Towards the end of last season and now in the last two games we have seen the hazards of passing around teams. As beautiful as it is—and it is one the most pleasing displays in sport—it is predictable. Teams know the ball movement will travel from Chara to Johnson to Valeri to Nagbe to Harrington to Johnson to Valeri to Jewsbury to Chara to Johnson to Fernandez to Harrington, ever circling the 18 yard box as the Timbers probe for an opening. And because it is so predictable, teams know the way to break the movement down: physical challenges in the midfield that halt the play and the advance.
I understand it is frustrating and that many of you have worried over these last few games. The talent is there, but it has done little to break down stingy defenses intent on doing little more than manhandling players and parking buses. Frankly, the standard set last year has increased all expectation—but is it not just a bit soon to call an end to the season right now? We cannot overlook the fact injuries, recovery time, as well as the exit of Ryan Johnson in the off-season, have all limited the number of options available to start in the attack.
The fact is that alternatives do exist within the style of play that can make the side unpredictable. But that requires thinking beyond Plan A. We are just two games into the season, and things will improve, and Plan B may still be in the works.
Indeed, against both Philadelphia and Chicago, it appeared Plan B was taking shape as the game progressed. The most promising moments of those last two games came when one of Nagbe, Valeri, or Zakuani drove in on the opposition rather than looking to pass around them. Nagbe’s vertical runs were particularly unsettling to the Fire. They forced the defenders to play on their back heels, drew defenders out of position, and created positive space for others in support to work within. They caused headaches just not enough and not early enough. The fact is that Nagbe remained somewhat subdued until Zakuani came into the eleven.
We all get it—a change is developing in the eleven. And that likely change will be to replace Urruti with Zakuani once Zakuani is fit enough to contribute more than 20 minutes per game. The same sort of change signaled the beginning of the Timbers transformation last year. Moving Rodney Wallace forward increased the width of the side and opened more room for Nagbe and Valeri to work within. Shockingly, the same seems to happen when Urruti is replaced by Zakuani. It does not take a brain surgeon of Alexi Lalas caliber to point out stingingly obvious points, and this one is obvious. We currently have too many similar players on the pitch and one of them will have to make way for a different option.
If that does not happen, then perhaps a simple change in approach to the game time tactics should. Quick switches of play will also beat the congestion and force the opposition to spread the pitch, opening space for the midfield to work through. The Timbers used this to great success against the Sounders in the playoffs, but against Real Salt Lake they succumbed both to lack of ingenuity and execution. This year we saw a few quick switches used against Chicago, but not to any great effect. Usually it occurred when the Timbers had overloaded the left-side, leaving Jack Jewsbury unattended and unsupported. For all the work the Timbers made to open space for Jack their efforts broke down just as quickly because the squad had to shift to get into areas of support thus giving Chicago time to adjust.
Another option though not as turgidly supported by viewers as the nebulous term “Porterball”—perhaps the horrors of route one football and John Spencer have forced an overwhelming declination of such tactics—is a long ball over the middle. One of the concerns here, again, is the lack of pace or perceived pace in the current side. Few players can make the run to beat out defenders for the ball. But the option does create a quick, compression and expansion of the pitch. It proves particularly effective when, after a deep interception, the ball is sent forward and the opposition is often progressing forward and has little time to react to the change of direction. Obviously, it is not a preferred use of possession but it does a number of things when effective. First, it opens that back space between the defenders and goal for the attackers to get behind. And second, it will eventually cause the distance between the opposition’s backline and their midfield to grow in anticipation of the counter. Consequently, the defense is not as effective in support of the midfield. Conversely, play of this sort is sloppy and requires more pace and physicality than what may currently exist on the Timbers squad.
I am not going to deny the fact the Timbers need a target man to more effectively break down defenses. How could I? Currently the only true target man they have is Freddy Piquionne, who is now used more for his impact off the bench than anything else. But until they can find an outright stud to lead the attack, perhaps playing smarter in moments when they feel the pressure in midfield will help get them through hard, physical games.