Thursday, October 22, 2015

Portland Beat (the Crap) Out of LA: The Bearable Lightness of a Mystery Solved

Portrait of the author after Tuesday's ETR...
Last night, I decided to break my oft-stated vow to never watch a game a second time. That’s the space-time altering power of last Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. As all Timbers fans know, the game broke sharply in the Portland Timbers’ favor, and that’s a hard thing for long-time, occasionally-suffering Timbers fans to wrap their heads around mentally, psychically, even emotionally. Oft-punchless Portland dropping a five-spot? That’s freakin’ unheard of (this year). And contentment? That’s for people from places where clouds don’t blot out the sun. And happiness. Clearly, this situation recommended a little investigation into how chickens and eggs lined up, because repeatability is a goal when it comes to that kind of thing.

When I took in the mini-game on a midnight dreary (or blurry or hazy; or just Sunday night), I got the spirit all wrong: I took in the game the same way I’d enjoy a favorite movie – i.e. waiting for my favorite lines, so I could parrot that back to the screen and laugh like an idiot. Because I was watching soccer instead, I just smiled like a dork at each goal and whispered to myself, “just the best, right?” (Because my family hates soccer; hell, Judy barely cares and I haven’t seen Randall in weeks.)

That said, a devil in the details didn’t escape notice: 1) how was Dan Gargan left alone to block Fanendo Adi (that was Portland’s second)? 2) just where was Omar Gonzalez going when Nagbe hit LA with La Disjoncteur de Retour (Portland’s 4th; ht: google translate – that’s “back breaker” in French, a phrase I hereby introduce and hope to use often)? 3) you gotta sleep late and do something dumb to make Jorge (Villafana) look like Lionel (Messi) (the set up the Timbers’ fifth goal). Subtle, what-the-fuck qualities touched on even the “good” goals - e.g. 4) was Lucas Melano’s pass actually intended for Adi on the first goal; and 5) did Steven Gerrard miss Diego Chara’s run because he looked right over the wee Colombian’s head?

I don’t bring all the above up to sow seeds of doubt; I am not a fun-sucker (sun-fucker? maybe). Having now re-watched (as much of) the game (as I am willing to, e.g. the second half…but, hey, all of it; huh, who knew the vow would hold up), I can address all the above questions/statements as follows: 1) Omar Gonzalez had to step to Melano, thereby stranding “Sleepy” Dan Gargan; 2) off night for Omar all ‘round, really; 3) Leonardo’s flailing non-intervention played the parts of “late” and “dumb” to the hilt; 4) still think no (but helluva a job by Adi to corral it), and 5) nah, Gerrard just plain switched off.

Defensive mistakes are meant to be exploited, so the Timbers did nothing less than recognize the gift horse(s) and ride it (them) to a thrashing. Still, the Timbers did plenty right, starting with burying the kind of tricky chance they haven’t all season (thinking Adi’s first here). Moreover, Portland came back into the game like with the calm intent of a slasher movie villain who walks after his quarry, safe in the knowledge he’ll eventually run him/her down. Liam Ridgewell fired a pair of warning shots before the dam burst and it all came together in a slow, satisfying constriction that built pressure on LA until their weak spots (e.g. Leonadro) split at the seams and everything came undone.

Portland deserves full credit for this, and so does head coach Caleb Porter for making tactical adjustments that show early promise of a long-term payoff. The question in play here is bigger: will they be able to do it over again? Some of it? Enough of it? A couple considerations come into play...

Blowing Up Old Assumptions
“That would allow Darlington to play at the center of the park, which he intends to overload there anyway. He’s a guy who wants to keep possession all the time. That’s really his nature, which is why sometimes in the final third he doesn’t look for goals. He’s a really, really good possession player. He...he prefers to do that more than anything else.”
That’s Caleb Porter on Darlington Nagbe about 13 minutes into this past Monday/Tuesday edition of ExtraTime Radio. Such magnificent words! The highlight of my whole goddamn year, I tell you. Those few words lifted a great weight from my shoulders, for they answered the question that I’ve asked all year: why, Darling, WHY? I have my answer now (e.g. “He doesn’t look for goals”), and thus breaks the obsessive fever. With that weight gone, and my mind at ease, I can pass Darling’s entire being back to his betrothed, Felicia Nagbe. (Felicia, honey, I just wanna say sorry about all the times I’ve threatened to cut you. Besties?) I...I can love again...

