Tag Archives: tactics

What Now 2: Electric Boogaloo

Okay. I’ll admit it; I’ve always wanted to write a blog post with “Electric Boogaloo” in the title. I was young in the Eighties. Sorry.

Anyway.

So; here we are.

The Portland Timbers are coming off a pretty ragged season with a team in some disarray and no head coach. The next time we’ll see the Boys in Green on the pitch will be in the spring, when – we hope – the new coach Caleb Porter will have brought some calm and order to the House of Pane, shattered by poor results on the pitch and broken by hard feelings off the pitch between the most hardbitten supporters and the interim coach/long-term general manager Gavin Wilkinson.

There has been talk of a wholesale housecleaning.

But in my opinion that is all it is; talk.

Given the approach that this team management has taken in the past, and what we’ve seen on the pitch this season and last, I cannot believe that who we will see run out on the pitch next season will be all that much different, either in form or in function, from what we have seen up until now. We will not suddenly see a side full of crafty veterans leading enthusiastic youngsters, all bursting with soccer skills.

As we talked about in the preceding post, we are likely to see many players of fair-to-middling grade MLS abilities… but many of them will have one or more limitations, ranging from trivial to significant, in their skill-set. And we will see a smaller but significant group that is better skilled – when they are at their best – but prone to maddening reversals of fortune, drifting in and out of matches, or in and out of the roster as their touch ebbs and flows.

That’s who we seem to be, that’s who Gavin and Merritt seem to find to stuff the Boot Room with. So that’s what we need to work with. That’s how we need to go forward.

We’re not going to be Spain. Let’s abandon the notion that we will ever have the quality to play “Timber-taka”.

We’re not going to be Germany, or France, or even Holland.

So.

We need to be Finland.

You say; OK, smart guy – how can we win as Finland?

Here’s how;

1. Play smart, not hard. OK, yeah, play hard. BUT play smart, too.

I heard a lot of talk on the ‘Net about how the 2012 Timbers lacked “heart”. How they didn’t play “like they cared”. How the team would roll over and die like a possum on the interstate when things went wrong.

But when I watched the team I didn’t usually see that.

OK, Dallas away? Yeah, crap, I saw it then.

But what I usually saw was a team that was tossed out onto the pitch without a plan. Without a through understanding of their opponents. I saw a group that had been given some vague instructions on what their coach wanted them to do, probably some offhand suggestions on how to cope with the opponents’ strengths, and then told to go play and see what happens. Not surprisingly, when our opponents then went through us like a dose of salts the guys got frustrated and confused; they felt like they had been out-coached and couldn’t win – from the stands that looks a lot like jackin’ it. But in my opinion it was pure coaching laziness; an approach that says, we’re just gonna go out and kick the ball around and hope for the best.

If you’re Spain, or Germany, or San Jose… you can get away with that. You have such dominant skills – even if those skills are the skills of a Lenhart; deep-dyed evil flopping and thuggery – that you can impose them on your enemy.

The Timbers can’t. Finland, remember, the plucky little guy?

For teams like us, teams with a thin roster and limited skills, each match has to be approached as a new challenge. Every opponent is a new day, a new plan. The team; the tactical plan, the roster, the communications, the discipline, needs to be adjusted to every match – and then constantly assessed during the match to re-adjust to the opponent’s moves.

Gavin, as a coach, was flat-out awful at this. Spencer seemed to pick this up from him; his “tactics” never varied. His starting XI seemed to be “whoever played well last match”.

We can’t win that way.

Merritt is going to have to give Porter the resources to do an extensive scouting and preparation for each match next season and the next on ad infinitum. And Porter will have to be constantly assessing both our team and our opponents to find the most advantageous matchups he can find. And then use his substitutions to counter their counters.

It will be nerve-wracking. It won’t always work. But I believe that it can work better than the past two season’s lassiez faire approach.

2. Play disciplined: you aren’t the dinosaur, you’re the small mammal that eats their eggs.

The 2012 Timbers were among the least tactically disciplined – and sophisticated – teams I have watched outside Vancouver away this past October and several U-12 sides in North Portland.

It showed in all aspects of our play. It showed in our backline the most; our repeated inability to catch attackers offsides, in our failure to mark and cover each other, in our backline/keeper communications. But it also showed in attack, in our inability to put together strings of attacking passes, or an attack that didn’t consistently breakdown inside the 18. It showed in out wasteful finishing, and our failure to get repeated chances on goal from an attacking series.

