The Timbers Take Wing
Portland Timbers fans are still basking in the afterglow of a fine derby victory, and with the dust still settling I thought I’d look back at one of the aspects of the Timbers play that really encouraged me – the wings.
Alhassan put in another good shift down the right, backed up by Jewsbury, but here I’m going start with a focus on the left wing.
Franck Songo’o has frustrated me so far this year. There’s been flashes of skill here and there, but he’s been entirely inconsistent and at times has seemed to lack focus and purpose in the final third.
I’ve also doubted his winger credentials, especially in light of his performance against LA.
Songo’o tendency to drift infield really hurt the Timbers in that match. He was coming in off the wing, and running right into the most congested part of the pitch, with LA packing three men in the centre of midfield.
He showed much more discipline against Seattle, sticking to his role a lot better.
For me, it was Songo’o best game in Timbers green. I’m still not convinced he’s an out-and-out winger, but his display against Seattle showed that he can play that wide role effectively, especially when he has Steven Smith on his shoulder.
The reintroduction of Smith down the left flank was a massive boon to the team. Where Songo’o may drift infield, and narrow the attacking line, Smith will pop up out wide and force Seattle to leave gaps in the middle, or give the Scot a free run at the byline.
Songo’o and Smith would combine out left in the build up to the first goal, scored by Kris Boyd.
As well as the combination of Smith and Songo’o down the left, another very encouraging aspect of the play was the way that they switched play from flank to flank.
Too often we’ve seen the Timbers work the ball down the channels, run into trouble and simply cede possession to the other team, but against Seattle we saw them switch play from one side to another with real purpose.
Here we see the team winning the ball deep, getting it forward quickly down the right and then working it across the pitch, right in front of the Seattle defence. Unfortunately the pass into the box is a poor one, but notice Smith once more making himself available down the line – finding himself level with the ball at both the start and finish of the move.
Another example of this crisp passing across the pitch to stretch the Seattle defence begins with Smith and Songo’o wide left and ends, via Nagbe and an onrushing Jewsbury, with Alhassan in wide right.
Alhassan’s dinked shot/cross (who knows with this guy) drops just wide of the post, but agains you see the team moving the ball with poise and precision.
This kind of crossfield passing is only possible with willing runners from fullback positions and hard-working guys in the middle who make themselves available for the ball, and move it on crisply.
No-one sums that role up better than Diego Chara.
This was probably my favourite passage of play, even though it didn’t come to anything in the end. I simply love Chara’s work here. He’s the first on the scene to take the ball from Smith, and then at every stage of the move, he’s always available to take the ball back. He doesn’t do anything flashy or highlight-reel worthy – his passing is simple and measured – but this kind of play in the middle is what allows the team to move the ball across the field at pace and keep the opposition moving, allowing the Timbers to probe for weakness.
Even when he does lose the ball, he’s straight onto it and wins it right back.
Someone like Chara is essential as the Timbers don’t have a passer like Beckham, who thinks nothing of launching a 50 yard crossfield pass. Instead, the Timbers looked to rely on quick, short passes and runs to work the ball across, with only one crossfield pass attempted (not including set pieces).
Once more it was the Smith/Songo’o combination down the left that combined to forge a great chance for Danny Mwanga to write himself into Timbers folklore by scoring against Seattle with his first touch at Jeld-Wen Field.
The team has oft been criticised for being predictable in the way they play. They’ll be direct, they’ll try and get it wide and cross it in. Teams have capitalized on this and neutralised the flanks, driving the team infield and into trouble as we’ve often lacked the short, quick passing game needed to carve open a team through the middle.
We finally saw a glimpse of that game plan clicking into place against Seattle. Smith has already made himself indispensable at left back, and Jewsbury is solid enough at right back – thought I still think that’s an area that needs to be strengthened with real quality.
Given this team’s tendency to find something that works one week, and blindly try to replicate it the next week without thought for the change of opposition I still worry that we seem to lack a Plan B.
It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Alhassan in the next match. Jewsbury isn’t the willing runner that Smith is round the outside, so isn’t going to cover for a player who drifts inside as well as the Scot, and that could leave the team lopsided and forced down dead ends. It may be that Zizzo’s time has come.