So, yeah, turns out Nagbe never wanted the job everyone assumed he was born to play. Here’s a funny thing: I suggested something highly similar in a previous post (See Option #2). The tone wasn’t the same – i.e. it was more desperation than brain-wave - and, full disclosure, I wound up discarding the idea in favor of less, uh, measured measures. After watching Nagbe over those 25+ glorious minutes against LA, can I just share how utterly goddamn thankful I am that Porter, [Anonymous Assistants] & Co. tried it? That second half was lousy with dank Nagbe-ness. He started by reprising a bit of magic from Portland’s first game against LA to help set up Portland’s first; his run from the depths shifted all of LA’s their left, which is what left Gargan isolated and forced to foul Adi; and, of course, he put a big bow on it all with La Disjoncteur de Retour! C’est Magnifique! It all looks quite positive – with allowances for caveats above and those included in my post on the win over RSL (which, in light of everything here, was pretty gloomy) – but I’ll pick up that thread again later. Because, say, wasn’t there another experiment that took place out there?

Yep, Diego Chara. The “single pivot,” or whatever the hell you want to call it, has been celebrated, feted and tucked into a big comfy bed with an order for a beautiful breakfast for the morning after. Given that, I’ll be brief here. First, the ready wisdom that LA would roll over Chara if left on his own overlooked a couple things: LA’s recent form gave plenty of cause for doubt, for one, but questions about LA’s midfield arrangement creeps up here and there as well – e.g. a couple positive outings aside, the same issues the Armchair Analyst hopefully thought were resolved here showed up again on Sunday. And Porter didn’t miss that, either (Push a little after the Nagbe stuff in the ExtraTime link above and you’ll hear Porter on this; moreover, people can't even agree on which player is pushing higher within the scheme). More to the point, Chara has a great motor and, intemperate fouling aside, a pretty goddamn good brain. While I can’t claim that I just knew leaving Chara deep and alone would work, I also didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t. More to the point, the reason for doing this – using Chara as cover to allow more players to get forward – seemed like a plausible solution to the very real problem of Portland’s high-shot/low-percentage attack.

Testing New Ones
Having relived the experiment again - watching the two pieces cited above, in particular, a lot more closely – it’s sorta fun to dissect how it worked. And I mean that going both ways.

In the same post where I tinkered with the idea of dropping Nagbe deeper, the central area of concern was how, and how well, Nagbe would handle the defensive side of the position. This proved the most interesting piece of this shift, in a lot of ways, and, for as long as Nagbe stayed more or less deep and central, it worked, 1) pretty damn well, and 2) in way that feels surprisingly intuitive.  In general, Chara did what he always does: seek out the ball and try to pry it off some Galaxians foot (there was a fine moment in the game when Chara wrestled the ball away from Gyasi Zardes, and the bigger man couldn’t do a damn thing about it). Nagbe’s role, on the other hand, focused on presence and/or availability, in that he would hover around the area left open by Chara’s forays, while sort of cheating toward the nearest player; the idea, or at least to interpret it, was to have Nagbe fairly near players in and about Zone 14 so that he can step to him if/when he gets the ball. That way, even if Nagbe can’t close down that player a la Chara, he’s still close enough to harass him and to force either a pass, or an error (e.g. a heavy touch to get the ball around Nagbe, something that’s not easy to do given Nagbe’s speed). To phrase it broadly, I’d go with this: Chara attacks, while Nagbe floats and/or holds.

Well, that was the defensive side, at least until Fochive came on and Portland put Nagbe back on the left flank. Next question: how’d it work going the other way?