It even showed in something as simple as our throw-ins. I can’t be sure, but I’d think that we had the poorest ratio of throws to possession-from-throws of any team in MLS. We were just terrible at throw-ins.

Oh – and corners and free kicks! Gah! We were so good at that in 2011! The hallmark of a team that is dangerous from set-pieces is that the team will place the free kick where it wants to, and the players will get to the ball before the defenders. We took a huge step backwards there; our set-piece discipline was terrible in 2012.

See the theme here? We were either careless or wasteful on the pitch, and it cost us.

Overtalented teams can be wasteful. There will always be another chance, another shot, another corner.

Finland – sorry, the Timbers – can’t afford to be wasteful. They can’t afford to be careless. That shot has GOT to be on frame. That corner has GOT to be on a Timber’s head. Because it might be the one chance you get all half, or even all match. You HAVE to make it count.

Teams with good but limited skills can succeed with on-field discipline; hell, look at the entire history of Italian international football.

If Coach Porter can succeed in instilling that sort of discipline in this team, I think we should see some real improvement on the pitch in 2013.

3. Quantity has a quality of its own, but it’s a lot better and more fun to have quality instead

In my opinion, infusing more intelligence and discipline in our coaching and our play can take this group of players – or someone like them – further in 2013 that we have come so far.

But the problem is that to go further, we STILL have pieces that aren’t there.

Remember; the Soviets won in the end. Pluck, smarts, and discipline can only take you so far.

We still need someone who can create from the center of the midfield; someone who can provide service, start attacks, and provide a threat that will negate the current problem that if you take away the flanks the Timbers cannot generate attack.

We still need a right fullback who can be relied upon to shut down that wing.

We need Coach Porter to recognize this, and to insist that the team move the heavens and the earth to find and bring those players here.

———–

So here’s what I think is our bottom line:

We need a coach who understands the game, and how individual players, groups, and tactics can be tweaked to get the most out of that game. If I understand this correctly, Caleb Porter appears to be such a coach.

We need a group of players willing to be coached in such a way, and willing to adapt their game to take advantage of their strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and work together to do that. We will see whether our players will be such a team.

But – to me most important – we need an owner and a general manager that understands that this is how a team like Portland moves forward.

I’m not sure whether Merritt and Gavin are such a management.

But we’ll see, won’t we?

————–

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to put 2012 behind us and warm up the songs for 2013. RCTID- Onward, Rose City!

The Change Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diego Chara & The Art of Fouling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You can follow Andrew on twitter – @andyyax

Playing the Wigan Way

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.

Wigan's passing stats vs Newcastle
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.

#RCTID

Matter of Heart

Last week, John Spencer and his coaching team deserved the plaudits they got for pulling a tactical rabbit out of the hat in adjusting his team’s set-up to counteract the strengths of a till-then unbeaten Sporting Kansas City team. With Lovel Palmer plugged into a defensive midfield role, and a disciplined performance from everyone around him, the Timbers were able to neutralise much of the threat posed by Kansas City, and snatched an unlikely victory thanks to an own goal off a Kris Boyd cross.

I gave Spencer’s team selection a lot of praise last week, and I feel it was warranted. It wasn’t a pretty game, or a pretty performance but the team stepped up with arguably their best showing of the season so far, albeit one of the backs-to-the-wall variety. Going forward to this weeks match against Montreal Impact – the second bottom side in MLS this season, with only Toronto worse off, and I’m not sure at this point if Toronto aren’t some kind of grand prank being played on MLS – there was every reason to be hopeful that the Timbers could build on the Sporting result with another win, and at the same time see off an East Coast hoodoo that had seen the Timbers cross 3 time zones seven times, winning none and losing four.

What the Timbers fans got for their optimism was a disorganised, disinterested and bitterly disappointing performance that showed less heart than Tin Man repeatedly punching an orphan in the face. It wasn’t just the lack of desire though that cost the Timbers – they simply weren’t good enough from back-to-front.

In hindsight, the worst thing that could’ve happened last week may have actually been winning the match!

It would be folly to think that the Timbers won last week on organisation alone. They got a huge slice of luck in the own goal, and needed Perkins to make saves at crucial times. There’s an argument that Timbers made their own luck that night, but nevertheless, trying to pull off the same thing twice was always going to be pushing it.

