Prescription Portland: Some Attacking Guile Up The Spine

Necessary or evil? We'll get to that....

With Liverpool in the dumpster, John Nyen sets out to save his beloved Timbers from themselves.

If you are going to do only one thing….. you need to do it very well.

This is especially the case in soccer where the Portland Timbers have been caught doing one thing…. and not so very well.

This was originally an article about running the 3-5-2 for the Timbers.

The how, the why, the players…. and it still is to a certain extent.

The issue here is that the Timbers need better players in multiple positions and the fans can’t count specifically on this happening.

So instead, focus is put on the way in which the Timbers can attempt to fix the issue with the defense and offense utilizing solely the players at their disposal. The alternate formations are a way of trying to compensate for the lack of full backs on the team and or the lack of offense through the middle whether through turning the fullbacks into wingbacks or moving Nagbe centrally.  This new positioning is a way for them to utilize current players to still remain an attacking offense while hopefully fixing the defense.

However, before we talk about a new formation, let’s discuss a thought that I had while sitting at a bar watching LA Galaxy v Sporting Kansas City.

Cuts one way...

The Timbers, as a whole, are a less effective version of Arjen Robben.

Arjen is legendary for receiving the ball on the right wing, driving down the field and then cutting to the left to get the ball on his left foot.

Everyone knows this is coming, everyone knows that he is very left footed and that you cannot let him turn to put the ball there.

Yet, game after game after game he does the same thing over and over. He collects the ball, drives at goal, turns left, shakes his defender and shoots. Now this works for Robben, because one supremely talented player with a cannon for a left foot who has honed his craft can pull this off. From a team perspective though, all this does is allow the other coach and team to plan well in advance for your tendencies and cut them off.

These tendencies were firmly in play on Saturday as the Timbers lost to Chivas USA. They dumped the ball out to the right, time and time and time again and attempted to either hump the ball into the box on a long prayer or cut back inside.

There are a couple reasons why Portland attempts this on the right as well as the left.

However, no more reason is prevalent than the fact that the Portland Timbers are completely feckless through the middle of the field.

Move central please...

They currently lack the ability to have a player who can drive, slash or create in the middle of the pitch. They play with two central defensive midfielders and frequently try to shuttle one of the two into an attacking role, which has not worked.

Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara play the same position. They sit back, attempt to disrupt the play coming at them, collect and distribute.

They aren’t players who attempt to get out in front of the play, link up through passing, split the defense with through balls and play between the forwards and the defensive midfield. Both of these players are attempted interceptors and pass shuttlers. The Timbers play is the perfect example of this.

When Jewsbury or Chara get the ball, they attempt to look to the wings to play to a dangerous area. They collect and distribute out to Lovel Palmer or Rodney Wallace or the Songo’o-Alhassan combination and those players push up their respective wing, who then hump the ball into the box.

The problem with this practice is that without a true attacking central midfielder, and with all the play on the wings, the opposing team can relax defensively in the middle of the field. They can then push their outside midfielders out to cover the play on the outside and can push their central midfielders to attack more through the middle of the pitch. This means that eventually the Timbers are overwhelmed in the midfield, the wings are cut off and slowly but surely get pushed its back into its own half for the Chainsaw Gang.

Chivas understood where the danger could come from the Timbers, especially in the second half.

When Darlington Nagbe received the ball in an offensive position they swarmed all over him.

There was, at one time, three players blanketing him as he received the ball coming into the 18 yard box. Chivas essentially left the middle of the field wide open, covering Nagbe with any available man because they knew that if they contained him, the Timbers didn’t have another option coming to help him.

With Nagbe playing up top with Boyd, the one ability that he has that other central midfielders for the Timbers do not. That is, his natural craft of inventiveness.

That inventiveness is something drastically missing in the middle of the field for the Timbers.

This issue with positions brings us to another problem that had been simmering for the Timbers.

Un-droppable players.

With a team this young, still learning to play and finding their feet there was value in establishing a captain and having consistency.

However, in year two here, the question must be asked: Is Jack Jewsbury is “droppable”

He seems like a very likeable person, very community oriented and from all accounts, a great guy.

However, being a great guy does not entitle you to a starting place in the lineup every time if you are not performing.

It is time to find out how the Timbers lineup plays with an attacking midfielder and a defensive midfielder, not just shoehorning another CDM into the CAM spot. It is time to find out, between Jack and Chara, who brings the most to the team at their preferred position. This cannot happen if Jack Jewsbury is guaranteed a starting lineup position, without thought of how this impacts player selection in the starting eleven. How do we see a lineup that consists of….

Option A

If Jack Jewsbury is always going to be an option, then space needs to be found for both he and Chara.

When they both attempt to play the same way and occupy the same space, than the Timbers are essentially playing every week with 10.5 men instead of 11 men fully accepting and inhabiting their rolls. Frequently you wind up with one of the two running around like a chicken with his head cut off in some kind of attempt to get “on the ball”.

The issue here is a complete lack of potency and a real lack of the USE of playing to the wings.

