The Man, The Myth
When John Spencer was relieved of his duties in July of this year, club owner Merritt Paulson was at pains to point out that the Timbers were not “waving a white flag for 2012″ as there were “still many games to play.” Indeed, Wilkinson inherited a team that weren’t far off the playoff spots and had, in their last four matches, beaten both Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes.
Gavin Wilkinson echoed that point, insisting that he was “responsible for bringing all those players here” and how it was “up to me to get a little bit more out of them.”
As we all know, Wilkinson promptly led the side on a four game losing streak, and before long the message had subtly shifted. “When I came into this position, it wasn’t a simple process of just going out and trying to win. We had to address some issues and there were some changes and there’s been a little bit of progress.”
In those first seven matches of Gavin’s interimship, the club picked up 2 points and the idea that Portland would reach the postseason became the notion of delusional fantasists as reality set in.
By the time the side took the field against the Sounders, looking to secure the Cascadia Cup, all focus was on laying the groundwork for the next season. Gavin’s decision to rest the “injured” Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura in favour of the Katastrophe Kids, Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer, was dressed up as being “important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.”
This notion that Gavin has been testing players for next year has taken such firm root that it’s become a generally accepted “fact” among a growing proportion of fans and pundits. It is, in my opinion, no more than a myth.
It’s easy to dress up a tactical fuck-up like sticking Wallace and Palmer into the line-up as some kind of experiment. Yeah, sure, it was just test to see how they would cope in the atmosphere, or pace of the game, or whatever. Of course. It rings every bit as hollow as those emergency rooms cases where the hapless individual explains that he accidentally fell backwards onto the beer bottle and it just got lodged up there.
What were we meant to learn about Wallace and Palmer that we didn’t already know for the numerous times they’ve already played at full-back, including a whole run of matches THIS SEASON already? If Wilkinson truly was assessing the squad and using it as some kind of tactical Petri dish, then why haven’t we see Ryan Kawulok in the team? Jean-Baptiste? Richards, after he got a whole two starts when Gavin made 6 changes to a team that lost 5-0 against Dallas? Where’s Rincon, or Taylor, or even Hogg (yes, I know there’ve been injuries, but they haven’t always been out), to mention but a few?
Instead, Wilkinson had picked a more settled team that his predecessor. 7 players have started at least 12 of the 15 matches (80%) that Wilkinson has been in control for. Seven. Kimura, Smith, Horst, Mosquera, Jewsbury, Songo’o and Nagbe.
That’s the entire back four. Now, I totally get that continuity is important in defence, probably more so than anywhere else of the pitch (when you think of great defences it’s generally a unit you think off, when you think of great attacks it might be one or two guys, on the whole) but does anyone out there actually think that this will be our back four next season? Cos if it is… well, that’s an early Halloween scare, right there. And if you accept that it won’t be the chose four next year, why aren’t we giving others a chance?
If you consider that Ricketts was only signed in August and has played when fit, that Chara only falls a couple shy of 12 starts due to injury, and that Zizzo has started 9 of the last 10 matches, then you can stretch that “settled” number up to 10. Dike has started 7 of the last 9 if you want to make it a full team.
By comparison, only five players reach the 80% criteria under Spencer – Perkins, Jewsbury, Chara, Boyd and Nagbe. (3 of these are mainstays under Wilkinson, one got traded and one fell out of favour.)
It’s quite clear to me that Gavin has a pretty clear idea of his “best eleven” and he is, in general, sticking to that core group. Fair enough. Continuity and all that. But aren’t we supposed to be figuring out what we have so as to make the right decisions in the offseason?
Putting to one side Ricketts, who was signed after Spencer left, and Kimura, who played the one match under Spencer that he was available for, there are really only six players who have seen themselves get significantly more game time under Wilkinson than Spencer.
David Horst (29% / 87%) played five straight games for Spencer following Brunner’s injury, and has held that role under Wilkinson despite a couple of starts for Danso along the way. I don’t think we can chalk that one down to Wilkinson.
