Tag Archives: possession

The Pragmatist

Once Arsenal is in possession of the ball, the right and left backs automatically become wingers. It’s almost like playing with two wingers on each side. That’s the way we’re going to encourage our guys to play –when we get the ball, get forward and attack. Attack in numbers and defend in numbers.

John Spencer promised to bring direct, attacking football to Portland when he was hired as the club’s first MLS head coach, and that is, for the most part, what the Timbers fans got.

It was certainly direct. The ball would be cycled from defence to attack in as few passes as was necessary (often only one).

The team were also pretty attacking, even if it was often toothless. The Timbers would get the ball forward quickly, run into a dead-end or give up possession tamely, and then be caught out of position at the back.

In a way, Spencer sowed the seeds for his own destruction. By emphasising a direct style, he was leaving his full-backs cruelly exposed, which in turn would stretch the space between centre-backs and leave the team vulnerable to breaking runs from midfield as well as being exposed down the flanks.

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When Spencer would adopt a defensive posture, such as against Sporting Kansas City, the team showed they were capable of grinding out results against good teams, but at the expense of pretty much any attacking threat. Or attempts to play football. This ugly style didn’t really fit the pre-season promises of attacking, exciting football, but Spencer never seemed able to square-the-circle and find a way to combine his style with the players he had at his disposal, and balance defence and attack. It was either one or the other or, on occasion, neither.

After Spencer’s dismissal, Gavin Wilkinson stepped in and changed the side’s 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, preparing the ground for Caleb Porter. Porter himself confirmed that he and Wilkinson had been in a constant dialogue even as the new coach was guiding his Akron Zips through the NCAA Championship.

The announcement of Porter’s hiring had some Timbers fans drooling at the prospect of “Timber-taka” after watching Akron’s “Death by 1000 passes” video, but Porter himself seemed keen to temper those who were expecting Cascadia’s answer to Barcelona to rock up when New York visit on March 3rd.

I am realistic, I’m not naive. I don’t think that we are just going to throw the ball out and play beautiful soccer and automatically pass the ball around and beat the New York Red Bulls on March 3rd.

There’s no doubt that Porter will seek to instill a change in the footballing culture of the Timbers, but in the short term I suspect we’ll be seeing a more pragmatic approach from the new coach.

They brought in a couple veteran guys like myself and Will Johnson, guys who have been around and been around successful teams and been in successful locker rooms and kind of know what it takes to win in this league. So it sounds to me like this year is all about bringing those pieces together and winning.”

Michael Harrington was signed from Sporting Kansas City, obstentibly to replace Steven Smith, who departed after becoming one of the Timbers most dependable and consistent players over the home stretch of 2012. After spending much of their first two years stumbling in a slapstick manner from one full-back catastrophe to another, there was something inevitable about the team finally seeming to lock down on of the positions at least, only for that player to up sticks and leave.

I don’t know a great deal about Harrington, but I haven’t heard many anticipating exciting wing play from him. Rodney Wallace seems, at times, to suffer from Jeremy Hall Syndrome, forgetting whether he’s a winger or a full-back. I thought he played his best football in the centre of midfield, but I don’t think there’s room for him there now, and I’m not sure he’s the guy to play as the left-sided attacker as that’s where I expect Nagbe to play next season.

Under Spencer, the full-backs were pushed on, acting like wingers as the team looked to get the ball in from wide positions, despite never signing an out-and-out targetman. To go back to the 1000 Passes video for a moment, the first thing you notice is, not surprisingly given the title, the number of passes being made by the Zips.

The attractive way they pass and move together is certainly eye catching, and you can see why it draws comparisons with Barcelona’s tiki-taka style, but what is more relevant to the Timbers is the way they use the possession to dominate the field.

They won’t simply content themselves with knocking it across the back a few times, as they seek to use possession to pin their opponents back into their own half. The old adage that you can’t concede a goal if the opposition can’t get the ball is true, and by keeping the ball the Zips are able to conserve their energy.

Domination of the field and conservation of energy were not the team’s forte under Spencer. The direct style Spenny wanted his team to play resulting in a side that eschewed possession for attacking thrust and ceded the ball to the opposition in over 70% of games.

The relentless athleticism also led to issue with late game collapses. As the system changed under Wilkinson, undoubtably in consultation with Porter, and there was less emphasis on the full-backs getting up and down the line, the number of late goals conceded started to drop. The hiring of a new fitness coach as well as an increased emphasis on modern alaytical techniques – something you never felt fit with Spencer’s up-and-at-them old school style – will, one would hope, allow the team to up the tempo without running out of gas in the final 15 minutes.

The role of the full-back is important under Porter’s possession-based system. With the team pushed on, the full-backs allow them to make the field as big as possible and stretching it to the sidelines. They aren’t the “almost-wingers” of Spencer, but still require sound technical ability and awareness as they’re an important part in circulating the ball and probing for space to get in behind the defence.

