Sunday, February 21, 2016

On Portland's Win Over Minnesota: Dominance and Vulnerability

Second guy from right? Me. Totally me.
At the end of the first half of Portland Timbers v. Minnesota United, I tweeted something pretty close to, "we're not gonna learn much from this one." No combination of actions, events or words captured that better than the Timbers third goal (of four) – e.g. the one that saw a minimum of five Timbers work the ball inside from the (eternally wide-open) right side of the field, from whence, Portland shoved the key in the lock: Diego Valeri fed Darlington Nagbe who slipped past three defenders to open the lock, score the goal, and, pow! The rest was a pretty dull game. One in which I found the most excitement from celebrating how expertly Ned Grabavoy drew a foul on the top of the area (ball in, ball out, in, out, run toward goal, then...fall; Classic Theatre!).

Said third goal, Portland's, came in the second half, after three prior occasions, all inside the first half, when Portland waltzed the ball to 10-to-6 yards from Minnesota's goal before firing chances with better (more) or worse (less) odds for success. So, no, Timbers fans didn't learn what to expect when their team lines up against Major League Soccer's elite, but they do know just how much the continuity in the Timbers' lineup helps them. Just helps them. I was going to stick a metaphor in there (or a simile; still turned around on all that (don't get me wrong, valuable) high school shit), but it's wise to keep things simple sometimes, to just note that the Timbers ongoing understanding of a manageable set of some highly-effective roles makes them a very strong and dangerous team. If you asked me to assess Minnesota United based on tonight alone, I'd tell you they're a collection of doomed men who, given a year to explain it, couldn't tell you what they’re doing out there.

Anyway, the point is, the Timbers hit best-in-North-America form and shape only a few months ago. While there have been departures, and important ones, enough of the key pieces remain in place to create one a glorious goddamn puzzle. We're talking the Picasso, Blue Period of jigsaw puzzles. Every player not only has a role, he knows it. This is form making sweet, sweet love to function. Hold on...maybe this is closer to painting the Sistine Chapel...

This isn't some Timbers fan getting cocky, either. Instead, I'd argue that Portland has a gorgeous system in place, one that will hold up, in fact, until someone figures out a way to tear it apart. Say what you will, but this is a real-world belief that holds up, factually, so long as Portland wins more games than they lose. Or at least until they don't lose the games that matter. It will require someone figuring out a way to not just beat the system/personnel combo that head coach Caleb Porter has concocted, but to doom it into irrelevance. That's more than expected, sadly. It's inevitable. And, personally, I think we saw the first draft of that project tonight. And it came from "lowly" Minnesota FC.

For a lot of today's game, Diego Chara and Nagbe alternated between playing fairly deep to cover the back four and pushing high to keep the ball inside the attacking third; they usually went from one to the other by springing off, or compacting against, the back four. That made them, effectively, a shifting two-man line, just with one player shifting higher, the other lower. Further, they shifted side-to-side in that role, and quite a bit, too. OK, next step: can we all agree that, generally, Portland plays a (for lack of a better word) sloppy 4-3-3? The only constant is Nagbe and Chara playing deeper than Valeri; after that, every other player outside Adi stays in flux. For tonight's game, I think that the "front 3" of the 4-3-3 was Lucas Melano, Adi, and Valeri, a set that left Chara, Nagbe, and Dairon Asprilla as the middle three. With Asprilla spending most of tonight functioning a lot like an outside back in Gregg Berhalter's system for Columbus, that left Chara and Nagbe covering the back four in a lot of situations. So, there's your framing...

Minnesota's scout-worthy move came early in the second half, that is, by the time Minnesota was already down a man. They managed to attack Portland's left long enough to force Nagbe into the space between the central defense and Valentin. With that side flattened out, they pulled the ball back to Chara's side, who, by this point, occupied the "high" position in Portland's double-pivot (and it is that, right?), while Portland's defense was still wide. This stranded Chara  high against the top point of an overload, which sorta (maybe) forced him to press the passer, but that left a bunch of space behind him and only Powell to cover: long story short, Portland wound up stretched fairly wide across their defensive third, and with too little cover at the back post.

While that risks taking a solitary breakdown and blowing it up into a vulnerability, I guess I'm arguing that that's how that entire breakdown begins: with one clear-headed identification of the flaws in said system. Portland is far from invulnerable. My worry, here, is a possible tendency that Portland will rely on Nagbe and Chara to keep everything clean at the back and to march it up field, too. My point is that it's important to have Asprilla and Melano drop back as well, or at least to plan what they do very thoughtfully (if generally) before each game. If the opposition can drag Nagbe and Chara too far from center, especially together (e.g. they basically abandon the middle) as Minnesota did in one glorious moment tonight, Portland's solid back line loses its cover. And that's conceivably the first step to getting through Portland's defense. Conceivably...either that, or I just spent the weekend playing Stratego and now I think I'm fucking Napoleon.

