I started to do the player ratings column for this morning, but I think I may hold off on that until tomorrow (unless sunshine has something burning a hole in his soul for tomorrow’s post). Instead, there are a couple of issues that I wanted to touch on from the match with D.C. I must say that I felt an intense sense of déjà vu while watching it. A pattern that was established early on in the season and repeated (ad nauseam I think it’s fair to say) once again played itself out on the noisy postage stamp that is the pitch at Jeld-Wen Field.
The opening thirty minutes or so could have been cut and pasted from any of two dozen matches that we have played so far this term. As has so often happened, we got absolutely throttled in midfield. We really abetted United’s midfield pressure by engaging in what is to me the most maddening behavior to which this team is prone: negative passing. Is has so often been the case, this had two ulcer-inducing dimensions. Clearly there has been an emphasis on working the ball up out of defense, as opposed to just playing long balls that immediately concede possession (as we did so often during the Kris Boyd Experiment). This is all to the good, or would be if our defenders and midfielders were willing and able to play with an appropriate dynamism. Instead, we were treated to the unappetizing scenario of our back four playing a series of passes each of which seemed to place the recipient in a successively worse position. All too often, the result was a ball back to Bendik that then had to be fired up the pitch, thus vitiating the purpose of the whole exercise.
On some occasions, we managed to move the ball up the flanks. Once again, this has clearly been a point of emphasis. But, and this is quite probably the reason that I spent the second half of the match with an intense migraine, in the vast majority of cases this avenue of advance became a road to nowhere. Again and again (and again and again) Smith or Kimura would run the ball up to a position within a couple of yards from Nagbe or Songo’o, get confronted by three D.C. defenders, and either immediately make a negative pass or simply give the ball away. In about 5% of cases we actually managed to generate some forward motion from this exercise. I suppose it should also be conceded that knocking the ball around this way meant that we had a majority of possession which, given our propensity to leak goals, is probably not a bad thing. On the other hand, the contrast between our play in midfield and D.C.’s was striking. They passed the ball quickly and moved. We sat on the ball and all too often either made a negative pass or got caught in possession.
There has been a lot of talk on this blog and it other places where the team is discussed about the need for different personnel. I think it’s pretty clear that improvement must be made in terms of upgrading the squad, but I am not convinced that the failures that I have been banging on about here are down to the quality of the players. For me, the breakdown in terms of forward progress is as much a matter of tactics and approach as it is of ability. Portland never really seems to get very good passing rhythm going. For me, this is crucial because slow passing and static play allow even mediocre midfielders and defenders to orient themselves and hold their shape without expending a great deal of energy. There is a virtue to moving the ball quickly and for its own sake that comes from creating a more complex problem for opposing defenses. The longer that a player sits on the ball, the easier it is for his opponents to arrange themselves and to take away options for forward play. Until the Timbers learn to be more aggressive about shifting the ball, this same pattern will continue to play itself out.
Speaking of things that are entirely predictable, I now feel the need to make a point about Songo’o’s booking. I have to admit being a little surprised both at what he did and at my colleague’s response. Yes, I suppose that if you read the rule book precisely what Songo’o did is not explicitly outlawed. However, in 30+ years of watching the game I cannot remember a single instance of something like that being permitted. I know that sunshine has seen the 1971 Arsenal – Liverpool FA Cup Final, and I would point out that Charlie George gets called for that exact move in the later part of the second half. I don’t think he’s booked, but he’s called for it nonetheless. This is one of those things where the letter of the law and the actual way that the game is called diverge. It’s for similar reasons that obstruction is hardly ever called in the modern professional game. Is this just? I suppose not. But it is what it is.
Having rambled on and on about the negatives, let me at least end on a positive note. After going down a goal, Portland staged a pretty decent fight back. This might not seem like such a big deal, but there were a number of matches earlier in the season where such a response was lacking. I actually thought that the last half hour the game showed a lot of this team’s better qualities. There was more running and more working together. Steven Smith, who has come in for a lot of criticism on this blog, gave supporters a clear indication of exactly what he can bring to this side. Time and again, he made aggressive moves up the wing creating width and putting dangerous balls into the box. His role in Dike’s goal was a perfect illustration of this. He stepped in to intercept a pass near midfield, moved the ball to Nagbe, continued his run, and put in a cross that D.C.’s defense failed to deal with. All of which is to say that, although improvement is certainly needed, there is quality in this team of they would just care to use it.