Steven Smith (47% / 80%) is a little misleading as Smith was signed in April and, in actual fact, played 8 of the 10 matches he was available for under Spencer, so he’s actually been used as much under Wilkinson as he was under Spencer.
Hanyer Mosquera (59% / 93%) is another example where a player’s enforced absence has skewed the numbers. But for an early season injury and a 3 game suspension in June, he was clearly a first choice under Spencer.
Franck Songo’o (47% / 80%) has more to do with a player taking the time to adjust to a new league and new team mates than it does with Gavin Wilkinson bringing him through, in my opinion.
Which brings us to the two guys whose increased game time I would ascribe to Gavin Wilkinson.
Sal Zizzo (6% / 60%) seemed to have designated a “super sub” under Spencer, but since given a run of games under Gavin Wilkinson, he’s put in some great showings and has made four assists in his last eight starts.
Bright Dike (0% / 47%) went from forgotten man to hero when given a chance by Wilkinson and has repaid his former USL boss with four goals and some all-action performances. So, fair enough, hats off to Gavin Wilkinson there. I’d have big reservations if Dike is truly the man we look to lead the line next season, but he’s in a purple patch right now, and we’re getting a good return from him, so strike while the iron’s hot.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two have shone together as they seemed to have struck up an immediate understanding. Three of Dike’s goals have been assisted by Zizzo, and it really seems to be the case that the two players are bringing out the best in each other.
Three guys who have seen their game time limited since Spencer left are Eric Alexander, Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan. In the latter case, injuries have been a big factor, as they have been to a lesser degree with Boyd, but the sense persists that these are three guys who don’t really fit under Wilkinson.
As with Zizzo & Dike, Alexander and Alhassan seem to bring the best out in Boyd as they seemed to be the two players who were most in tune with the Scottish striker. All of Boyd’s goals have been scored when either player is on the field, with Alhassan and Alexander both logging assists for Boyd.
In fact, the five game barren spell Boyd had between the 1-0 win against Kansas City and the 2-1 win against Chicago coincides with a five match stretch where neither Alexander nor Alhassan started. They all start against LA, Boyd scores; they return against Vancouver, Boyd scores. Can you guess which two players didn’t start any of the final three matches Boyd played before being dropped for Dike (ignoring the cameo against San Jose)?
All of this is to get off the point though. The fact is that, at best, you could say that Wilkinson brought Zizzo and Dike into the fold. Beyond that, what have we learned about this roster during this grand period of experimentation?
That Palmer and Wallace are every bit as not-very-good as we remembered them to be? That Mike Fucito will run about a bit, but just don’t expect him to score goals? That Sal Zizzo isn’t a right-back? That’s not a lot to show for 15 matches worth of time. If these are all things that Wilkinson thinks are questions that needed to be answered so as to build towards 2013, then I can’t help but fear for the worst with this guy as General Manager.
I haven’t addressed players being used as subs, cos I don’t think you’re going to learn a great deal about someone based on a 20 minute cameo here or there. Players need to start, and be given a few matches to show what they can do. We’re simply not doing that.
Don’t believe the hype. There is no appreciable difference to squad rotation under Wilkinson than there was under Spencer. In fact, only twice have the Timbers named an unchanged XI from one week to the next, and both of those occasions were with Gavin in charge. We’re not learning anything we didn’t already know. Beyond the change of formation and a couple of different faces, you would be hard pressed to see any difference.
You can’t put out a settled team every week and still play the “experimentation” card. You’re either rotating the squad and giving different people a chance to do different jobs, or you’re picking the same bunch of guys week in-week out.
Even if you buy that early on Wilkinson was looking to push the team to the playoffs and only latterly, when that became impossible, turned to experimenting with the roster the fact is that of the 13 line-up changes in the last five matches, 5 have been enforced (injuries or suspensions) which leaves 8 in a very broad “tactical” category, or, if you prefer, 61.5% of line-up changes have been tactical. That is actually lower than the same criteria under Spencer (64.7%) and a big dip in Wilkinson’s overall 72.7%. So Wilkinson is changing things up and giving players a chance, he’s making changes when they’re forced upon him.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Gavin has pulled is that he’s working to some kind of plan.