And yet, that’s what the Timbers tried to do.

Steven Smith, the treatment table bothering ex-Rangers left back, replaced Mike Chabala at left back, but other than that change, all was as it was against Kansas City. The thinking seemed to be that since this strategy worked last week and beat the best team in the league, it was bound to do well against one of the the worst teams, right? Because that’s exactly how football works!

Yet, shockingly enough, the strategy that seemed so tailor made for countering a very specific style of football from Sporting didn’t fit against the Impact. Like the laziest kind of lounge magician, Spencer thought he could go one table over and pull off the same trick twice.

Palmer, asked to play the same deep lying role that he had the previous week often looked lost and unsure of just who or what he was supposed to be picking up. For all he was officially given a zonal marking role last week, as Spencer claimed, he just so happened to be marking a zone that contained Graham Zusi more often than not. Montreal didn’t have a Zusi. They don’t play that way. Their strengths are in their wide players and neither Felipe (who was my player of the match, for the record, with a fantastic range of passing on show) nor Warner are your archetypal attacking midfielders. So Palmer was left marking a zone with often no-one in it, and without that clearly defined opponent, he floated around without any sense of effectiveness.

Here Montreal were able to find space on the edge of the Timbers box as Palmer was sucked towards the back line, leaving his “zone” unprotected. Shades of Beckham in the LA match – also a match where Palmer had been parachuted in to play a holding role with seemingly no clearly defined instructions. Warner isn’t Beckham though, and his attempt to “Messi” his way through the mass of Timbers defenders was snuffed out.

It was very much a shot across the bow for the Timbers.

Palmer’s deep role can be seen even more clearly when the average positions of players are taken, using the heat maps on the MLS site as a guide.

It’s hard to be precise with this, obviously, but it shows that Palmer was often playing so deep that he could’ve been a third centre back. What is also noticeable if the way that the Montreal attack skews towards the Timbers left back area. Smith tried to play an attacking game, which saw him pushing up the field. This is fine – I wanted the Timbers to take the front foot and try to force Montreal back, but as you can see from the positions of the Montreal right back and right winger, they weren’t overly concerned with covering back, indicating that Montreal felt pretty comfortable dealing with the Timbers’ attack.

What was also concerning was Smith’s sometimes lackadaisical attitude to getting back, as was seen in the second Montreal goal.

At no point does Smith either seem alert to the danger, or show any real urgency to get back on terms with his man, or at least put pressure on him. The play began with a long ball out from the Impact keeper, and long before Sinisa Ubiparipovic became a threat there was time for Smith to get back. Credit must go to the final pass from Montreal which cut out defence and goalie, though a case could be made for Bendik staying on his line rather than trying to palm it out.

Smith, making an instant debut after his release by League One side Preston North End, looked like a man short of match sharpness. His last appearance for Preston was at the start of March, where he was subbed off after an hour of a 3-0 defeat to Colchester. Prior to that his last game time had been back in January. It showed.

Chabala found himself sitting this one out which strikes me as somewhat unfair. Chabala had put in a sterling effort against Kansas City, and while he may not be the greatest attacking full back around, he does offer a lot of bite and work-rate in defence.

You can see clearly the difference in tackles and interceptions between the two players. Yes, you might expect Chabala to be a bit busier given he was facing the best team in the league, but it’s still an illuminating picture. Smith’s focus seemed to be in attack, with less focus on getting back and covering. He was also prone to going to ground readily, which on a couple of occasions gave Impact players the chance to simply take a touch past him.

It would be ridiculous to write off a player based on one match, especially a debut but I still think Chabala has every right to be pissed off that he was overlooked. One of my criticisms of Spencer has been that it often seems he picks players based on his opinion of them, rather than how they’re actually playing. I’m sure he rates Smith highly, and I’m also sure Smith will go on to be a good left back for Portland given time, but throwing him into a match so soon, especially when Chabala had, in my opinion, earned that spot, sends out all the wrong signals to players. Players should earn the jersey, not just expect it.

Where’s the incentive to knuckle down and work harder to earn a spot in the team if certain players are going to get picked regardless? I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be for these guys to see their fine work one week rewarded with a spot on the bench the next.

