I’m sure many feel the Timbers were unlucky this weekend – perhaps rightly so.
For now, at least, I’m not convinced.
In the post-game press conference Caleb Porter offered these thoughts about missing Darlington Nagbe; they struck a chord with me, perhaps they will with you too?
Porter: “And I think today missing Darlington you could see that we just aren’t quite as good in possession. Sometimes you don’t know his impact until he’s gone. It’s not always the goals, but his ability to float around and find pockets and help us keep the ball and get out of tight spaces. In the attack I think we’ve been missing a little bit of chemistry in there and it’s because we haven’t had the group together.”
Well… I would agree the general public might not know his impact but I’d offer most Timbers Army supporters do.
I’d also offer the entire coaching staff, front office, and physio folks know what Nagbe brings to the pitch.
So why the mystery on setting up the team for success without Nagbe?
I’m not sure, but to try and scratch the itch let’s review a team statistic the Timbers pay attention to (possession percentage) on a regular basis to see if that helps crack the nut.
In the two most recent games the Timbers had ~ 45% possession (at San Jose) and ~30% possession (at home to Atlanta). In those two games I’d submit it’s a reasonable conclusion there was intent to cede possession.
The starting lineups, in both games, included two wingers.
- Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla against San Jose with Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla against Atlanta.
- Substitutions in San Jose included Jack Barmby (a connecting midfielder) and Victor Arboleda (a winger). In Atlanta the only substitution was Darren Mattocks (a winger) for Dairon Asprilla.
- In the post game press conference against San Jose Porter acknowledge the possession and connection between the midfield and defense as well as Adi was better after Barmby entered the game.
- In the Atlanta game Blanco did drift central, as did Asprilla. Asprilla had minimal success in penetrating the center and Blanco, while offering some good penetrating/attacking passes from the center didn’t provide connection nor drift into pockets of space to create space for others.
In other words, with the exception of adding Barmby the last 35 minutes against San Jose Porter didn’t have players, on the pitch, who could emulate (at any level) what Nagbe brings to the pitch.
Forward into the past:
When trying to figure what right looks like sometimes there’s value in looking at history.
2016 was not a successful year for the Portland Timbers, they failed to win on the road and they failed to make the playoffs; but… was the entire season a failure?
At no point, in 2016, did the Timbers ever lose, or even draw, at home, when ceding 55% possession (or greater) to the opponent.
(Six games played – Six games won /// 12 goals scored – three goals against)
To be glib that’s pretty successful.
Perhaps more appropriate is “stunningly successful”…
Of note, two of those home games were against San Jose… the others were against Columbus, Sporting KC, Toronto, and Real Salt Lake.
A blend of teams who play possession-based, direct, as well as counter-attacking – in other words a pretty good sample to draw on for comparison.
Was there any pattern of players selected that stands out as being different than the last two games the Timbers have played?
In everyone of those games, even in the game Nagbe didn’t start, the Timbers starting line-up consisted of two midfield connecting players, either Nagbe and Valeri or Grabavoy and Valeri.
Pretty much confirming the player selection against San Jose and Atlanta ignored the Timbers pattern of stunning perfection in 2016.
What’s disappointing from all this is the Timbers coaching staff (collectively) – quite possibly ignored their “chemistry” successes of 2016 and didn’t start two ‘connectors’ or at least have one of the wingers play deeper/more narrow.
Even more perplexing is the organizational mid-week decision to play the one player, who could add connecting capability, a full 90 minutes in a USL T2 game. Pretty much meaning the coaching staff had reached a conclusion that Barmby’s added value for the weekend was minimal.
I don’t see Jack Barmby in training, but I do see him play, on occasion, and he adds value as a connector – why he isn’t getting more meaningful minutes is a decision the coaching staff have made.
If he’s not worthy to slot in as a starter to connect with others in a team role then I’d expect the Timbers to be shopping for a midfielder who can… to date all we’ve heard about is the anticipated arrival of a new center-back.
Darlington Nagbe is expected to return to the starting lineup against Montreal this weekend. That’s probably a good thing.
