Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Timbers: How They Score (When They Score)

Again! And do it exactly right this time!!
If you sit down to watch all 25 goals scored by the Portland Timbers in this Year of Our Lord, 2015, and let memory take thought for a little tango, you come to appreciate a few things. Among them:

- It never really got better than that home win over Seattle. The Timbers scored Number 18 in that one and, ah, she was something, that goal.

- Timbers have treated their fans to a few short, sweet mini-narratives this season. Or, per your preference, false dawns: those two, three weeks when Jorge Villafana made it possible to believe the club had pulled a secret dead-ball specialist out of its ass; the two-game partnership between Gaston Fernandez and Maximiliano Urruti that turned out to Gata’s swan-song. The team snuck in a couple surprise highs – see, Jack Jewsbury's late-game-hero cameos (speaking of's comin,’ Jack) – but the great, fitful constant for the season comes with those wonderful occasions when Darlington Nagbe tore straight through the fucking sternum of a couple defenses, punching right GODDAMN THROUGH TO THE BEATING, BLEEDING HEART...OH MY GOD?! WHY AM I YELLING?! GOAL! GOAL!!!

- Those are cherished moments, those times when Nagbe all but freakin' teleported into that gap 25-30 yards from goal with defenders scrambling before him like panicked villagers with barbarians snapping at their heels. Feels like it's been awhile. Guess that's it. Thought maybe if I yelled loud enough they'd come back. Anyway, it's easy to forget sometimes just how much Nagbe was all over Portland's first seven goals of the season, late(-ish) as they came.

- Finally, who can forget the weird, hopeful waiting for Diego Valeri to come back.

- The feeling hasn't gone away.

- Has it?

That stroll down memory lane just sort of happened, but it wasn't the point of the project. When I started the...can we just agree to call it "Research" if the idea comes up again? At any rate, I embarked on my Research to study how the Timbers scored those 25 goals this season...and, wait, one more:

- That is simply not a lot of goals. Only three teams have scored fewer. Those three teams are terrible.

It was the nagging absence that led me to stare at all those goals. The idea was to see what the Timbers have done when they got things right this year. Even if a specific approach didn't look like something the Timbers could replicate, maybe some pieces to it could help lay a path to an actual way forward. [Where's the lead? Waaaayyy down here...shh, it's tucked inside this paragraph.] There are holes, of course, arguably big ones. For instance, what about the myriad occasions when the Timbers did everything right, but didn’t score? Don't laugh, it happens. All the same, nothing unfamiliar jumped out when I watched those goals go in. By that I mean, in a handful of those successful sequences, I noted a familiar plan of attack – most notably, one that fails all the damn time.

In more specific terms, I came up with a few things: a pair of approaches that, for good or ill, have been most productive for Portland this year; a couple instances where Portland went away from those and to impressive effect, and, as noted above, at least one generality that strikes me as a limitation in how I see Portland attack. Moving forward, eschewing bullet points...

First, let’s pull a few goals from the sample. Here, I'm removing the two penalty kicks and the set-pieces, corners included. While set-pieces can become a reliable weapon in a team's arsenal – see, the Houston Dynamo under most of Dominic Kinnear's tenure and FC Dallas over the past (arguably) few seasons – the Timbers have never fit that mold. A couple beauties (and refer back to that note on Villafana), and at least one beast aside, no Timbers player has provided a reliable dead-ball foot so far this season (there's a gimme in there, too). More to the point, Portland just kind of bangs with the scrubs when it comes to set pieces, or even crosses generally…oh, they’re be more on this later…so much more...

What kind of goals do the Timbers score, then, when they score from open-field play? Taking out the goals above leaves a sample of 18 goals (18 goals in open play; also, not great). For starters, Portland, like most teams (that are worth a shit), finds success when it finds ways to get defenders back-pedaling. This goes deeper, however, in that, absent some version of that set of circumstances, Portland struggles to find a way through to goal. That’s not to say they can't score, or that they don't even manage decent chances without the help of a little scrambling, so much as to point out that this key detail featured in most successful outcomes (goals).

The next question becomes how the Timbers make that happen. The Research revealed two general versions of this. The first involve goals scored from what I named "pinch-'n'-counters" – e.g. goals scored after turnovers by the opposite team’s defender or deep midfielders. Those account for 5 goals of Portland's goals. Useful as these are, they only offer one strategic/tactical direction – e.g. the adoption of a high press. While that's a fine and reasonable approach to suggest, it's limited in that it relies more on forcing mistakes that the opposing teams are no less eager to avoid. And relying on someone else just adds another cat one has to herd...