I'll close with a couple talking points, before further depressing my thoughts and paranoia...

To Pick Up the Above Point...
I think we all need to figure out how Porter's midfield actually works, starting with how Chara and Nagbe fit together. I started looking at it tonight, but don't know how far I got to fully grasping it. And that brings up something else...

Chara, Unleashed!
You know who looked silky smooth and aggressive tonight? Diego Chara. By all outdoors, I swear Chara spent tonight turning forward more often than back, dribbling the ball a couple steps before passing it off, etc. While I can't say for sure yet, I think there's another, sorta next step development in the works. One that makes Chara look a lot more like Nagbe and vice versa.

Closing the Point Above
I'm not sure what Porter is playing at the moment. I only know that both Chara and Nagbe sit deep. There are implications in that for both Melano and Asprilla, less so for Adi and Valeri. I think those two get a pass.

And, shit...the segues just got crossed up. Fucking complexity...uh...tack right, tack right!!

On (or, Rather, About) Portland's Right
If you wanted to find Asprilla tonight, you looked between the center stripe and the top of Minnesota's defensive third. What you're looking for there is the guy all by himself, because that was Asprilla. Here, I'm getting at two things: 1) I didn't see Asprilla attacking Minnesota’s defensive line tonight, he usually came in from a deep position instead; and 2) he always, always had a ton of space to himself, which meant that Minnesota either forgot Asprilla, or opted to not worry about him. This did not work on the...let's see, the second and third goal (shit....can't think of the build up to fourth goal right now). I can't believe that other teams will allow the Timbers a triple-overlap potential on one side of the field all that often, but if any outside the Upper Midwest gives the Timbers as much space tonight as Minnesota did, they'll wind up looking at something close to the same scoreline. The deeper observation comes with this: based on what I've seen so far this preseason, it looks like Asprilla will play something closer to a right midfield role, and with the defensive duties that go with it.

Here, I'll pause to wonder what role Alvas Powell's development plays in all this. For me, Powell had an off night: too many errant passes, and all over the field, which doesn't usually happen; worse, a couple attackers got around him, mostly early in the game, but still. With all the athleticism Portland has on its right, I'm comfortable with Powell and Asprilla divvying up that space something close to 50/50; I'll just be curious to see where Porter winds up drawing that line (versus where it should be, too). I also expect to see Asprilla set up really, really wide as an outlet for the ball. Then again, all that would change with Taylor Peay out there. Hmm....

On (or, Rather, About) Portland’s Left
I'll give Melano one thing: that guy is 100%-boss with that trick where you keep your foot in through a tackle to make sure it bounces out in your favor on the other side: Melano did that at least three times tonight. I also saw him pull in a couple defensive interventions; not big, hairy ballsy things, but good solid, useful harassment, e.g. the kind you get from a smart forward. Melano looked better overall, I thought, better able to press the game going forward than he has been, and, hey! How about that right-place-right-time thing for Portland's second? What if Melano is Portland's (slightly more costly) replacement for Wallace at left wing?

And there's a biting question there: is Melano better than Rodney Wallace? What do you say, Portland? And is that the real choice?

The bigger story happened at left back, of course (again, way to bury the lead, Bull), where Zarek Valentin started over...Andy Thoma, I guess (for Chris Klute, he's still limping). For the first time this off-season, I'd argue that it worked. While Valentin didn't stand out defensively, he showed a noticeable kind of self-assurance, one that often saw him foregoing the obvious, "first" pass, and opting for the "second” pass." Sorry to bring the NFL into all this, but I think it applies: what Valentin did tonight is what I wondered whether he was trying to do in one of the Tucson games – e.g. find a better, if more difficult, pass, one that makes possession easier to maintain than the simpler pass might have. I like this because, if Valentin can become a possession hub deeper on the field, he can focus on defending while assisting the Chara/Nagbe tandem with possession, thereby, allowing Melano to focus on attacking. Which I can't imagine isn't the goal. Then again, what do I know?

That last paragraph interests me because I saw Powell, in particular, force a couple "simple" passes, ones that were so simple that they got read and, therefore, picked off. Speaking for myself, Valentin just jumped to first in the left back race.

And, that's all for tonight's game. See all y'all Wednesday.

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