The New Mwanga
The Timbers took advantage of an extended mid-season break to engineer a trade with fellow strugglers Philadelphia Union which saw Jorge Perlaza leave Portland, and a homecoming of sorts for Danny Mwanga, who made a similar trip to his old strike partner Sebastien Le Toux, who left in preseason, to the Pacific Northwest.
It’s an interesting move by the Timbers front office. In retrospect it’s not hard to see that Perlaza was the obvious trade bait on the squad. He’s a guy who’s underappreciated by a large section of fans – so unlikely to cause uproar by being sent away – but clearly has enough about him for those within the game to value him highly. He’s experienced, tough, cheap, hard working and will fit right in at Philly, where he has a number of fellow countryman around him.
There’s always been a sense that Perlaza has never quite fitted in to John Spencer’s system, which seemed to be predicated on a staunch belief in the Big Guy/Little Guy front two pairing, with guys getting wide to rifle cross after cross into the box for them to feed off. Except that Perlaza was never going to be the “fox in the box” that Spencer was in his heyday, and so never really fit in. Perlaza often seemed to be the facilitator of attacking play, rather than the focus or the fulcrum.
I was, and still am, a big fan of his and having written a couple of articles highlighting his positive features I pretty much got tagged the Perlaza Guy on twitter. Yet, I only wrote those features as i felt Perlaza was being often unfairly criticised, and I appreciated what he brought to the team. Yet, for some, he didn’t score “enough” and was never going to win them round.
In bringing in Mwanga, the Timbers have traded one striker who doesn’t score, for another who is in a deep goalscoring slump. It’s now over 22 hours of MLS football since Danny Mwanga last found the back of the net. Almost 14 hours for Perlaza, for those that are keeping count. Though they have at least shaved 7 years off, and at no extra cost to the club.
This year has been something of a slog for the Congolese striker. Without Le Toux, who joined Vancouver, Mwanga has found chances few and far between. Only five shots in his nine appearances.
It’s a worrying dip in his production.
Last year saw Mwanga start fewer matches than he had in his debut season (from 50% of regular season games to 38%), but he saw more on-field minutes and he was taking more shots than ever, and getting more on target, yet he found the net less often. This year has seen fewer shots, lower accuracy and no goals.
In many ways, it makes this the ideal time to get Mwanga. There’s no doubting his, apologies in advance for invoking the “P word”, potential but it’s clearly not working out for him at Philadelphia and a change is best for both parties.
Despite this slump, many Union fans bemoaned the loss of the 20 year old, who was the club’s very first draft pick in 2010. A common complaint is that Mwanga suffered through Piotr Novak failing to allow the player a consistent run of games, and playing him out of position.
Timbers fans can feel free to go sit in a darkened room for a few minutes right now, having read that.
Because, you know, Mwanga now finds himself at a club that utilises players to their strengths and plays them where they’re most comfortable.
The worry is that Mwanga, much like Kris Boyd, is a big guy and the temptation is to think of him as a target man, which he isn’t. Sure, like Boyd, he’ll win his fair share of flick-ons, but expecting him to be a dominant presence in the air is only setting yourself up for disappointment and the player himself for a frustrating time.
Given Spencer’s love of the “direct game”, having two big guys up top does worry me that the temptation to rely on launched balls towards the opposing box will be overpowering. Mind you, given the dearth of attacking creative options in midfield – something fans have been crying out to be rectified – perhaps this is the club’s way of fixing the problem? Poor attacking play from midfield? No problem, we’ll just bypass them altogether.
It doesn’t have to be that way though as Mwanga and Boyd can compliment each other well. Whereas Boyd is very much the penalty box striker, Mwanga’s best work is outside the box. He’s big and strong and so can hold the ball up and bring others into play.
Having him in the same XI as Darlington Nagbe will be interesting as they play in a similar way, with Mwanga perhaps possessing a little more of the predatory instinct.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Spencer line up with Nagbe and Mwanga both operating in the space behind Boyd. This is a position Mwanga has often played for the Union.
