whether they’ll be back in Timbers green in 2013.
Kalif Alhassan joined the Timbers in the twilight of their USL days with a view to progressing into MLS. Had a big role to play in 2011 with 6 assists in 27 starts, and on his day he is capable of creating a bit of magic out of nothing. 2012 has been something of a washout for the Ghanaian however, as he’s missed much of it through a series of niggling injuries.
Reasons to keep: He’s still young and can, hopefully, put the injuries behind him. With some disciplined coaching, could reign in his rather anarchic approach to tactical instruction and become a key component in Porter’s 4-3-3.
Reasons to cut: Injuries have curtailed his development at a crucial time, and when he does play he is inconsistent and tactically naive. Perhaps a little too similar to, but lacking the finesse of, Franck Songo’o.
Verdict: He doesn’t command a great wage, and is still pretty young, so he’ll be back. Next year will be the biggest of his Timbers career. Make or break time.
Captain Jack came into 2012 as an MLS All-Star following a tremendous debut year for Portland. However, he has rarely even threatened to live up to the standards of that first season with some fans questioning his seemingly unshakable place in the first XI. He’s far away the player with most on-field time for Portland in MLS with almost 800 more minutes than Chara, the club’s #2.
Reasons to keep: He’s clearly popular with the squad and respected by the coaching staff. His position as club captain has rarely been in doubt, and he has shown versatility in filling in at right back during an injury crisis.
Reasons to cut: Lacks the tenacity and awareness to be a regular defensive midfielder, as well as the craft and creativity to play further forward. Always a sense that wherever he plays, he’s the second best option there. Turns 32 next year, so is unlikely to improve.
Verdict: He’ll be back but whether he’ll be the first name on the team sheet any more is up for debate, though, considering he left Kansas City when she spent much of the back-end of 2010 on the bench, will he accept a squad role next year?
Kris Boyd set records for goalscoring in the Scottish Premier League, but after an undistinguished spell in England, and a short stint in Turkey, he came to Portland with expectations riding high that he could recapture his old form and fire the Timbers towards the playoffs. Like his predecessor, Kenny Cooper, he found it hard to adjust to the Timbers style and, despite leading the club in goals scored, he has failed to live up to his hefty price tag for many fans.
Reasons to keep: Goals. Boyd will score them if given the chance, but those chances have been too few and too far between. His link-up play is generally good too, and he will lead the line with passion and force.
Reasons to cut: He carries a hefty wage – 10th highest player in MLS – that doesn’t match up to his return in goals. Perhaps not suited to the way Caleb Porter seeks to play. Seemingly not rated by Gavin Wilkinson.
Eric Brunner was a solid part of the Timbers defence, and everything was going well for the ex-Columbus man until a concussion sustained against Vancouver in late May. He’s struggled to get back into the team since, making only two subs thanks to a subsequent knee injury, with David Horst – young, cheaper – having improved.
Reasons to keep: Still, arguably, the Timbers best defender, or 2nd behind Mosquera, if you’re a fan of the Colombian. Solid, reliable and fiercely committed.
Reasons to cut: Such a long lay-off with concussion is a big worry, and the knee injury doesn’t help matters. In his absence, Horst has stepped up and shown he can do a job at a fraction of the price of Brunner.
Verdict: He’ll be back, assuming there aren’t deeper, thus-far-unspoken concerns among the coaching team about his injuries. If anyone gets cut from the defence, one suspects it will be Futty Danso. Whether he can dislodge David Horst, only time will tell.
When Dike was sent out on loan to LA Blues earlier this season, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that his Timbers career was over. After netting 10 times for the Timbers in their last year in USL, he didn’t make a single start in 2011, though he did still find the net once. Since his return from LA though, Dike has score 4 times – only 3 fewer than club leader Boyd.
Reasons to keep: Goals – the man has scored them. 4 in only 731 minutes. He’s scored from the start, and as an impact sub. He’s a handful to play against and a willing and hard worker. Has got the goals in the new system. Even with his obvious deficiencies, he has the scoring habit, and that’s a good habit to have!