The other way Portland gets clubs back-pedaling is by way of a single pass that completely upsets the opposition's defense – quick transition, basically. The same basic thing happens as with the pinch-'n'-counter – i.e. a single pass sends a Timbers player through on goal or behind the defense – but these attacks start with Portland in possession. Don't get me wrong: some of these things are beautiful; other required the other team to invite the transition with sloppy defending; however when they come, these goals share one crucial commonality with the pinch-'n'-counter variety: these attacks originate from midfield. A crucial sub-plot runs under a lot of them, as well: a lot of these attacks go up the flanks, as opposed to up the middle. That sub-plot looms large in my mind because that same approach gets at why so many Portland attacks end in blind alleys.

Whether by accident or design, Portland leans toward setting up the final pass by finding attacking wide players – i.e. the guys who play wide in the three-person row of the 4-2-3-1 - on the outside of the defense. The entry pass attempts to get a player in behind the defense and pull the ball back across the face of goal – or at least that's where and how Portland looks most comfortable getting at the opposition’s goal. The Timbers play around the defense, basically, almost as if trying to encircle the entire opposing team. As with the pinch-'n'-counters, the attack originates near the middle of the field and they work even better when the other side’s defends on a high-line. Given space for those wide players to run into, where they can take on, or just out-run, an isolated defender, this works out pretty well. When I see it work, I lean toward the idea that the Timbers attack this way by design.

It's here, though, where the "accident" comes in. Portland defaults to the same approach of playing around the defense even absent those big, open fields behind it. Everyone appears to do the same kinds of things, only now amidst more traffic and bodies and with the end-line constraining the space still further. The players make the same kind of runs, too, which translates to a three-man front (it's almost never four) that's pretty flat, but also isolated from each other; in other words, the runs it makes sense to make in a transition scenario aren’t the same, but Portland's players tend to make them anyway. The whole thing ends with them waiting for some combination of wide midfielders and overlapping defenders to fling in a cross, only now with those same players are static and marked on top of being isolated. On a good day, the wide player can get around the defender(s) in his way and go toward goal; the Timbers need that resulting chaos because none of our guys are great crossers of the ball and, to name one key name, and a couple very good headers aside, Fanendo Adi simply looks more comfortable shooting with his foot. And that’s a different ball, in most cases, than a cross.

In the course of the Research, one thing stood out: how rarely the Timbers have managed to break down defenses that are organized and with players behind the ball. Again, yeah, yeah, yeah, this is the basic challenge put to every club's attack. Portland, though, has struggled more than most with working it out: using a criteria of a reasonably set, deep defense, I counted only five candidates all season. The first time I felt Portland really managed this came with Diego Valeri's first (and wonderfulest) goal of 2015. It didn't stray too far from the formula (e.g. the ball went wide) and the whole thing took a little luck, but the other team had defenders in good places, relatively close to goal and the Timbers got through. That was the 9th goal of the year, by the way. The club’s collective best moment came with Nagbe's first goal against Seattle (yep, the fondly remembered Number 18), because that move pulled together a lot of theory: it involved an overload (more later), Adi playing back-to-goal, which let the ball get deeper while giving more players time to get upfield, and it featured great movement by several players.

The key in all that, though, was the decision (and ability) to play the ball inside. The Timbers had enough players on that one side to make this happen – and that's the overloads that I love so much. I accidentally lingered on a game or two as I watched the highlights and, of those, I noted only a game or two where Portland seemed to, or had had much luck, playing centrally – the road win over Colorado and the home game against New England. The approaches were different – against the Revs, they sort of camped on top of a narrow, deep defense and opened a shooting gallery, while they were able to go at a stranded back four repeatedly against Colorado – but everything just looked...more effective in those games.

It's here where the whole conversation goes back to something and someone mentioned up top. One thing that stood out among all the goals - whether or against an organized defense, or with defenders scurrying back to their own - is how often Nagbe made them happen directly, or played a key role. He made the plays happen with runs that, as shouted above, went directly up the middle. The whole thing is incredibly effective when Nagbe can pull it off; he becomes the X-Factor in that moment and, in my mind, it's no mistake that he makes things happen precisely because he's operating centrally.

A pretty easy argument follows from all of the above: the Timbers standard and/or default method of attack isn't yielding great results, and no consistent alternative has materialized. As such, defending against the Timbers has generally become a pretty straightforward proposition: defend deep – which denies Portland the space for getting in behind, or running at goal with room and front of them – and shut down Nagbe, something that, for all his talent, he abets by way of doing the same thing over and over. Pull that off and your club can limit the Timbers to crosses...which is something they simply aren't good at. Or, to put that directly as possible, if the Timbers scored from a cross in open play, I either didn't see it, or it went in one eye and out the other. So, I'd call that a pretty high-percentage game-plan.

So, how does Portland fix this – and with the personnel on hand? That's for next Thursday.

[NOTE: I'm still working out some programming kinks, but, in future weeks, and at the end of a shorter post (HA!), I will add a wrap-up of MLS news for the week just past. At any rate, I'm close to a personally satisfying, and therefore sustainable set-up. Fingers crossed.]

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