It gives Caleb Porter and his entire staff more time to evaluate the historical, individual player and team performances, with and without Darlington Nagbe in order to better prepare for his absence again.
Finally, an observation for your consideration.
In the Timbers first seven games, without Liam Ridgewell on the pitch, the team gave up nine goals (1.28 goals against per game).
With Liam Ridgwell on the pitch, the last four games, the Timbers have given up seven goals (1.75 goals against per game).
Is it fair to say the Timbers have been less effective in defending with Ridgewell leading the defense?
With the Timbers shopping for a new center-back is it reasonable to consider that the player replaced is not Lawrence Olum or Roy Miller?
Over the course of a season, in Major League Soccer, it is likely every team will have players and head coaches/managers who make mistakes that cost a team three points or two points. In a league with a salary cap it’s almost expected.
The critical piece is not making the same mistake twice.
In the Portland Timbers last game against San Jose Earthquakes there were multiple mistakes – not only on the pitch but off the pitch.
To say the tenor of the game was etched in stone before kickoff isn’t fair as the game was yet to be played and the opportunity, for individual player excellence, was there.
But as shown in yielding two (soft) first half goals and an early second half goal, player excellence did not come to the fore… instead we saw disjointed passing and a defensive outcome similar to the days of Portland under the leadership of John Spencer.
What I’d offer, after witnessing that game, is Portland is NOT a two wing football club. Their survival, and great results, stem from a strong attacking center with support from the wings.
Perhaps put another way – there are issues with this football club when both Diego Valeri AND Darlington Nagbe are missing… And given Nagbe is likely to get more playing time with the US Men’s National Team this year and next – it’s likely to happen more often than supporters like.
So about the other night…
I’d offer both Dairon Asprilla AND Darren Mattocks shouldn’t start together on the wings; one needs to give way to a player who’s a connector.
And since Ned Grabavoy retired, the next player up is Jack Barmby; a left footed player who can drift inside – kinda similar to Darlington Nagbe but not as gifted in dribble penetration… yet?
Some may disagree, but myself and at least one other previous Timber player, with pedigree, believe he’s shown the grist, grit, and a willingness to take players on, while offering an ability to drift inside and show good positional play/awareness, along with vision, nous, and a great first touch.
If you recall when Barmby entered the game, followed up about 10 minutes later, by Arboleda, the complexion of the midfield changed… for the better. Even Porter, in his post game presser, acknowledged the substitutions made a positive difference in the game.
And while some may say Barmby forced the issue, on occasion, I’d submit he did that with the intent to force opponent mistakes in the Timbers attacking half, not due to slack play. It’s also worth mentioning in his 33 minutes of play he had just as many recoveries as Asprilla and Mattocks combined.
All told he offered risky play in attack – perhaps not ideal when it’s 1-1, but when down 3-nil it’s a worthy gamble; especially in the attacking half of the pitch.
From a tactical standpoint I’m not sure that clears the plate of mistakes.
I’m wondering about the rationale for removing Dairon Asprilla, first, over Darren Mattocks.
I felt, saw, and sensed Asprilla played better and even though statistics never tell the whole story they do tell a story.
- Previously (against FC Dallas) Mattocks, was a second choice starter behind Asprilla, yet in this game Mattocks saw three times more of the ball than Asprilla.
- Mattocks offered 21 passes with seven incomplete (four in the defending half) compared to just seven passes offered by Asprilla with one incomplete.
- In defending the wings, San Jose penetrated (roughly 66% of the time) down Mattocks side; a high percentage like that usually indicates the opponent sees that wing as the weaker of the two wings.
- That consistent wing penetration, down Mattocks side, led to 66% (six of their nine) of their key passes originating from that side.
So why was Dairon Asprilla pulled first?
Perhaps Asprilla was pulled first simply because Porter has greater confidence in Mattocks since Darren has history with him through Akron? It wouldn’t be the first time some have felt Porter shows preference to players he coached in Akron.
It’s not hard to forget Steve Zakuani or Ben Zemanski getting meaningful minutes when others may have warranted more play.