It was also be silly to blame the defeat on one man. Smith bears the greatest culpability for the second Montreal goal, as I see it, but he didn’t lose this game for Portland. There were very few bright spots through-out the team, or on the bench. Again Spencer seems to have picked a team and tactic without any thought to the opposition. I can understand the call to “keep a winning team together”, but this wasn’t a team that played Sporting Kansas City off the park and swashbuckled their way to a well-deserved victory. This was a team that knuckled down, bunkered and got a bit lucky on the break. This was NOT the team for Montreal.

Even the great sides will change it up depending on opposition, and this Timbers team isn’t a great side.

With Palmer so deep, Jewsbury was given so much ground to cover as he was expected to get up and down the pitch. To his credit, he had a great chance in the first half thanks to a classic box-to-box run.

It had shades of the breakaway chance against Kansas City last week, where Chara fed in Boyd. But here, as then, the chance wasn’t taken as Jewsbury’s shot didn’t really carry much threat behind it, and Ricketts will be able to make a YouTube highlights reel worthy clip out of his theatrical save.

But even here you can see how deep both Palmer and Jewsbury were sinking in defence. There are three Montreal players and the ENTIRE Timbers defence and midfield behind the ball in the top left panel. This time, the Timbers broke well, and Jewsbury got forward, but too often there was a loose pass or a long ball out of defence that only invited the pressure back on.

The strategy of “keep it tight” was pretty clear as the Timbers repeatedly tried to defend in bulk, but it essentially cedes ground to the opposition, and as a result the midfield battle was one that Montreal pretty comprehensively won.

The above shows the passing and shooting of the central midfield pairings of both teams. What should be pretty clear is that the Montreal two are both more involved and operating higher up the pitch than the Timbers pair.

The problem with playing on the back-foot, looking to soak up pressure, defend in depth and break, is that it, by design, invites pressure. I wouldn’t say the Timbers parked the bus as Chelsea did against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, but they had a tendency to drop off and give up space to the Impact whether through design or poor application. It worked against Kansas, but against the Impact the Timbers luck ran out.

There was a huge slice of bad luck in the two injuries the Timbers picked up. Purdy’s head knock forced him out early on, and Troy Perkins took a boot to the face as Nyassi went in stupidly high on a ball he was never going to win.

The handball decision given against Smith for Montreal’s opener was also bad luck on the Timbers part as it didn’t seem he had “handled the ball deliberately”, as per the Laws of the Game.

But luck, as well as poor officiating or a terrible playing surface, don’t excuse what was simply a terrible match from the guys in Rose City Red, and even though Lovel Palmer and Steven Smith have been singled out here, I also don’t think these two lost this match between them. It took an entire team to play this badly.

Another match passes where the Timbers clearly had the wrong strategy, but nothing was done to rectify it. There’s some mitigation in that two injuries forced the Timbers to make changes they wouldn’t have, given the choice, but the fact remains that it was clear the Timbers weren’t at the races in the first half, and the change, when it did finally come an hour in, was little more than a “deckchairs on the Titanic” style shuffle. Nothing was done to alter the shape or strategy. Perkins’ head injury put paid to any hopes that Spencer might throw the dice as the game wore on.

If Spencer expects a pat on the back for the way he set out the team last week, he has to except a large slice of blame for this week. I cannot explain how he thought taking what seemed to be a one-off, bespoke strategy and thinking it would simply work again against a completely different set of players was ever going to work. At best it was tactically naive, at worst it was downright bad management.

Had the Timbers got a point, which seemed to be the game plan, or even snatched three, they’d had better been leaving Montreal on horseback wearing Dick Turpin masks. It would’ve been nothing short of daylight robbery.

Football can be a cruel mistress at times, but it can also be unerringly fair too. This week the Timbers got what they deserved – nothing.

Next week sees Columbus Crew visit Jeld-Wen Field, and the Timbers Army will be expecting much more from their side. It’s not like things can get much worse… right?

P.T. F.C.

There Won’t Be A Fifth

Saturday sees the Timbers host early-season pacesetters Sporting Kansas City at Jeld-Wen with the Timbers on a four-game losing streak, and Sporting on a 100% winning run for 2012. A victory for the home team could be a great kick-start to our season, but overcoming a team with a 12-2 aggregate score for the season will be a tall order.

How do the Timbers beat the so-far unbeatable team? Well, there are a few points that would certainly help.

1 – Play for 90 minutes!

Pretty basic this one, but it’s something that’s caught the Timbers out far too often. Kansas will certainly be alert and active for the full 90, and Portland have to match them in effort and work-rate.