See with the ideal of width comes the question as to the reason for wing play. The reason for wing play is to utilize space, to create space, and to find space. The middle of the pitch is often clogged the most by players, so by bouncing the ball out wide, you are attempting to pull defenders to you, and that leaves other players open.

However, all of that is naught if you never use the middle of the field.

The three big problems for the Timbers are as follows in some order:

#1 The lack of a strong attacking midfield

#2 The lack of strong defensive fullbacks

#3 The lack of service through the middle to Kris Boyd

Here is where we talk about a 3-5-2 for the Timbers.

Let’s talk about Napoli of Serie A for a second or the mark of where the three defensive set has contemporarily went.

Napoli this season, under Mazzarri, has been an example of pure “throwing caution to the wind.”

They have gone aggressively offensive, even if you want to call their style a very extreme version of counter-attacking soccer (which certainly it is depending on the team they play against). Napoli are typically starting out in a 3-4-3 which gives stolid coaches like Roy Hodgson an absolute migrane trying to understand the complications involved. While playing the 3-4-3 with the ball, Napoli switches in and out of a 5-4-1/5-3-2 to defend. Mazzarri doesn’t rotate squads very often and typically starts his back three with Aronica, Cannavaro, and Campagnaro setting out Maggio and Zuniga to get up the wings on the right and left. With the 3-4-3 run correctly (with the ball) you have a sudden crash of numbers in the midfield and the forward position allowing for an overwhelming of the back line of the opponent.

The Timbers themselves have some issues, advantages, and particular staffing problems that the 3-4-3 or even a 3-5-2 would address. Let us cover those below…

Advantages of playing a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3:

The field size in Portland is dramatically similar to the field size in Napoli,

In fact (believe it or not) Portland’s field actually slightly bigger than Napoli. The size at Stadio San Paolo is 110×68 while Jeld-Wen Field is 110×70 yards. This narrowness of the field would allow Portland to play a compact back three without over-extending the spacing of the line. With the wingbacks in place and the extra players packing the midfield the Timbers would be able (theoretically) to dominate the midfield and back line of a visiting team that played in a 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-2-1.

Certainly teams like Kanasas City (with their 4-3-3) would necessitate a potential change in tactics as while the Timbers would enjoy a potential midfield advantage, they would also suffer a 3v3 disadvantage in the back line (especially on counter attacks). However, Napoli has countered this by floating into either a 4-4-2 or a 5-4-1 in order to regain the personnel advantage in the back line. The 3-5-2 would also allow the Timbers to press high, attacking the ball carrier and (hopefully) winning back the possession without the issue of having the ball make it back to the back without pressure. Currently there are far too many times that the ball seemingly passes through the midfield defense and the Timbers are relying upon the fullbacks and center backs to deal with the problem.

Certainly with the discussion of the Napoli way, we can look at running a 3-4-3 as well, however the issues with defensively responsibility and the connection of the midfield to the forwards must be addressed. As I noted above, the time to stop shoehorning CDM’s into the CAM role is at hand. (please note that the inclusion of Baptiste is just because he is healthy and playing, I would expect Futty or Horst to potentially take his position depending upon play and form) As such you could look at running what is essentially a 3-4-1-2 version of the 3-4-3

Option B

Certainly you will be challenging the other team to come down your right side with that formation, however I am not entirely sure how it could be worse than giving up two goals from the same side running a stock 4-4-2 with Palmer as your fullback. Of course, the 3-4-3 matching up with a (slightly more en vogue in MLS) 4-5-1 formation, you have the problem of the opponent having an extra midfielder who can drop in the space available and potentially cause havoc to your back line. However, I think it bears looking and some tinkering to see how the team would respond.

With John Spencer’s love of width on the field the 3-5-2

Option C

it would give him the ability to have his wingback make overlapping runs with the midfield and the CDM backing up the play forming beautiful triangles. The (potential) extra man in midfield and up top would make the Timbers dangerous in the offensive half of the field as well as allowing them to press defensively to get the ball back.

Some kind of accountability and response from the team and the management is necessary. The issues that have now happened multiple times this year must be addressed either through player dealings or formations on the field. Without this the Timbers can expect other teams to come at them in the same way and with the same success.

Arjen Robben.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/09 at 11:23 PM

    Actually, disagree here with you John but you have more observations of Portland than I do.

    Portland is great when they are out and gunning for the opponent. They come in waves and drive tempo — that is there best attack. It was on display against the Union and RSL in spurts.

    The problem is Portland is just not good enough with their parts to play that frenetic offensive style.

    I’ll RSL every day (most days) against a “marauding” Portland team. In fact, if you look at that game, it wasn’t a collapse so much as an outright loss. Without two wonder plys from Darlington Nagbe, that’s a 2-0 RSL win on the road.

    Agree on the fullbacks, but even the centerbacks also. Portland does have the personel or depth to play with the attacking verve they. Just like Cesar in SKC, they need to sit Jewsbury in front of the backline because he’ll actualy stay there and shield a somewhat woeful center defense in my opinion.