Providing you can get the right players in, this possession of the football acts as both defence and attack, and gives the full-backs a safety net to push forward. It would be fair to say that full-back isn’t the league’s strong point, so the hiring of Harrington, a player with bags of league experience, is a pretty solid get, if not exactly a reason to get the bunting out and rush down to get a new name on the back of your shirt.

Of course, it’s one thing to play like that when you possess the technical ace card by being able to attract the hottest prospects, it’s another when you’re a team coming off of a 17th place finish, with the 3rd worst defensive record.

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Even though the league has seen a general trend towards more goals per game despite an increasing in defensive spending, when the figures are broken down to level of investment vs results you can see that there is a relationship between more spending and better defences.

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The above charts maps all the changes since 2008 for MLS clubs, going back the official salary info that gets released. What you see is that a team will generally spend more on defence from one year to the next 70% of the time, though most changes tend to be very minimal variations up or down, and that an increase in spending tends to see a reduction in the number of goals conceded.

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Obviously it’s much more complicated than more money = better, but I think it’s illustrative all the same. Sensible investment in keys areas will bring about an improvement, and a marked improved in defence will give the team, obviously, a better chance of turning 0 points into 1, and 1 point into 3. It only takes a second to score a goal, but you need to defend for the full 90 minutes.

The likelihood of your investment returning in terms of fewer goals being conceded increases as you spend more money on that area. It’s basic soccernomics, to steal a phrase.

In the signing of Harrington, I see a “safe” pick at left back and Merritt Paulson confirmed what everyone knew, that the Timbers weren’t done with the roster, or indeed, the defence.

Two areas where GW/CP still want to make additions: creative mid and right back. Goal is to have all spots filled by start of pre-season

The tweet that also seemed to confirm the rumour of Timbers interest in Mix Diskeruud, with talks apparently stalling a few days later and Diskerud now looking likely to stay in Norway, the flirtation with Portland looking more and more like an attempt to force Rosenborg’s hand in contract negotiations than a serious contemplation of a move to the States. Since then Diego Valeri has emerged as the man the Timbers want to pick up, with speculation being that he will be signed as a Designated Player.

I have to return to the full-back position though, as I feel that is the crucial area the Timbers need to get right this year. Hopefully Porter will find the special formula to fix it. The Timbers invested in defence last season, bringing in Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura, as well as Hanyer Mosquera in the centre, but only one of those guys will, presumably, be playing in Timbers green in 2013.

I wouldn’t expect fireworks over Portland when the, hopefully first choice, guy they have for right-back lined up actually signs as I suspect it’ll be one of those “consistent and dependable” types, married to sound technical ability and tactical nous.

Though I’d worry about his pace against teams with quick wingers, Jack Jewsbury would do a decent job at right-back, I think. He filled in last year, and though I felt it robbed the team of a bit of width in the final third at times, the football under Porter wouldn’t necessarily place those same demands on him.

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see a place for Jewsbury in the midfield, especially following the signing of Will Johnson.

There’s no doubt the talent on that roster is there, but talent is such a small part of winning in MLS games. It’s hardly even worth talking about. It’s more about teamwork and hard work and those kinds of things, those things get you results in MLS.

Will Johnson echoed his new team mate, emphasising hard work over talent. There’s no doubt that Porter’s style will require great athleticism as lots of movement on and off the ball are essential, and Johnson brings a more dynamic presence to the centre than Jewsbury.

boydy

Porter used the press conference to drop the biggest hint yet that Kris Boyd’s time as a Timber is as good as over. Though he wouldn’t say outright that Boyd was done, he did confirm what many have suspected that Boyd’s penalty box based style isn’t what Porter himself expects from his striker.

Kris Boyd is a player that I think will have a hard time playing in the way that we want to play. And that’s no knock on Kris. He would fit in a lot of different systems but, with what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position.

In a way, I find this encouraging. Not because I don’t rate Boyd as I do, and still believe he has all the tools to be a big star in MLS should he decide to, and get the chance to, remain in the league; but because it represents a change in the way the Timbers are building their team. No more is about just getting the “best” players and making them fit into a system, as it seemed to be for the first couple of years, but rather it is about putting the system in place first, and get the “right” players for that system.

The door isn’t closed on Boyd, but with the emergence of Bright Dike, the stockpiling of strikers, and the imminent announcement of a new DP, it’s hard to see Boyd hanging around for long. There was talk out of Scotland about Boyd going back to Rangers, but in the short term that would seem unlikely. Rangers are labouring under a player registration ban until 31 August but, thanks to a quirk of the calendar, that day falls on a Saturday, which means the registration (and transfer) window will be extended to Mondays 2nd September meaning that Boyd’s old club would be able to register players for the upcoming 2013/14 season.