The Timbers have thrown away a couple of matches this season already losing late goals, and Sporting have won two matches with goals in the last few minutes of a match. Concentration and fitness levels will be crucial to prevent more late game woe for the home side.

As well as late goals, Timbers will have to be wary around half time. 5 times Sporting have scored in the five minutes before or just after half time, while the Timber have lost goals jsut either side of half time in the last two matches, as well as going behind in the first minute at New England. Again, it’s about not switching off near the end of a half, and being ready to go at the start of the next. Slow starts and weak finishes will be punished mercilessly by Kansas, make no mistake. This is a fit team, with good players who are capable of capitalising on the slightest drop in Timbers play.

First minute to last, the Timbers need 100%.

2 – Know Your Role!

We’ve seen with Palmer coming on against LA, and Jewsbury’s performance against Chivas that it’s crucial a player knows what they’re supposed to be doing out there, and does it.

Kansas will come at Portland in their usual 4-3-3 formation – it’s got them this far and there’s no reason to change it now.

Zusi and Espinoza in the centre are both great at making late runs, and we’ve seen in the past how a late runner can catch Portland out.

The top picture shows LaBrocca’s late run to head home Chivas’ winner, and the bottom shows a late run by Zusi into the box that resulted in a goal for Sporting.

Sapong, or Bunbury, will play that role at front-man, but expect to see Kamara push inside to make it a front two. With both guys well over six-foot, it’s no surprise that their main threat comes in the air so it’s crucial that both Brunner and Mosquera win those battles. It’s important that Kamara is picked up by one of our centre-backs and isn’t allowed to get a run on them coming off the LB.

The full-backs also have an important role in this match. Much of KC’s play will come down the flanks, and they’ll look to exploit the movement of Kamara and Convey in wide areas to isolate our full-backs, and give their wing-backs an overlap into clear space where they are more than capable of sending in dangerous balls for their strikers to attack. Myers and Sinovic often play, essentially, as auxiliary wingers.

Given how Palmer was brutally exposed by Chivas, it’s vital that we don’t allow our full-backs to be outnumbered in this match. Our wide midfielders have a crucial dual-role in this regard – back up the full-back when needed and, importantly, try and keep Myers and Sinovic pushed back up the field. It’s a delicate balancing act – knowing when the push on, and drop back – and one that will require our wide players all communicating well, and concentrating for the full 90.

I expect the Timbers to line-up in a 4-4-2 like this:

Some of the names may change (Alhassan has been ruled out), but I suspect this will be the shape. We may see Songo’o start, for example. One change that I wouldn’t actually mind seeing would be Wallace starting out left. He knows the full-back role, but his major responsibility wouldn’t be his weakest area – defending – and he would have the energy and work-rate to get up and down the line, helping out Chabala when needed.

The wide men will have the vital role, with Jewsbury and Chara deep to match any runs of Zusi and Espinoza.

It’s crucial that the Timbers are disciplined at all times, and aware of what’s going around them as KC can be clinical at exploiting any space or hesitation in these vital areas.


3 – Defend Set Plays & Win The Second Ball!

Last year the Timbers started the season at the set play kings. Jack Jewsbury’s delivery from dead balls was exemplary and won the Timbers many points. This year, KC are the masters of the dead ball. Many of their goals have come directly, or indirectly from set pieces so it’s vital that the Timbers attack the ball when defending set plays, rather than simply matching runs or defending space. KC have a lot of height to throw forward in these situations, and look for them to out-muscle Portland in the box. The Timbers have to stand their ground, and decisively win the ball.

Even if they do get a block in, or a header is saved, the Timbers have to be able to react quickly and win those second balls. Kansas have scored a few goals by reacting first to a loose ball, or a rebound, and it’s not a fluke. It’s about anticipation and reading the play. Too often Timbers players have been caught on their heels, waiting for something to happen – they need to be on their toes, looking to be first to every loose ball in and around the box because Sapong, Kamara, Bunbury – these guys generally don’t need two or three bites at the cherry.


4 – Break Fast & Use The Width!

The attacking overlapping runs of Myers and Sinovic offer an attacking threat for Kansas, but could also leave spaces behind for the Timbers to exploit with quick breaks.

Though turning the ball over is easier said than done, it’s of upmost importance and if and when the Timbers manage it, that they’re able to exploit the swathes of real estate left wide open in the KC defence. This is where the wide players need to recognise the potential quickly and get forward, and the strikers have to be ready to react incisively.