Reasons to cut: He has a pretty poor touch, and lacks the more “all round” ability of his attacking colleagues. He’s a rather one-dimensional player, which is great when it works but leaves the team bereft in attack when it doesn’t.
Verdict: He’s certainly earned a 2013 roster spot, but I’d fear for the team if he’s back as first choice. A good weapon to have in the arsenal.
Wallace joined the Timbers in exchange for Dax McCarty befoer the start of the 2011 season, but has never really convinced in the left-back role he seemed to be earmarked for. Despite that, he’s racked up over 40 appearances for the MLS Timbers meaning only four current Timbers have logged more on-field minutes than he.
Reasons to keep: Can play all up the left-side and has turned his hand to a central midfield role too. He’s chipped in with a few goals and assists, and is still relatively young at 24.
Reasons to cut: Lapses in concentration can, and have, cost the Timbers dearly in defence and he simply isn’t as good as the other attacking options available. Commands a salary that is out of sync with his role as a squad player.
Verdict: Will be back, but only if the Timbers can’t find a taker for him.
Eric Alexander joined the Timbers from FC Dallas towards the end of the 2011 season in exchange for Jeremy Hall, but has failed to nail down a starting spot, with only 16 starts in his time as a Timber. An industrious and tidy midfielder with good range of passing.
Reasons to keep: The clubs leader in assists, despite being on the fringes of the starting XI. It wasn’t so long that he was on the fringes of the USMNT. Showed his game has steel when he subbed for Chara and acquitted himself well in a more defensive role. Still only 24, and not a big earner.
Reasons to cut: Assists fudged by at least a couple of those assists having more to do with Nagbe creating something out of nothing than Alexander’s work. Unable to impose himself on the team when he’s been given the chance. Had his work rate questioned by management.
Verdict: Trade bait. Underutilized, under-appreciated and seemingly unwanted by an organisation that can’t seem to find room for him in midfield.
What do you think? Who goes, who stays, and whose place is up for debate?
As January rolled into February, one thing looked certain in the English Premier League – Wigan Athletic were going down. They had lost 14 or their 23 matches, and were stuck on a paltry 15 points. They lost every match in September and October in a 8 match losing streak (9 if you include a League Cup defeat at Crystal Palace), before repeating that trick in January, losing all four league matches, and a FA Cop match at League Two side, Swindon Town.
And yet, a curious thing happened. Wigan lost only three of their next 13 matches, a run of results that has seen them out of the bottom three and looking like a good bet to stay up. Such has been their form over these 13 games that extrapolating it across a season, it would’ve seen them finish 5th last year, above Spurs.
It was, in short, a massive turnaround.
A large factor behind the recent upturn in results has been a tactical switch by Roberto Martinez.. Martinez has always tried to instill his teams a desire to get the ball down and play a quick short passing game, as can be seen in the current Swansea City team that still bares many of his hallmarks following his time in charge there from early 2007 to the summer of 2009.
He brought a similar philosophy to Wigan, yet results have seen the club mired in relegation battles year after year.
One of the big factors behind the recent upturn in fortunes for the Latics has been Martinez’s switch from a back four to back three.
The question is, could this current Wigan side be a template for the Portland Timbers to follow?
It’s been a difficult 2012 for the Timbers so far. Their first 8 matches have seen 5 defeats, with the most dispiriting coming in a toothless 2-0 defeat to expansion side Montreal Impact. In a weird coincidence, if you were to take that form across 23 matches the Timbers would lose, you guessed it, 14 of them – just like Wigan. You can whistle the Twilight Zone theme here, if you so wish.
John Spencer, now in his second year as head coach, has taken some criticism for his team selections and perceived lack of tactical flexibility. Much of it, I must admit, from me. He has thrown up a few variations – going with a midfield diamond, or an anchor sitting between defence and midfield, but all are very much under the 4-4-2 umbrella.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Spencer is seemingly wedded to this way of playing. For much of his time in the UK, and then in the States, the 4-4-2 was the predominant tactic. It’s what he’s used to, what he probably feels he knows best. But whatever the reasons, the results are that it’s simply not working right now.