However viewed, Portland attempted to attack down a less productive wing and that volume of ball play, on the left, directly supported the attacking strategy of San Jose.
What’s a positive from this substitution?
When Porter made the decision to bring in Jack Barmby that signaled, to me, Porter recognized his two wing attack wasn’t working.
I’m not sure what the health status of Nagbe and Valeri will be this weekend against a very strong attacking side like Atlanta United.
I’d venture to offer the Timbers won’t show a two-wing attack and you can bet they’ll be thinking defense first.
If Nagbe and Valeri are both out perhaps we see Jack Barmby start? Or… perhaps we see Porter go with Amobi Okugo, Diego Chara, and David Guzman with a slightly more narrow midfield presence headed by Sebastian Blanco?
Over the last three years there probably isn’t a team (and Head Coach) that’s been more focused on possession-based soccer than Columbus Crew.
When Columbus out-possesses their opponents they are about 75% more likely to earn points… usually three… when playing at home.
So in seeing early success for the Timbers, and a rematch (if you will) of the MLS Championship game in 2015, what might we expect to be some key points/areas of focus for this game?
Who’s in and who’s out may matter this weekend.
Even though both Head Coaches have a good cast of players to call on, to execute their respective playing styles, there is a drop-off with David Guzman and Darlington Nagbe being out for Portland and Jukka Raitala being out for Columbus.
Who slots in to replace these players isn’t clear, and with Gregg Berhalter finally working a different tactical scheme I’d offer there’s more than a few questions about how the teams line up.
Given that – what do we think we know about past practices and how they may come into play?
Clearances. Team clearances are critical for both sides. A key to either teams’ success has been the ability to clear corners and crosses when appropriate.
Columbus was wicked good at this in 2015 but lacked by a good margin in 2014 and 2016.
For Portland, the inability to clear the ball in 2016 played a huge role in points dropped on the road. In roughly 75% of road games played the lack of effective clearances led to dropped points.
Pretty much meaning defensive success, for both teams, relies heavily on their center-backs being able to clear crosses, while at the same time, seeing their fullbacks and midfield support doing well to shut down wing penetration.
All told, failure in defensive spacing and communication, from as many as two fullbacks, two center-backs, two central defending midfielders, and two wingers (for each team) is critical. Is this a team game of individuals or what?
But it’s not just about defense, as the Timbers have clearly shown with their three wins to begin the season – it’s also about attacking.
On the wings I’d submit there’s at least three players to watch for the Timbers.
These include (if healthy) Marco Farfan, Sebastian Blanco, and Alvas Powell.
As for the left midfield slot? Well… others may disagree, but I don’t sense Darren Mattocks is likely to offer many crosses – so if he starts – I see Diego Valeri rolling wide left on occasion.
If Darren does not start then I’d look for Dairon Asprilla as the fourth weapon for Portland.
If Columbus trot out in a 3-4-2-1 then it’s likely the two “wingers” have the key role in offering crosses.
With Jukka Raitala on international duty I’m not sure who plays the left side; maybe Nicolai Naess?
Figure Harrison Afful and, regardless of formation, Finlay to add value on the Columbus right side. If they line up in a 4-2-3-1 add Justin Meram to that equation on the left side.
I see four key match-ups this game.
Marco Farfan (Zarek Valentin?) versus Finlay.
Sebastian Blanco/Alvas Powell versus (Nicolai Naess?) or whomever stands in for Jukka Raitala.
With David Guzman out, it’s likely Ben Zemanski gets the head nod. How well Ben Zemanski (with support from Diego Chara) bottles up Frederico Higuain is another.
Finally, Fanendo Adi. A true #9 – there’s not many in Major League Soccer. He might not be the target of crosses given Diego Valeri now has two this year – but rest assured – balls played into him are likely to help create space for the Timbers on the wings. The better he can play with his back to goal the more effective he’ll be in supporting the Timbers attack.
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Last years’ end state was horrible; the Portland Timbers, returning MLS Champions, missed the playoffs. Not good; especially when 60% of the teams in your Conference make the playoffs.
Clearly changes needed to be made.