Of course, Jeld-Wen isn’t the widest of pitches (© every visiting coach, ever), but there’s still plenty of room to be exploited there, and by getting midfielders forward quickly, it’s possible to create a, to borrow a hockey phrase (damn my hockey-loving wife), powerplay situation.

Nagbe is especially good at getting the ball in these wide pockets of space and committing defences. It’s an area of the pitch I like to call the Nagbe Zone.

Getting the ball quickly and cleanly from defence to attack, allowing Nagbe to do what he does best, at speed, could be a way to get in behind KC and cause chaos in their defence.

Partly because of this, I’d like to see the Timbers play a 4-3-3 formation, with Alexander joining Chara and Jewsbury in the centre. Alexander’s brief would be to range from box-to-box and across the field, giving support to the full-backs in defence, and a late running option from the centre in attack, either exploiting the area left by Julio Cesar (or whoever may play the DM role for Kansas) to close down Nagbe/Perlaza/Boyd or forcing Cesar to hesitate, giving someone like Nagbe the half-second he needs to produce a piece of magic. I’d expect Perlaza and Nagbe to drop out wide when not in possession to exploit any space behind Myers and Sinovic, but quickly move centrally to support Boyd.

But I fully understand the reasoning behind going with a 4-4-2 as it arguably offers better cover in wide areas, and those tend to be the areas that Kansas look to spring attacks from, so that’s what I expect to see on Saturday from the Timbers. It requires the wide midfielders to be highly athletic, and disciplined in their play as both defence and attack will rely heavily on their actions on and off the ball.

Beating Kansas certainly won’t be easy, but it’s far from the realms of the impossible. While they’ve been impressive so far, they’re not invincible and the Timbers have shown in flashes enough quality to punish them, given the chance. They just need to make it stick across the full 90!

Key Areas

Controlling the flanks and dictating the terms of engagement there is vital. We must be wary of their threat, but we can’t be scared to take the game to them at times and force them back.

The central midfielders have to know who they’re picking up and where they are. No more repeats of previous goals lost where players have seemingly wandered into the box without anyone realising they were there.

Brunner and Mosquera have to communicate well – Perkins will be vital in this too – and they have to win their individual battles. They’re going to be sore on Sunday cos Kamara and Sapong will give them a game, but having three points in the bag will make the aches and pains seem so much more bearable.


Concentration, discipline, anticipation and precision will be the key attributes needed.

Onward Rose City…

The Song Remains The Same

What the multitude cannot comprehend is how victory may be produced for them out of the enemy’s own tactics.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Another week, another match, another limp home defeat as the Timbers once again heroically snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And yet, it had all started so well.

The Timbers had looked confident and comfortable on the ball early on, knocking it about with ease, probing for weakness in the two banks of Chivas players that looked set upon a game plan of frustrate, frustrate, frustrate, and then break on the counter. Kris Boyd was gifted a goal so easy that he had time to plan where he was going to put his log slice before tucking it away. Optimism was high. Portland had dominated possession and shots on goal! They’d scored first! In the first half and everything! It all looked so rosy in the Rose City.

Portland had lined up with the same diamond formation that had come so agonisingly close to beating Royal Salt Lake the previous week, but with a shuffle in personnel. Perlaza was dropped (can’t say I’m surprised even if I disagreed), Nagbe went up top alongside Boyd, with Songo’o and Alexander wide. The eyebrow raising change, for me at least, was seeing Jack Jewsbury at the point of the diamond, fulfilling the role of attacking midfielder. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of Jewsbury as that kind of player, but I guess John Spencer will point to the 1-0 lead at half-time and say it worked. Diego Chara was given the job of manning the engine room on his own, like a Colombian Scotty.

And then it all went wrong.

Two changes by Chivas USA at half-time would change the complexion of the match. First, on came Ryan Smith to play down the left-wing. It would pay dividends almost immediately.

The temptation is to go hard on Palmer for this, but that neglects the fact that it was also some good wing play from Smith. Palmer shouldn’t have tried to square up, and certainly shouldn’t have left the door wide open for Smith to get down the outside. Once Smith got a sniff he went past Palmer and swung over a beautiful cross. It was a huge warning sign.