Which isn’t to say a 4-4-2 doesn’t have it’s place, but given the personnel available to him, it simply doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in his players. Too many players are asked to play in positions or roles that are unfamiliar or don’t suit them. Does anyone really believe Diego Chara is a wide midfielder? Or Jack Jewsbury the attacking hub?
Before we get to how Wigan’s new formation would work for the timbers, let’s look at how it stacks up, taking each players’ “influence” from the FourFourTwo StatZone app for the past four matches. (By the way, please do a MLS version!)
As you can see, the 3-4-3 is oft-times more a 3-4-2-1. I’m not the first to suggest such a change – John Nyen suggested a move to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 a while ago in a great article – but taking Wigan specifically as an example we can explore just how the Timbers could adopt much of what Martinez’s side do.
In my opinion, there are a number of similarities in the make up of the squads. Take Victor Moses as an example. Though Moses is often played as a wide-attacker, he naturally comes inside where he can be more involved, picking up the ball in pockets of space and running at defenders. So, that’ll be Darlington Nagbe, then.
I maintain that Nagbe isn’t an out-and-out striker, but neither is he best used out wide. In the 4-4-2 that Spencer is so enamoured with, there’s often no natural place to put Nagbe to get the very best out of him.
The Timbers don’t have a great squad. It’s good, and there are some real talents in there, but only those with the most green-tinted glasses would look at the squad as it is and think “top of the table”. But I’d maintain that, relatively speaking, the Timbers squad is no worse than Wigan’s is in comparison to the rest of the Premier League.
So it’s vital that we make the most of the big talents we have, just as Wigan do with their star players, and that means finding a way to let Nagbe off the leash.
Played in that role between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines gives Nagbe the license to wreak havoc in dangerous areas. Joining him in the front-line are Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan, though it could easily be Franck Songo’o in place of Alhassan depending on form and fitness.
Though I wrote, way back when Boyd first signed, that he was only really suited to playing in a front two, I should probably have considered the context of *when* he’s been asked to play that role in greater detail.
When Rangers were in Europe, or facing up against Celtic, or for Scotland, who tended towards playing a 4-5-1 more often than not. In each of these scenarios, Boyd was playing in a team that was facing opposition of an equal, or greater ability than Rangers/Scotland.
In Europe, the modus operandi was to nick an away goal, defend resolutely and counter. It was a strategy that allowed Rangers to bore their way to the 2008 UEFA Cup final – an eight match run that saw them lose only two goals and play out 3 goalless draws on the way.
Similarly with Scotland, the matches tend to be about grinding out a result, a 1-0 preferably. Here the attackers role was much the same – run the channels, keep the defenders honest, don’t stop running, and then run a bit more. It’s more suited to a Kenny Miller than a Kris Boyd who is a “give me the ball and I’ll score” type than a “put the ball thirty yards over there and I’ll chase after it even though there’s no way I’m going to get it” one.
So, the best in Boyd has been brought out in a two-man attack where he can get fed the ball to feet and get a shot off. In a 3-4-3 system similar to Wigan’s, it would be the job of Nagbe and Alhassan to get into attacking positions and feed Boyd the ball in dangerous areas. Both are, I feel, more than capable of this. And the disparity in quality in the MLS isn’t as great as, say, Scotland and Holland.
Jorge Perlaza (and Mike Fucito, who I’ve not seen enough of to really comment on) is the loser in this system, though if the team wanted to play with two up-top it would be easy to throw Perlaza up there with Boyd, and put Nagbe in behind. Perlaza could be the Conor Sammon of the team – the under-appreciated striker who may not bag loads of goals, but will come on late to run at and stretch a tired defence.
Across the midfield are Steven Smith, Diego Chara, Eric Alexander and Lovel Palmer. I know that the party line is that Palmer isn’t a right-back, but there aren’t a great deal of options down the right hand side. I think Chara is wasted out wide, and I’d worry about putting an Alhassan or Songo’o in that position as it carries a large defensive element to it.
Steve Purdy could perhaps play there, and If Spencer is determined to get Jewsbury in the starting line-up at all costs, Alexander could go wide right.
Smith, with Rodney Wallace as cover, has played as a left midfielder before, so I don’t doubt he could (given match fitness) play there pretty comfortably and he has a good delivery from his left boot if he can get to the byline.
