Saturday, August 8, 2015

Timbers Top Chicago, But Are They Tall Enough?

NOTE: This is NOT a high bar.
Celebrating a win comes naturally. It's also easy to moan about a loss. This morning, though, I'm going to do the second hardest thing in spectator sports, i.e. moan about a win. (What's the hardest thing? Trumpeting the little victories in a loss.)

This could have gone up last night, but, after peaking at Twitter and seeing generally positive tweets about Adam Kwarasey's clean sheets (in spite of himself?) and how reliably the Timbers perform at Providence Park (but what about well?), giving people time to celebrate before I haul the rain clouds over the party felt like the classy thing to do.

Look, I'm happy that the Timbers accidentally beat the Chicago Fire last night. Yeah, yeah, credit Timbers players for putting themselves into position to cause problems, but the goal that won it was accidental. In the hours since the final whistle blew, I’ve come to think of the win as such: when Lassie came over the hill barking her head off, she brought good news and bad: the good news is that Timmy is alive and uninjured (we won!), but the bad news is that Timmy is still at the bottom of the goddamn well.

This past Thursday, I attended a classy symposium comprised of people with a peculiar (erotic?) interest in the performance and fate of the Portland Timbers. At one point, some smart someone floated the question of whether last night's game was a must-win. After answering yes, I drifted off from time to time as I tried to figure out why that felt accurate. What I came up with is the argument that facing a team that's clearly in the running to be, literally, one of the worst in the league, and on your home field, works like those childhood-destroying signs at amusement parks that say "you must be at least [this tall] in order to ride this ride."

Being as tall as that sign only means that you're big enough to go on the ride, not that you're ready for it. Think of "the ride" as the playoffs, and you should follow.

It is vital to emphasize that the Fire are a bad, bad team. Chicago's defenders and midfielders played passes to phantom runs at least a dozen times, passes so egregiously mistimed that the alleged receiving player couldn't give a thumbs up without risking hurt feelings. On the occasions they did pin Portland in their own end, their execution betrayed them in a number of ways – e.g. crosses heavily over-hit, movement that did more to circulate the players than I did the ball, etc. Given that formula, it takes only a handful of defensive breakdowns to lose the game. Given that formula, small wonder that Frank Yallop looks forever on the verge of despair. (I have taken to calling him, "Frank Yallop, Portrait of Despair.")

Anyway, let's talk about why Timmy is in that goddamn well.

1) Dubious Inputs into a Faulty Form
One of the commentators (of all sources of inspiration) set the thought process in motion by noting that Fanendo Adi finds himself alone in the box too often. He put this down to the way that Portland's wide players in the 4-2-3-1 don't get in the box all that much. And, generally, he's right (here, I think "he" was Keith Costigan): for whatever reason – e.g. players' comfort, timidity, coaching, etc. – getting two players in the area is the Timbers' usual. They sometimes get three in there when they're feeling nutty. Or on corner kicks. Provided some kind of method to the madness, this would be fine. The trouble is, I only see the madness, not the method. Here's why...
1a) Eyeing the Flanks, Early and Often
When Portland plays out of the back, or even when Diego Chara and Will Johnson win the ball in central midfield and they're looking to get things going the other way, they tend to go wide to midfield players like Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla, or to find more familiar weapons like Diego Valeri or Darlington Nagbe who have slipped out wide to find space. None of that is a problem, at least not as a first step, but what too often comes after is a problem. The good example, yet maddening exception, of Nagbe aside (more later), Portland players appear uncomfortable with both running and passing up the middle. (Wait, Liam Ridgewell, with his clear love of long, line-splitting passes right up the gut, makes for another exception; then again, it bears noting that those passes are, more often than not, taken from Portland’s attacking players, or intercepted outright). Nuances abound within that (pre-parenthetical) generalization, but it's the general result I'm tracking. The Timbers, now with the ball and looking to go forward, most often take one of two paths: 1) the wide-player will combine with an overlapping fullback on his side of the pitch, or 2) he'll switch the ball cross-field to another wide-open overlapping fullback, Alvas Powell most often (who, sadly, fell on his bottom on a promising play last night). Now, this gets the ball upfield – which is what the Timbers want – but the sequence most often winds up with the ball out wide and deep in the attacking third, a situation that strongly suggests a cross. And now the conversation comes full circle, e.g. back to the issue with having one, two – or, gods forbid, three - Timbers in the box going against half a dozen defenders.
1c) Why This Might Indict the Formation
Costigan's point about the wide players failing to get into the area ties fairly directly to personnel: who on Portland’s roster is a massive back-post threat? Wallace? Asprilla? Valeri? Nagbe? The answer is none of the above: these are players a team relies on to get the ball into the area, not to be the guy on the receiving end. The importance of this point rises in direct proportion to the number of crosses Portland attempts – i.e. the more Portland crosses the ball, the less this formation, or the arrangement of personnel within it, makes sense.