Palmer’s best asset is his attacking and getting up and down the line. He’s never been brilliant defensively, but the change to bring on Smith put the focus squarely on Palmer. Palmer was forced to play deeper and deeper by Smith, and it neutered much of Portland’s play down the right flank. The picture below shows Palmer’s passing in the first-half (left) and second half (right)

I said at the time that something had to be done to protect Palmer. He’s simply not a good enough defender to be left in 1v1 situations against a fast, skilful winger. There’s only going to be one winner of that contest, and he ain’t wearing green. My call at the time was to put Chara out right so he would sit in front of Palmer, with Nagbe dropping back into his more natural trequarista role in the spaces behind the strikers. Chara has the pace and defensive nous to get up and down the line in front of Palmer, and give him some back-up when the ball came to Smith. As it was, injury forced Songo’o off, Alhassan came on and Palmer was left cruelly exposed.

The other change I mentioned that turned the game in Chivas’ favour was a subtle switch in midfield. In the first half, Chivas had adopted a 4-5-1 formation, with Minda sitting deep and one of LaBrocca or Zemanski getting forward from the middle. an attacking sense. At half time the Chivas head coach, Robin Fraser (an ex-teammate of Spencer’s at Colorado, coincidentally) gave BOTH LaBrocca and Zemanski license to get forward, exposing the weakness in the Timbers diamond formation. It put Chivas on the front foot, and put the Timbers under greater pressure nearer their own 18 yard line.

The central two of Zemanski and LaBrocca would bomb forward when Chivas had the ball, giving them a 2-on-1 advantage against Diego Chara as Jewsbury was left high up the park. Smith gave Chivas some attacking width that stretched the Timbers back line. Giving the outnumbering in the centre, there was a tendency for the Timbers wide players to drift inside to make up the numbers, leaving the wingers free in acres of space to take on the full-backs.

It was a smart move by Fraser. He’d identified that Jewsbury was too far up the field to be a defensive presence, and Minda would always be there to snuff out any nascent attacking threat from the Timbers captain, so he freed up his central midfielders to make their presence felt in the Timbers half.

This change in style came to horrible fruition in the second goal as the breaking midfielders both played a part in the goal – one setting Smith up for the cross, the other getting on the end of it.

Palmer is going to take a lot of the blame for both goals – and rightly so, in some cases – but he wasn’t helped here by the way the Timbers were arranged on the field by Spencer. At times the midfield was, quite frankly, a shambles with seemingly no-one entirely sure what they were supposed to be doing. Jewsbury in particular looked like someone who’d wandered in off the street and hadn’t a clue where he was.

It’s Diego Chara I feel really sorry for. Again he was all industry and efficiency (an 86% successful pass rate), but in the second half he was left wide open.

In the first half Chara was able to close down the ball in the centre of pitch, but in the second he was doing his work on the Timbers 18 yard line. Part of this was that the Timbers as a whole were pushed back by a resurgent Chivas, but it was also because he was left with two men to mark and it’s only natural that the tendency is to drop off and block off space, rather than close down and tackle when you’re faced with two guys running at you.

So another game where the Timbers are unable to make the right change at the right time.

What lessons have been learned?

Jack Jewsbury is no more an attacking midfielder than I am the Dragon King of Bhutan. He was rarely effective, and the team seemed to succeed in spite of him in the first half, rather than because. In his defence, it was always going to be difficult for someone to flourish in that role given the way Chivas were determined on sitting deep and narrow, but a good attacking midfielder at least imposes himself upon the opposition and Jewsbury simply didn’t do that. I’m pretty sure Osvaldo Minda could walk past Jack in the corridor and not recognise him.

The wider question of whether Jewsbury should be in the team at all is one many fans are debating. Yes, he’s the captain, and yes, he had a great year for (much) of last season, but does that buy him a role in the team of here and now? I’m not so sure. John Spencer seems determined to shoe-horn Jack and Chara into the same midfield, regardless of how it affects the shape and mobility of the team. The fact is that Diego Chara can do everything Jack Jewsbury can do, and do it better. Time to bench Jack, in my opinion. Though, I’ll be happy to scoff humble pie if he pulls a man of the match performance next week against LA cos, y’know, he ain’t getting dropped whatever fans say.

Darlington Nagbe has huge, undoubted, potential but he needs space to grow. He doesn’t have the physicality to knock MLS defenders off him, and he works best when he gets the ball to feet and is able to get his head up and run at them instead. He’s wasted up top.