Why This Is a Good Fit
I have put a lot of time and thought into the Timbers attack this season, or, often, painful lack thereof. Apart from posing helpful questions like, “what the fuck is wrong with Portland’s forwards, historically?” (answer: less than generally believed, again, in historic terms), I explored in...let’s go with half-informed depth what the Timbers do when they get things right, and then I saw a game where they appeared to get other things right so I praised that (or failed to trust the original judgment, etc. etc. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! What’s that? Yes, Judy. I’ll count down from 10...).

I’ll start by saying, the whole thing involves many, many more parts and inputs than is implied below. And, yet, here’s where it gets really fun...

In one of the posts above (let’s see...the one over “when they get things right”), I talked about something called “the pinch ‘n’ counter” – i.e. the work of forcing a turnover around midfield and, after it comes, breaking like maniacs for the opposition goal with their defenders back-pedaling in general disarray, maybe crying a little, balls scrunched anxiously into their abdomens, etc. I’d like to amend this tonight, especially in light of recent shifts on how the Timbers “lined up” (do the scare quotes matter? yes, they matter).

Portland does best attacking from depth. I don’t know the reasons behind this, whether it’s coaching or collective proclivity; regardless, there’s no reason to play away from this. The goals the Timbers scored against LA look a lot like the goals they looked most comfortable scoring all year. With that, the question becomes how to make sure the Timbers attack, not by shoving the ball down the flanks and wailing in crosses, but setting up the field to create gaps for players to run into. I think they can do this by being thoughtful about, 1) where they’re patient (around midfield) and, 2) when their attack goes vertical (when it’s on) and where (everywhere). To float a general concept, Portland should focus possession at the middle of the field – literally, around the midfield stripe – and look to break from there. This doesn’t even require a high press (which I don’t like), so much as a clear, firm line of engagement. Portland should get the ball in midfield anyway they can, basically, and spring the attack from there. This becomes the difference between running at the opposition’s back line (where Portland is good) versus trying to break down a bunkered team (less good).

Starting the attack from a deeper position is 100% exactly where Nagbe comes in. As all Timbers fans know, Darling can dribble around just about any opposing player; defender, midfield, forward, the man doesn’t give a shit. Portland has tried him high up the field for years now, and Timbers fans know how this plays out – e.g. two to three to four midfielders/defenders collapsing on Nagbe until he pokes the ball sideways to another Timber. This is the beauty of letting him get past defenders from deeper positions. There, he’s beating one player, two at most, at with acres of space ahead. Moreover, he’s carrying the ball into the gaps between the lines, posing hard questions about who has to step up to contain his run. With adjustment time for the other team now fully in effect, other Timbers players can start showing for the ball, or breaking forward – generally, they get to react to the chaos Nagbe has created, and with Nagbe in a better position to make a good pass, even a simpler one, and more time to do it. On top of all that, Nagbe gets to do what makes him most happy, e.g. everyone else rushing toward goal, with him in merry support.

As per usual, I have a lot more crap in my head (e.g. good thoughts about Melano’s role, what the 4-3-3 really means, did Portland really adopt it, do formations mean anything outside Plato’s cave, etc. etc.), but this has gone on plenty long enough, so I want to wrap it up.

All the above isn’t about patting myself on the back for “figuring out” Nagbe, or claiming that the solutions everyone agrees have looked good over the past two games mean anything permanent, never mind everything good. At a minimum, though, one thing was obvious: what Portland has been doing wasn’t working, especially with the attack. It was really hard to get away from the idea that taking Nagbe further from goal wasn't a terrible idea, and talk of moving on from the double pivot (which I'm still not sure Portland actually did), was tantamount to leaving one's house unlocked with a note on the front door listing precise locations for all the valuables. Whatever, the last two games saw two key adjustments: one that allowed a player to assume a role he prefers (and believes he’s more suited to; Nagbe), and another that attempted to address the issues in attack by devising a system that allows more players to get forward (Chara).

So, what’s the final take-away? Just try shit – especially when things aren’t working. Sure, there’s a balance to strike between permanent flux and giving things time to work out, but the Timbers spent ample time in this 2015 season pounding their heads against the proverbial wall. It’s about time, on one hand, but, also, the Timbers brain trust has earned a big salute for trying something new. And having it come off pretty well. So far...

...just know you ain’t done, lads, because this will come up again.

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