Notable midfield additions include David Guzman, Sebastian Blanco, and the return of Dairon Asprilla.
On the defensive side, where the Timbers had their biggest weakness, new faces are more scarce.
Gbenga Arokoyo, who saw no appreciable time last year, was expected to start at right center-back.
Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum have also been signed. Miller is not yet available while Olum appears to hold the center-back spot until Miller shows value or another new signing occurs.
It is rumored that Banana Yaya may be added soon – he’s a center-back (with two caps for Cameroon) who has played 69 games in the last two years for Plantanias (Greece); that volume of games played should indicate he’s a starter who’s offered consistency and quality.
So… changes have been made – but signing a player is just the first step…
READ HERE for a track record of previous Portland Timbers signings: Making the Most of the Much Maligned Melano.
As follow up to the first step here’s my list of “next steps” (of equal importance) I sense/submit need to happen (on the pitch) to reduce goals against this year:
David Guzman needs to show better than Jack Jewsbury or Ben Zemanski – in pre-season – I would offer he has. Some wonder if Ben Zemanski remains with the squad this year; I do too.
Liam Ridgewell needs to pull his socks up and LEAD by example.
The days of cynical fouls (anywhere) on the pitch must be stopped. There are worthy fouls, like the one he had the other night to stop play while Fenando Adi was down on the pitch, and then there are just plain cynical, stupid fouls, that are more about ‘men behaving badly’ than anything else… more leadership and less ‘men behaving badly’…
Diego Chara needs to follow the leadership example expected of Liam Ridgewell; limit his misplaced, men behaving badly fouls, and show aggression where timely – not untimely.
Vytas needs to continue to show abilities in playing a shut-down fullback role so sorely missed with the departure of a (then) VERY under-rated Jorge Villafana.
With another year under his belt Alvas Powell not only needs to continue offering grist and speed on the right (improve his outlook as a shutdown fullback) but he also needs to show better positional play and (wait for it) try to stay on his feet more. The more sliding tackles you make the more often you’re out of position to begin with. Fewer sliding tackles would be a great individual statistic to track for Alvas.
Caleb needs to show a bit more patience with the younger players and give them opportunities to fail.
It’s failure – and learning from failure – that makes players better. If a player DOESN’T learn from failure, then move ’em… and make room for the next man up.
Here’s my list of younger players who should get more minutes… with hindsight being 20-20 I’m sure Caleb would have played more younger players last year if he’d known the Timbers were going to yield 53 goals against AND still have a reasonable shot at the playoffs…
- Marco Farfan: He’s shown a great first touch and considerable ability (at least in pre-season) in making space for himself and others. I would offer he needs positional work playing against players (and passes) off his left shoulder; i.e. win more one-v-ones. More meaningful minutes should add value there.
- Victor Arboleda: Like Marco Farfan, Victor has shown considerable grist and energy – albeit its young energy – but… he too has shown superb ability with his first touch as well as making space for himself and others… never mind his flat-out speed. I’d offer he’s shown more (to me) in the few games I’ve seen him play than Lucas Melano did for almost two years.
- Rennico Clarke shows solid possession skills. What lacks is playing the physical side of first team football. With time, like Farfan and Arboleda he should improve. And a 6’4″ frame isn’t shabby either. I’d submit (if he’s patient, puts on some more upper body strength, and learns from his mistakes) he’ll offer great presence as a center-back…
In the interim (while Clarke grows and the Timbers perhaps sign Banana Yoyo – great name!) Lawrence Olum needs to offer better defensive play than Jermaine Taylor or Stephen Taylor… Is it cynical to offer that Olum already shows greater lateral speed than either one of those guys?
Part of better defending includes improved attacking.
Jorge Villafana added great positional awareness and penetrating skills when in attack – Vytas and Alvas need to show the same grist in being able to play both sides of the ball – while thinking defense first. That’s a hard order to follow – but if David Guzman adds value as a true #6 then those two SHOULD be able to push a tad bit higher up the pitch.
Is Sebastian Blanco the answer in lieu of the much maligned Melano? I think so… Blanco has shown good possession skills, measured awareness and the ability to make space for himself and others WHILE also showing a great 1st touch… a considerable improvement.