Does Kris Boyd train with the rest of the team? I ask because it seems to me that the plan seems to be to hit it long towards him, hoping he’ll win the aerial battle. That’s not his game! Go watch his goals on YouTube – yes, he scores a few with his head, including one for the Timbers, but the vast majority are with his boot. I’m struggling to recall the last time he had a decent ball to feet in a dangerous area. It’s like no-one has noticed he’s not really that good at the whole “big target man” thing! He’s a penalty box striker who just happens to have the physique of a target man. We’re making the same mistakes as last year with Kenny Cooper.

Which brings us to John Spencer and the Timbers front office. I don’t want to be reactionary fan here, calling for sackings just because we lost. In fact, I’m not calling for sackings at all – I think Spencer is, on balance, doing a decent job and having stability is crucial for the club to grow. However, all is far for perfect. He’s been unable to set-up a team to get the best out of Kenny Cooper last season, and it seems to be the same with Boyd this year so far. At times it seems players are getting picked on the basis of reputation or standing within the squad than ability or form. And there’s a worrying tendency for matches to get away from him.

The fact is he either didn’t see how the game had shifted in the second half, did see but couldn’t figure out how to turn it back in his team’s favour, or saw it change but just did nothing to fix it.

The lack of quality at full-back is becoming a running, and increasingly unfunny, joke. I know this isn’t Football Manager, where you can tap in a few numbers and throw up a list of 50 suitable candidates, but for the position to be left as the team’s consistent weak point for over a year now is infuriating. A couple of trades for MLS journeymen here and there isn’t really cutting it.

Next week sees a trip to play LA Galaxy. LA have had a shocking start to the year and it’s tough to tell whether the Timbers will be facing a side hurting and eager to prove people wrong with a dominant performance, or a team playing poorly with morale at an all-time low. Either way, Timbers have to up their game. There is a break-out 90 minutes in this team just waiting to come out. We’ve seen flashes of it here and there. Someone in this league is going to be on the end of a real beating for the Timbers. Let’s make it Beckham FC. RCTID.

So, what could’ve been done differently?

The fact is, Robin Fraser out-thought and outmanoeuvred John Spencer. His changes – bringing on Smith, getting his midfield forward quicker – forced Portland on to the back foot and they simply didn’t react. Smith was left to go 1v1 with Palmer all game long as Alhassan simply isn’t the guy you want trying to track back down the wings. He naturally drifts in field at the best of times, and that’s what happened here. And Chara was left exposed in the second half by Spencer’s refusal to drop Jewsbury back.

Perhaps going flat 4-4-2 would’ve shut down Chivas in the middle, though you’d still need someone out wide who could do the defensive work to help Palmer. Unless, you remove Palmer from the equation and bring on Purdy.

The risk if that Smith still gets past Purdy, who hasn’t started for Timbers in a long time. Only Spencer would know if Purdy was up to coming into a match like this to do a shut-out job on Ryan Smith, and I can only assume he didn’t think he was.

During the second half, I’d gone on twitter to say I thought Perlaza should come on, so Chara could go out to the right side and give cover to Palmer. Let’s assume I’m in charge, if I make that change, how does the team shape up then?

A 442/433 asymmetrical formation, with Chara sat deep right to give cover to Palmer, whilst at the same time no neglecting his duties in the centre. Jewsbury drops back to match up with Chivas, with Alexander coming inside (another potential change could be Alhassan for Alexander or Nagbe). Perlaza would play off and around Boyd up top, with Nagbe providing wide cover in defence and a threat coming in from wide in attack.

Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. We’ll never know, it’s just one smug fan’s idea. Instead Spencer stuck rigidly to Plan A and the game just drifted away from Portland like a smoke from a flare.

It’s concerning that for the second week in a row Spencer has failed to make the right call at the right time. He made, only my opinion of course, the completely wrong substitutions at every turn last week, and here he failed to react whatsoever to a change in dynamic on the pitch.

A good manager can send out a team with a decent game plan and have them execute it. A great manager can adapt that plan and alter it when problems arise. The seeds for Portland’s defeat were sown in their own tactics. A diamond can work well against a team playing 4-4-2, but when a team drops an striker off the front and double teams on the man at the base of the diamond, it can be exploited, giving the team crucial space and possession of the ball in the most dangerous area of the pitch.

Someone hasn’t been reading their Sun Tzu.