Before letting this go, I want to be clear that this does work sometimes, and well: Portland's best attacking moment came last night when Wallace slipped Villafana in behind the Fire's defense on a short-sweet overlap. OK, moving on...

2) Nagbe...
To start with a disclosure, every time I talk/bleat/whine about Nagbe, I have a body of statistics regularly noted by The Armchair Analyst (Matt Doyle) in the back of my mind (old numbers; sorry). Said statistics provide a permanent counter-point to everything I say...and yet I can't stop making the point, at least not till the whole question resolves one way or the other. As noted briefly above, Nagbe stands tall among Timbers players on one measure – e.g. his willingness to cut inside and go discomfitingly straight at the opposition. This has value on a lot of levels, included, but not limited to, shaking things up in the attack. That said, there's a certain, almost pathological consistency to how Nagbe does this. Most often, he finds a pocket of space and turns to face the Timbers player who's holding the ball. On receiving the pass, Nagbe will sometimes just drop the ball back to the other player; when he's feeling it, though (and, here, "it" can mean pressure coming from one side or the other), Nagbe will spin away from the pressure and, from there, he's off. Everyone knows what comes next: a minimum of two defenders collapse on Nagbe's run, a situation that forces a decision in 3, 2, 1. Here's where Doyle’s numbers come in: Nagbe has great talent for getting the ball out of that scrum; he finds a pass to a teammate 8 times out of 10 and that's both admirable and the source of those numbers. Then again, the urgent nature of that pass, and how it means his teammates are reacting to it, impacts the value of that pass – i.e. the player receiving the ball is more pre-occupied with helping Nagbe keep possession than he is with how he's going to turn that pass into the next (great) pass or maybe even a goal. And here's where it goes deeper...
2a) ...His Emulators (and Why This Might Indict the Personnel)
My biggest note on Nagbe both goes back to something noted about him in Section 2 and gets at a larger issue with the Timbers' attack. The key line comes with "finds a pocket of space." If you watch Nagbe's movement, you'll see that, most often he sort of ambles around until he finds three yards of space; once he gets there, he faces the ball and signals for a pass. What he doesn't do is use movement off ball to influence the game: he doesn't, say, bolt forward toward the opposition goal, which could either give the guy with the ball a new angle to pass to (whether to him or another player), or open up space for him to run into with the ball. Hell, it's rare that he'll even move laterally to open up space, but file this under one of those things you won't know about till he tries it somewhat regularly. As I was obsessing over this last night, I started seeing this lack of movement – especially toward goal – all over Portland's attacking set up. A lot, a lot of Timbers moved and presented for the ball in this exact same manner and it resulted in a fairly static attack, one that gave Fire defenders ample time to organize and get behind the ball. This problem is at its clear worst on crosses...but, jesus, this is long enough. Putting a fork in it down below...

3) The Good
OK, yes, it's past time to stop shitting on this win. And, crap, I didn't even get to my notes on Lucas Melano. Anyway, it was a win, one pegged as a must-win no less, and Portland won it. To highlight the good, Johnson and Chara were both great last night. And it's absolutely worth noting that, just the one week prior, pundits lauded Chicago's Matt Polster with "Rookie of the Year" candidacy for bossing the midfield against FC Dallas' strong, (somewhat) empty-bucket central midfield pairing of Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa. Chara and Johnson combined so effectively in the middle that Polster had to shift out wide to help the Fire go forward. Chara stole the show for me in that he was a little more aggressive going forward than Johnson, but I'd also argue it was a near thing. Tons of good stuff followed from there – e.g. another win in a string of them at home, plus Kwarasey's clean sheet, no matter how high-wire that turned out to be. (NOTE:'s "Key Moments" links are letting me down; I don't have video for either of my most interesting moments - e.g. Kwarasey's blunder or that overlap between Wallace and Villafana).

To pose a direct counter to points (and sub-points) 1 and 2 above, maybe Polster, and the rest of Chicago, was stronger up the middle than I understood. Maybe Polster and Eric Gehrig and Jeff Larentowicz shrugged off Johnson and Chara effectively enough to render it playing centrally impossible. It's possible, but...I'm going with my eyes for now.

That's a good place to leave this. Portland absolutely succeeded on the level of being hard to beat last night. Whenever Chicago found a little space, the Timbers shut it down. I mean, how many times did Jason Johnson dance and feint his way across Portland’s 18 only to find no opening? But this goes back to that damn amusement park sign: being hard to beat just means you can go on the ride. The goal is to own that fucking machine.

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