    I’m not sure from what I’ve see of Chara if he is diligent and disciplined enough to do this and for all Jewsbury’s challenges this season, you’re asking an older player to essentially play like Osvaldo Alonso when he’s not.

    Portland might be wiser to try and hold a higher line because with Nagbe, Boyd and Alexander they should still be able to create, only Brunner and company would get torched by a speedy capable forward.

    I like Nagbe in the center of the pitch, if I were Portland and I’m not going to play a highline, I would probably go with a straight non-possession oriented 4-4-2 that deploys like Bob Bradley’s old squads.

    I’d have

    Boyd – Perlaza
    Nagbe – Alexander
    Chara – Jewsbury
    And I’d run the counter attack without compromising the center of the pitch. Agree, there are no fullbacks and I think I’d live with that for now.


  2. The Central Defense (for me) is decent enough. I’m not saying its great, but that it is far far far far better than the full back situation. Both Chivas goals came from Palmer being beat down the right side and the ball being swung in. Now you can also criticize the poor marking at the central defense (and should) but if you look at the second goal, Palmer very clearly doesn’t even know what he is doing. Last year a majority of goals came from Portland being beat at the Full back position. It is just a major problem.

    BTW: May surprise you to find that Chara is 25 while Jewsbury is 30.

    Chara can run that intercepter role as he was able to do the box to box deep lieing midfielder position towards the end of the season last year. He just needs someone to tell him to be more at home and not keep running at the defense. This year, both Jewsbury and Chara have been instructed to be CAM’s and it just doesn’t work.


  3. Posted by buckyball77 on 2012/04/10 at 8:46 AM

    As I read the article I realize that these discussions often mix what the Timbers should have moved towards in the off-season with how the Timbers can cope with the players on hand as of April ’12.

    You’re absolutely right about the spine of the Timbers being lacking. Whether there was some genius, playmaking central midfielder that got away from the front office or not, we’re stuck with an offense that is only effective up the wings. We cannot play it through the middle. Jewsbury and Chara do the same task in central mid. At best it’s like having two Mascheranos together. Neither can regularly pass well to the feet of our attackers at the top of the box. Jewsbury, especially, cannot challange a defending player in mid field.

    So, this means that most of the time, Cooper or now Boyd get a steady diet of not especially accurate, “oh what the hell” crosses from our wing defenders and outside mids. When the outside defenders get physically tired from providing most of the offense and then rushing back to cover the other team’s fastest players, we start shipping goals.

    The solution? Other than Songo’o maybe blossoming into “the man” in midfield, just praying that the regular central defenders get healthy and that the wing defenders are restricted to a more defensive role? We’re just totally porous in the back line.


    • Posted by John on 2012/04/10 at 10:16 AM

      Yeah, I am having a bit of difficulty with that right now. Debating whether to rewrite or not because while I agree with what is up there, I don’t know that I emphasized enough that the 3-5-2/3-4-3 idea is a way of trying to compensate with the lack of full backs on the team by turning them into wingbacks and then clogging the defense with the center backs on a small pitch. The idea is that the Timbers become more counter attacking and the 3-5-2 is a way for them to utilize current players to still remain an attacking offense while slightly fixing the Wallace and Palmer positions.


  4. […] a read of the ShinGuardian’s diagnosis of the Timbers problems. It offers a good perspective of our midfield problems and a solution in line with the way the […]


  5. Posted by David on 2012/04/12 at 2:12 PM

    Having watched the games this season I have to agree with your assessment about a lack of creativity and/or offense through the central midfield positions! I am so disappointed with the service to Boyd, at most he has been having 2 or 3 half chances in most games and very few touches of the ball, he is a player who needs to have more than that to be an effective goalscorer. We don’t have a Lampard or Gerrard style of player who can go box to box and create offense and score goals whilst also helping defensively, like they did in their prime. Changing to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 formation would certainly help that with Boyd and Perlaza up top and then Nagbe being the additional CAM along with Jewsbury and Chara as the more defensive CM’s. I do however worry that changing to 3 at the back will leave an already porous defense that lacks quality even more exposed, but to be honest it can’t get much worse so would be happy for Spenny to try it!
    The situation reminds me a little of when Martin O’Neill went to 3-4-1-2 with Celtic’s team in the very early 2000’s. Although this worked well against lesser teams in the SPL when they dominated possession it was badly exposed by better teams in European competition who moved the ball better with more pace and skill. The zonal back 3 were dragged hopelessly out of position and the likes of Balde and Valgaeren who were good commanding solid center backs got ripped to pieces when they had to cover the wider areas, specifically by Mourinho’s Porto!


  6. Posted by David on 2012/04/12 at 2:19 PM

    This is a pretty good article showing the pros and cons of 3 at the back in the modern game!


  7. […] not the first to suggest such a change – John Nyen suggested a move to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 a while ago in a great article – but taking Wigan specifically as an example we can explore just how the Timbers could adopt […]


  8. […] not the first to suggest such a change – John Nyen suggested a move to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 a while ago in a great article – but taking Wigan specifically as an example we can explore just how the Timbers could adopt […]


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