Nagbe’s running with the ball, and Mwanga’s ability to hold up and good close control could work well together. Mwanga’s not shy to try his luck from distance either as this picture plotting a number of shots from a random selection of matches shows.
Having the ability to test the keeper from distance can be an important attacking attribute for a team. A long-standing criticism of Barcelona was their lack of a good long-shooter meant that teams could bunker down and defend deep knowing that Barcelona lacked someone who was going to put it on frame from 25-30 yards.
Of course, Barcelona are good enough that they can still play through most teams, but the Timbers aren’t. Teams know they can press the flanks, and keep it tight and deep at the back and there’s often little we can do to counter it.
Someone like Mwanga, who can sting the keeper’s gloves from 30 yards, will force defenders to close him down. That opens up space for a Boyd, Nagbe or Alhassan to wreak havoc. Often it’s just the threat of knowing what someone is capable of that will force the opposition to act in a way that can be exploited.
It’s like when you know someone on the other side is a free kick specialist. You’re going to be that little more cautious when tackling around your own box, and that momentary hesitation could be all a team needs to find a pass, or get a shot off that can hurt you.
To be brutally honest, that wasn’t something Perlaza offered. Teams knew Perlaza would run all day and stretch defences, but he wasn’t a dribbler or a guy who’s going to sling one at goal from 35 yards. Let him run down dead ends, force him back and shut off the space and he can be neutralised. He’s not going to offer that other dimension that Mwanga can.
It’s not just link-up play, or shooting from deep, that Mwanga brings to the table. He’s quick, and an intelligent player. He knows how to time his runs and if guys like Chara, Alexander and Alhassan can get on his wavelength all the better for the Timbers.
Only some good pressure applied by Wynne denies Mwanga a clean shot at goal here, but few defenders can match the Colorado man for pace.
Though he can play in that reserved attacking role, often his more effective, direct work comes when he plays up top. Though he’s actually a year younger than Nagbe, I’d hope there’s much Nagbe can pick up from Mwanga in how to play that position.
Good positional awareness and intelligence means he’ll give defenders a headache wherever he’s playing up top.
On his game, he’s an exceptionally difficult opponent to face. Let him drop off and he can get a shot in; go with him and he can spin you, or use his good close control to take you out the game with a touch or a pass. He’s a multi-dimensional option up front for a team that have often seemed entirely one-dimensional in its play.
The big issue with Mwanga is his current form and seeming lack of confidence.
A lack of starts and chemistry with his fellow attackers have seen his head drop. A confident striker in the grab above would have looked to get beyond the defender and get a shot away. A striker lacking in confidence will look to take the easy way out. There’s never any sense that Mwanga believes he can push the line and get in behind.
Getting Mwanga in his groove again will be key. He is no stranger to Portland, having settled there in 2006 after fleeing DR Congo, and playing college soccer for OSU Beavers. The move to Portland gets Mwanga out of a club situation that clearly wasn’t working, and into an environment he should be more comfortable with. This should help.
Getting him game time and building his understanding with Boyd and Nagbe will take time, but could reap rich rewards.
The big question fans will be asking though is will he bring goals. It would be easy to check out his highlight reel and declare Mwanga the answer to all Timbers problems but as any fan who has youtubed (is that even a verb? I guess I could google it) the club’s hot new signing to see videos that show he’s Pele reborn, only to find the reality is a numpty who can barely put one foot in front of another can tell you, it’s easy to cut together a player’s best bits and make him look, well, the best.
The Timbers have sorely lacked for them this season, but I think patience will be key with Mwanga. He’s a young lad still, and he’s had a torrid time over the past year or so. It’ll take time to get him firing again, but I’m optimistic about the prospect of a Mwanga/Boyd pairing.
I wish Perlaza all the best and hope he finds a happy home in Philadelphia, but he is the past now. Danny Mwanga is the future, and the future looks bright.