However, even if there was gas in the Rangers talk, that leaves 9 months where Boyd would either be being paid not to play – and at 29 one would imagine Boyd would want to maximise his playing time – or a potentially messy situation where Rangers would risk the wrath of FIFA and the SFA in playing Boyd as a trialist (trialists are allowed to play in league games in the Scottish lower leagues). The likelier outcome, given that a move with MLS is a more remote possibility, would be to loan Boyd back to the UK, say to a club like Nottingham Forest who have Boyd’s ex-manager, and oft-time suitor, Alex McLeish in charge, until the end of the season, putting the player in the shop window for a potential transfer or, failing that, writing off the last few months of his contract and allowing the player to find a new club back home in the summer. This would represent the least financial loss for the club, as opposed to simply buying out the whole year of his remaining contract. We shall see.

But anyway, let’s get back on track. With much of the work thus far being done on bolstering the defence and midfield, I think it’s pretty clear where the priorities of Porter and Wilkinson have lain this offseason.

Porters looking to put some 1-0’s on the board, and win games by simply not losing them first. That sounds obvious and dumb, but it’s something we’ve struggled to do as we’ve often been our own worst enemy. Shutting-out the opponent guarantees at least a point, and all it takes is one swing of the boot, or graze off the shoulder to turn that one into three.

2011 saw the Timbers keep nine clean sheets, six of which came at home, but 2012 had only five, three at home. As this map shows, the Timbers also struggled to score, going goalless twelve times in 2012, up from nine the year before.

In their three home clean-sheets of 2012, they won two by 1-0 (Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City) and drew the other against Columbus Crew. With a bit more defensive stability, even with meagre returns from another under-performing attack, the Timbers could reasonably expect to grind out a few 1-0’s along the way, and those extra few points could be what it takes to put a side in with a chance of glory, in a league where over half the sides qualify for the post-season.

I suspect his experiences with the USMNT may have just chastened college soccer’s rising star. Where once he rejected DC United, following the disappointment in failing to reach the Olympics and the resultant somewhat-backlash against the young coach, Porter has now decided that a club at a crossroads was the perfect fit, saying he was “uncomfortable being comfortable” in Akron.

Caleb Porter will, I’m sure, seek to bring more than defensive grind to Portland as the signing of Ryan Johnson and Diego Valeri speak volumes as to how Porter will look to utilise pace and craft to break through defences. Given the way the Timbers struggled in offence, closing the door at the back will only take you so far before the old attacking frustrations kick in. The Timbers have lacked a creative central midfielder thus far, with Alexander seemingly happier a little deeper, and most of the flair in the team is played out wide.

Porter expressed a desire to utilise Homegrown Players more going forward. With Brent Richards spending much of 2012 on the fringes of the team and Steven Evans announced as the club’s second Homegrown player, following a successful season with the U’23s and University of Portland, it’ll be interesting to see how and when these guys are fed into the starting XI.

While I don’t think the roster reconstruction is over, the addition of a right back and a creative midfielder seem like the last two big pieces of the puzzle. The are still questions over the attack – I love me some Dike, but I’m still not sold on him as a consistent starter – but I think it’ll be a case of one out before we get one in, as we’re carrying a lot of bodies in attack, and they can’t all play together, unless you want to turn the clock back to the early days of football when the 1-2-7 formation held sway.

I expect to see the team play possession-based, attack-minded football, but not naively so. Porter clearly has strong ideas on how the game should be played, but I don’t think he’s such an ideologue that he’ll seek to play in a way that leaves the team exposed at the back. Equally, I don’t think it’ll be exclusively 4-3-3 all the way. Barcelona can do that because they’re so much better than just about anyone else, but the Timbers aren’t. As Spencer found out to his cost, simply going out there and doing the same things every week doesn’t work so well in as league where parity rules. You need to adapt, or die.

As for how the team will shape in attack, and seek to better a record that saw only Chivas USA go more matches in 2012 without finding the opposition net, we’ll have to wait and see what the next few months bring, but I’m encouraged by the focused way that Porter and Wilkinson have been going about their business thus far.

As Kristen noted, Porter isn’t exactly one for Patton-esque stirring speeches – at least not in public, though by all accounts he has the ability to inspire players to go above and beyond – but I was encouraged by his press conference as he addressed many of the areas of concern, showing that he gets it. Learning from previous mistakes, both his own and those of others, is key to becoming a better person and a better coach, and Porter seems to have done that.

Of course, the proof will come when the season gets underway, but for now I’m pretty optimistic that the Timbers have turned the corner and are ready to start delivering some success to a fanbase that have endured two tough years, but keep on coming back and in greater numbers than before.

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