Chara reminds me a great deal of James McCarthy in the Wigan midfield. Both are box-to-box midfielders, tenacious in the tackle and great at disrupting opponents and setting off counter attacks. I’d love to see Diego get the chance to play that kind of role in the centre of the field, but it seems he’s doomed to be a wide midfielder or defensive midfielder for as long as the Timbers fixate on their brand of 4-4-2.
Alexander started the season pretty well in midfield, and pitched in with a few assists, but has found himself out of the squad recently. I’ve been impressed with his passing and work-rate and think he could slot into the middle pretty well.
Across the backline are Futty Danso, Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera. Central defence is an area of relative strength for the Timbers, with David Horst and Andrew Jean-Baptiste also in consideration.
Brunner is the holder, the Gary Caldwell, if you like. It’s a role that Eric adopts already – he’s usually the guy who drops off and covers behind defence. It would be his job to marshal the defence.
Mosquera’s ability to read the game has been impressive and he’s strong and quick to step out of defence to snuff out a threat. Like his fellow South American, Maynor Figueroa, he would have the job of stepping out of defence in possession and giving the midfield an extra angle for a pass. His passing has been pretty solid so far.
Futty, or Horst/Jean-Baptiste, would give defensive cover with Brunner. Both Futty and Mosquera would be expected to pull out wider in possession, opening up the field, but pull together in defence, closing down space.
From the back, Troy Perkins should be looking for Futty or Mosquera out wide, or Brunner or Chara dropping deep to pick it up, rather than resorting to long, hit-and-hope punt up the field. This way possession can be retained, and the play can be built from the back rather than coming straight back down the field at them.
The way that Wigan play is all about short, crisp passing through the midfield.
It’s a shame that the MLS site doesn’t allow for breaking down the kids of passes made in a match, and I’m not about to start counting individual passes, but I’d wager that the Timbers hit a greater percentage of long passes. A large part of this is Spencer prefers a “direct” style. He wants the ball to go back-to-front in as short a time as possible.
Playing with Wigan’s template would mean a sea change in playing style. Wigan are more than comfortable to play the ball across the midfield and probe for weaknesses. If they can pull midfielders out of position, and open up spaces for a Moses or Jordi Gomez to receive the ball, they’re quite happy to take their time to do it, but transition quickly into attack when the opportunity presents itself.
Part of my reasoning behind putting Chara and Alexander in the centre is they’re both more comfortable passing the ball than Jewsbury or Palmer are in that position.
Keeping possession of the ball in the midfield would also help alleviate issues with late game tiring as anyone who’s played will tell you it’s much easier when you’ve got the ball than when you’re chasing it. I maintain that possession for possession’s sake is no great indicator of goal scoring or victory, but this isn’t just “keep ball” – the passing isn’t only to the side or back, it’s often little triangles and give-and-go’s, all designed to pull the opposition around and dictate the tempo. For this reason you need guys who are comfortable on the ball, playing in tight spaces, and with good movement. Chara and Alexander are the two I feel closest fit the bill in those regard, as well as maintaining good defensive instincts.
In defence, you often see the attacking two dropping into wide positions, and the wide players dropping back to form a 5-4-1 designed to stifle. Managing the transition of play is key to this kind of football. React too slowly to a loss of possession and you can leave yourself open at the back.
It may be that a 3-4-3 isn’t the way forward for the Timbers, but neither do I think the 4-4-2 as Spencer seems determined to stick to is. The fact is, the Timbers are a delight to play against. You know what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and how to stop them doing it.
I doubt, in all honestly, we’ll ever see a system like this from Spencer, but I’d hope that as much as I and other fans are putting time in thinking about these things, that Spencer and his coaching team are too. Far too often it seems that the bare minimum of thought has gone into how the Timbers are going to play other than showing “commitment” and “guts”.
However the Timbers play, we’re all just hoping they can get the season back on track. #RCTID is more than just a hashtag, but neither is it an excuse to accept sub-par football. We’re better than our league position shows at present, I’m sure of it, we just need to start showing it.
Everyone wrote off Wigan too, and if they can do it, so can we.