“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Patrick Henry in 1776. Admittedly, he was talking about something more elevated than the trials and tribulations of football club and the sufferings of its fans. Nonetheless, I think it apposite to our situation. The Timbers have been in pretty bad form of late. The whole thing is all the more galling because they’ve actually won a couple of tough matches recently, although the victories against Seattle and San Jose now seem like so much ancient history. I think that every fan of the team is looking for a way forward, but what has been offered up to us lately seems like just the opposite.
I feel as if I’ve complained about all the obvious stuff so much that I’m reduced to devoting column inches to the question of why it is that Kris Boyd insists on wearing long sleeved jerseys irrespective of what the weather conditions are like. Well, I’ve even talked about that one in the past, so I guess we’re back to pounding the dead horse of the team’s poor form.
The match against Chivas was a deeply depressing affair. There is a reason that they have by far the lowest goal total in the league. Simply put, their offense sucks. This makes it particularly discouraging that fully 25% of their goals have been scored against us. This is a team that, generally speaking, doesn’t show a lot of offensive ambition. Their tendency is to sit back in a very defensive formation and try to nick goals on the break. I suppose one should be glad that this strategy didn’t work against us, but the reason for that is that they didn’t have to use it. Our defensive play at fullback was simply unacceptable. It wasn’t just that Steven Smith allowed Ryan Smith to blow by him with one of those party piece moves that are usually consigned to the Sunday pub leagues. That particular bit of business was only the crowning moment. Ryan Smith was made to look a real world beater for most of match.
On the other side, Kimura only fared better in a sort of but-for-the-grace-of-God sort of way. At this point I might also mention that I really let Mosquera off the hook in the player ratings. The failure of Smith to stop the run was so blindingly catastrophic that I failed to make the point that Mosquera did a very poor job of tracking the run to the back post. That goal was almost a carbon copy of Keane’s first goal last weekend. It is truly painful that this team seems very resistant to learning the lessons that are being repeatedly served up.
Having dwelt on the negatives as much as I can stand for now, I offer five positive suggestions that, in my humble opinion, would help the team move forward.
1. Play a 4-4-2. I apologize to readers of this blog that I keep returning to this point, but every week we are presented with further evidence as to the necessity of making some kind of move in this direction. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the formation that the team was playing for most of the first half of the season. True, things did not go terribly well, especially in the first few weeks, but that had more to do with personnel issues than the formation. Neither Wallace nor Palmer proved up to the task, and Chabala was only slightly better. Jewsbury proved himself capable of managing the defensive part of the job, but his disinclination to get forward caused a number of problems, the most prominent of which was that whoever played the wing on that side was all too frequently isolated and forced into either a bad pass or a negative one. Now Portland has fullbacks on both sides that want to get forward. Playing a 4-4-2 would let them.
2. Make Perkins the captain. I actually have a lot of respect for Jewsbury, but at this point I don’t think he really merits a starting place. Keeping the captaincy with him creates the need to get him on the pitch. I’m familiar enough with the culture of the sport to know that such a move is unlikely in the course the season, unless he goes all John Terry and starts bedding his teammates wives (or commits some other sort of public indiscretion). The fact of the matter is that he doesn’t have the skills or the mobility to play the role that Nagbe is trying to fill, and Chará is a far superior choice for the holding role. Jewsbury doesn’t have the tools or the mindset to play on the outside. So where does that leave him? Unfortunately for him, it should leave him on the bench.
3. Trade for a midfielder. Darlinton Nagbe has a lot of skills, but he is not a starting CAM at this level right now. He needs to be the third option front man, brought in as a change of pace for Boyd or Mwanga in the later stages. He gets caught on the ball too often, which is really death for a central attacking midfielder because not only does it destroy our own attacks, it also puts added pressure on our defense. There may be a point in the future when Nagbe can play the creator, but it’s not now.
4. Start Mwanga. Putting him in for ten or fifteen minutes at the end of matches doesn’t really make use of what he does well. When I say start Mwanga, I mean start him paired with Boyd. This team needs goals and the answer to that problem seems to me to start out with maximum aggression.
5. Focus on passing. The only way that a 4-2-3-1 works, when it does, is if the team playing it dedicates themselves to passing and movement. About thirty times per game, one is treated to the sight of a Timbers wide player isolated against two or three defenders, taking multiple touches and going nowhere. If, as appears to be the case, the people running the show are determined to play this formation, at least the players have to adjust their play and move the ball quickly. I really dislike Barcelona, but one thing that they do very, very well is pass the ball in rhythm and keep things moving. There is an inherent virtue in keeping the ball moving. Until the Timbers learn this fact, this formation is going to bring us nothing but grief.
Perhaps you disagree with some or all of this. To those who do, I extend a warm and heartfelt invitation to post your own suggestions and maybe we can collectively see our way through this.