Tis But A Scratch
The Timbers were on the losing end of an eight-goal thriller with LA Galaxy in Gavin Wilkinson’s first match in charge since John Spencer was philosophically fired last week.
The defeat at JELD-WEN was the Timbers’ first MLS reverse since Chivas won 2-1 way back in April – and the five goals conceded were more than they had lost in the six matches between that match and this.
Wilkinson didn’t stray far for Spencer’s formula in his team selection. Boyd started, which was nice in a he’s-involved-in-virtually-every-goal-we-score kind of way. Chara’s suspension meant a place in midfield for Palmer and Jewsbury, with Alexander and Alhassan on the flanks. Mosquera returned to the starting XI, with Futty the man to sit out.
The one difference was this wouldn’t be the usual 4-4-2. Wilkinson lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1, with Nagbe tucked in behind Boyd. The truth is that the formation was a bit more fluid than some digits on a screen would suggest.
The night started so well as a crisp Alhassan cross was put beyond Saunders by Boyd after only a few minutes.
Having spent so often bemoaning the way the Timbers have failed to play to the Scot’s strengths, it was nice to finally see someone give him the kind of ball that he thrives on. And it was no surprise to see it was Alhassan.
Alhassan seems to be one of the few players who is on Boyd’s wavelength, and keeping Kalif fit – as well as instilling at least some semblance of discipline to his play – has to be a priority for Wilkinson and whoever takes over the top job in the long-term.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look back and see that there was something odd in the air. I mean, really, a Timbers goal in the south end?! As a wise scientist once said, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”
Buoyed by the early goal, some of the Timbers play was nice to watch. There seemed to be a noticeable drop in the number of long hopeful balls up the field, and much more pass-and-move play, with the ball staying on the deck.
However, a crazy ten minute spell midway through the first half saw all the encouraging early play undone in brutal fashion.
The Galaxy’s fightback was triggered by some of that mercurial ill-discipline from Alhassan as well as, in my opinion, some presciently poor defensive work from Lovel Palmer.
First off, there was no reason for Alhassan to dribble the ball around in that area – Palmer was wide open for an easy pass. Secondly, as soon as the ball was lost, just when you’d want your defensive midfielder to come alive, Palmer went to sleep.
Palmer’s almost preternatural ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time is fast becoming a joke that even Daniel Tosh wouldn’t touch as being just too tasteless.
The thing is, I don’t think Palmer is necessarily a terrible technical player. You don’t get this far, and achieve what he has in the game, if you can’t master the basics. Sure, he’s not the best passer in the world and his long-range shooting fetish borders on the obscene.
What Palmer lacks, in my opinion, is the ability to make the right decision at crucial moments, and that’s pretty damned key if your responsibility is to protect the defence.
The ability to take in what’s going on around you, extrapolating that information and making the right decision – all within a split second – is one of the skills that is hardest, arguably impossible, to teach. You can teach a player to pass or shoot. You can hone his ability to cross a ball, or play to game plan. Teaching a player to think faster, and better, is much more difficult to do.
John Terry would be an example of a player who, for me, lacks this ability but his other abilities allow him to, more often than not, make a last-ditch recovery to salvage the situation. The late sliding tackle that is so beloved by fans and producers of slow-motion highlight reels is the action of a defender who has made a poor decision. The old adage is true – the best defenders will finish the match with barely a stain on their kit.
Palmer doesn’t have Terry’s ability to recover a bad situation, and his poor decision-making renders him a defensive liability. Lovel Palmer is a ticking time bomb of Fail.
In the Jimenez chance we saw Palmer marshaling a space rather than the man. For the Galaxy equaliser he changed it up.
For sure, it was a good finish from Mrs Cruise, but I’d think more of it if he’d done it with a guy on his shoulder and nipping at his heels. The fact is, for the second time this season, he was given all the time in the world, right in front of goal, and he punished us.
Palmer dropping off to shadow Donovan gave Beckham the breathing space he needed. Only Alexander – eventually – woke up to the danger, and by then it was too late.
Some more awareness from Palmer – or if you’re being kind to Palmer, a shout from Mosquera that he had Donovan covered – and Beckham doesn’t get thee shot away.
Honestly, at this point, I’m at a loss to explain what Palmer brings to the team. The fact that he only lasted to half-time may suggest that Wilkinson was asking himself the same question.
He displays poor defensive awareness, time and again, and offers next-to-nothing going forward. He just… is.
As Palmer’s moment in the spotlight passed, it was time for Kosuke Kimura to step forward.
A foul by Kimura gave the Galaxy a free-kick in dangerous territory. Beckham stepped forward and duly put the ball in the exact spot that just about everyone expected him to.
I actually had the thought, one that’s occurred to me in the past, that it might actually be a good idea for the Timbers to set up without a wall in this situation.