Darlington Nagbe needs to show his “inverted” attacking prowess improves productivity while also showing his improved abilities to play on both sides of the ball. Caleb and I spoke about Darlington playing inverted over two years ago. Caleb confirmed with me that both he and Gavin Wilkinson knew this was a productive area for Darlington… what got “in the way” was not having a worthy player to suit up on the right. With Blanco in the fold that gap should be closed.
Diego Chara needs to push forward a bit more – we’ve seen his penetrating ability in the past, and his speed adds great value as a trailing midfielder. But what adds more value is seeing Diego slightly higher up the pitch where he can press and use his ball-winning skills to manage the midfield better. Quicker pressure can lead to turnovers, which can lead to quick counterattacks for the likes of Diego Valeri and Fenando Adi.
Speaking of which; the Maestro is simply one of the best players in MLS.
Most offer Diego Valeri is an attacking midfielder – I’m a bit old-fashioned – for me he’s earned the worthy title of Striker…
There are forwards, there are midfielders, and then there are strikers – Diego is a striker… Diego needs to continue to provide a great first touch, vision, penetrating passes, and striking ability; those four ingredients enhance Portland possession and keep the ball from the opponent.
Diego’s striking partner is Fenando Adi.
Fenando, a forward, is a true #9 striker… (perhaps?) the best in MLS. Anytime he’s on the pitch this team has a chance, and with his size/strength he also adds great value in defending set-pieces…
If these things occur the Portland Timbers should be better in defending – and hopefully they’ll return to 2013 form where they yielded just 33 goals against… the last time this team spent a good portion of the game in possession of the ball.
So how about the substitutes this year? A key part to any team, and a weakness cited by Porter this off-season, are the next seven off the bench.
In looking at the most recent pre-season game I think things are taking shape on Porter’s first in (if you will).
We saw Dairon Asprilla replace Sebastian Blanco (helping his missus move to Portland). It’s great to see Dairon back with Portland. He’s always added value playing both ways. And his presence should only serve to keep Sebastian Blanco on his toes. And with Darlington Nagbe finally getting the national team recognition he deserves it’s likely Dairon gets plenty of minutes this year.
Next up we saw Darren Mattocks, Victor Arboleda, and Rennico Clarke, followed by Jack Barmby when Diego Valeri took a knock.
I saw value in all those players coming onto the pitch – yes Clarke got a bit cross-wise in defending atop the 18 yard box – but as Porter indicated after the game – he has confidence Rennico will learn from that. And… the more opportunities he has to learn from failure (early on) the better prepared he’ll be for regular season – if needed.
Darren has been shifted up top – a good thing in my view. He still can leverage his pace and high pressure abilities – but he won’t have to find himself losing energy in having to play both sides of the ball all game long.
In thinking about the placement of Jack Barmby. In the few games I’ve seen Jack has taken up the central attacking midfielder position. I like this – Barmby has shown good awareness, first touch and playing on both sides of the ball.
What sticks out to me the most, however, have been some of his unsuccessful (penetrating passes). Those passes are the same types of passes we see with Diego Valeri – some don’t find a teammate (usually because the teammate isn’t thinking fast enough) but some do…
It’s those (unsuccessful penetrating) passes that remind me of Diego Valeri. A good individual statistic this year for Jack Barmby – in showing growth – are the number of unsuccessful penetrating passes… the more playing time he gets I’d offer, the fewer of those we see as his teammates will begin to expect the unexpected.
I’d offer those are the first five players off the bench… leaving Jeff Attinella (goal keeper) and one additional player.
My preferred choice is Marco Farfan. I don’t watch training all that often and it’s hard to say whether or not Caleb would go with another central midfielder. But… in the past Caleb has usually had a fullback on the bench. I sense that slot is filled by Marco Farfan.
In all, I’d submit that’s a pretty strong first 18.
Who do you think makes the subs bench this year?
For those who like a bit of nostalgia – here’s what I offered to begin the 2016 season. Old Hat? New Tricks?
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