As you can see, Beckham puts the ball low and near the right hand post (X marks the spot) – right in the spot that most fans would’ve predicted him to aim for. It gives Perkins a good 13 ft or so to cover – and the wall gives him 10 fewer yards to respond, especially as the Galaxy players (ringed) crowd the end of the wall right in front of Perkins.
So, why not say “screw the wall”? Perkins could take up a more central position and he’d have a better sight of the ball from the moment it leaves Beckham’s foot.
It clearly couldn’t be a regular strategy as teams would quickly figure us out as the guys who don’t line up a wall and adjust accordingly – lining up a wall of their own for example, but I doubt no wall is a situation teams prepare for, and the confusion it sows may just be enough to prevent the Galaxy taking the lead.
I fully expect to be called a madman for this idea, by the way.
It became 4-1 when Smith played a lazy pass which was cut-out by Beckham. Donovan was sent scampering down the right, where he blew past Horst and slid it on for Keane to tap home between Mosquera and Kimura.
Kimura wasn’t done though. A trademark Boyd free-kick – head down, hit it hard – was spilled by Saunders and the new man got his first goal for the Timbers to make it 4-2 before the break.
As the game slipped away from the Timbers, so the 4-2-3-1 seemed to go out the window. Nagbe began to play more as a striker, albeit deeper-lying than Boyd. By the time the second half rolled round, we were back in 4-4-2 territory.
Richards replaced Palmer, who was presumably sent into a quiet room to think about what he’d done tonight. This meant Alexander was shifted inside, and he looked happier there.
Though his play was generally pretty tidy, and he worked well with Smith, he lacked the attacking punch that Alhassan had down the right side. It gave the team a lop-sided feel.
Moving into the middle allowed Alexander to be more involved in linking play. In the second half he made only eight fewer passes than Palmer and Jewsbury combined in the first.
The team’s traded goals in the second period after Donovan and Nagbe had missed good chances one-on-one. Nagbe’s came about from a tremendous throw from Perkins, whose general distribution continues to frustrate. Great pace put Darlington in, but he lacked the killer touch to finish the move and put the Timbers within a goal of the visitors.
Keane would eventually put LA up 5-2 when Smith was drawn out of defence, and Franklin beat Richards to the ball over the top before laying it on a plate for the boyhood Galaxy fan. Boyd cut out the middle man later when he put another free kick past Saunders to make it 5-3.
Unfortunately, the Timbers were unable to find the goal that would set up a grandstand finish but few would forget this match in a hurry. Shown nationwide on NBC Sports, the game was a great advert for the kind of entertaining football MLS can serve up, even if it would give defensive coaches nightmares.
It’s a bittersweet result. On one hand, there was a lot of fight in the team. Boyd served up two goals, and played a key role in the other. He did his job. He scored. Strikers are often “streaky”, so getting a brace under his belt may just spur the club’s top scorer on further.
For spells, in the first half especially, the football was good to watch. There was some good interplay, movement and purpose about the way the Timbers crossed the field – a long way from the panicky, hit-and-hope football that defined much of the late Spencer period, even after they’d gone down 4-1.
There wasn’t really a great deal between the clubs. Both had porous defences that gave up chances to the opposition, but the Galaxy had a bit more nous and cutting-edge about them in attack. Despite the two defensive midfielders in the first half, I also felt that overall the Galaxy had the upper hand in the midfield battle, though there was little between the two in the second half.
In some respects, losing to a better team is to be expected. In Donovan, Keane and Beckham, the Galaxy have access to talents beyond those of the Timbers. The only way to beat a better team is to either get lucky, work even harder, or both. The Timbers certainly worked hard, but ultimately gave themselves too much to do. Luck wasn’t really as much of a factor as numerous individual mistakes and poor choices at the back were.
They way the side kept their heads up and kept plugging away is a world away from the same team that has rolled over in recent weeks.
However, the defence. Just not good enough. It’s not the first time that a player has simply blown past a comically-bad Horst tackle, and probably won’t be the last.
Smith’s crossing was as poor as I can remember it. It’s all the more frustrating as Smith is capable of so much better.. Kimura had that crazy spell in the first half, and clearly there’s a bit more work to be done in integrating him into the team.
Chivas await for the Timbers, and though Portland find themselves bottom of the Western Conference (2nd bottom overall), a win against their hosts could propel them, improbably, back into the play-off hunt. It’s not hard to think of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Timbers refuse to give up, no matter how devastating the blows they receive.
Over the next four proper matches, the Timbers will play two game series against both Chivas and Dallas – two sides also struggling in the West.
Make or break time.
rhamje raised the point in the comments below that he felt Keane’s 2nd goal, LA’s 5th, was offside. I didnb’t think it was at the time, so I went back and checked, and had it confirmed. Definitely onside.