The Central Midfield Paradox [UPDATED]

Ha, sorry about posting this early, the full version is below. Thanks!


If you have five central midfielders, and zero wide midfielders, do you have a central midfield? Or just a mess? Sometime around the 80th minute, as I looked on helplessly as the Timbers imploded before my eyes, I began to wonder what, exactly, their form was supposed to be. On a practice field, opposed by nothing but air, where would these players have been. The team seemed to lack any semblance of form, sprinting wildly (and ineffectively) back and forth, wasting energy and leading to confusion. Granted, I was pretty frustrated by that point, but after the game the question stuck with me. Out of curiousity, I looked up the heatmaps on Chalkboard, and to be honest, I'm not even sure what I found. Follow the jump for the results.

So, how exactly did the Timbers midfield operate during the game? Well, according to the chalkboard, it's tough to say. There was no real set form, as all of the midfielders roamed around, seemingly without purpose. Here are the maps for Songo'o and Alexander:





Basically, the Timbers had two wide midfielders, neither of whom would stay to one side of the field. Looking at the times attached to each of these events reveals that Alexander switched sides about a third of the way through the first half, then switched sides again another third of the way through the half. He then preceded to be wholly ineffective in the second half, where he suffered seven of his nine lost possessions in less than 30 minutes.

In the gamethread, someone (Ryan?) posited that it would be interesting to see Alhassan and Songo'o switch off sides. This actually seems to have been the strategy Spencer used during the game, as Songo'o and Alexander switched sides at about the same time twice in the first half. This actually surprised me, and at least gave me the comfort that there was some method to the utter lack of form displayed in the stats. Instead of producing the desired confusion, however, it seemed to primarily disrupt any rhythm they had with the wing back behind them. Ultimately, at least as of now, this experiment has to be termed a failure.

The performance of the central midfielders in this matchup was another key factor in deciding how the game would go. Before examining Chara and Jewsbury, however, I think it is instructive to first look at the job Chivas' holding midfielder Oswaldo Minda did.


What you see is basically a textbook central midfielder. Looking at his completed passes, you can see how he keyed much of the Chivas attack. Basically, he controlled the center of the pitch, especially in the second half, and used this control to drop off passes to either wing, keying several dangerous crosses back into the box. While he was overwhelmed by the Portland pressure early, he kept working (and making some rough borderline tackles), and was fully in control of the middle of the field, even before halftime. Before criticizing Chara and Jewsbury (who certainly deserve at least some), it is important to note that the teams were employing very different strategies. Fraser sought to gain the middle of the field, like a chess player aiming for the center four squares on a chess board, while Portland tried to build down the wings. Ultimately, the coaching battle in this case went to Fraser. While building down the wings is a viable strategy, this is not the first time Portland has proven to be unable to handle a competent holding or central midfielder (See Alonso, Oswaldo). From what I've seen, Portland works best when it can compress the other team's defense, or on the counter. By ceding control of the center of the pitch, however, the two wings are essentially cut off. Ball movement completely breaks down, and each wing just lobs bombs into the box hoping for the best. Portland lacks both the central distributor who can break down the defense, and the will to hold the center of the field. While that is not entirely Spencer's fault, he must come up with a strategy to make better use of his central midfielders.





So what do the maps of our two central midfielders tell us about Portland's performance? Well, for starters, in my opinion Chara was not the problem on Saturday. A quick glance at his stats (51/59 passing) suggests that he definitely has the ability to play the central role and distributor, even if he is more valuable in other roles. The issue came at the start of the second half, when he was pushed back into a purely defensive role. At that point, there was no longer any effective Timbers presence between Eric Brunner and Kris Boyd, as Chara and Nagbe simply could not make up for the utter lack of support in the middle of the field. This was not helped by Jewsbury, who simply had a terrible game. In the first half, he tried to push up the right alongside Alexander and Songo'o, leading to that cluster of events on the right side of the field. While he did not give the ball up much, he also proved completely incapable of advancing it, settling for a large number of backpasses. In addition, he provided next to no support for Chara, who was now attempting to hold off the Chivas attack basically by himself. Whereas Chara was able to contribute positively to the attack before being pushed back, Jewsbury was not. Ultimately, I don't want to come down too harshly on Jewsbury, as the entire team played poorly, and the breakdowns were more the fault of Palmer and the right wing than Captain Jack. That said, he is at this point playing at what could be called "replacement level." I honestly believe he has real utility as a supersub on this team, with his versatility and ability, but asking him to captain this team, and carry it in the same way he did last year is simply too much. As many people here have noted, he is not that player right now.

Finally, I think it is instructive to look at one more map, this time showing the respective play of Palmer, Baptiste, and Ryan Smith, the second half sub who immediately broke open the Timbers defense. Keep in mind that they are switched on the chalkboard, Smith was running at Palmer most of the second half, not the other side.


This chalkboard shows two things. First, that Palmer is touching the ball way too much. There is no reason for him to be that involved. He is a fullback, not a midfielder. A 70/88 passing line? Again, I refer you to Chara, who posted a 51/59. Why is Palmer passing the ball 30 more times than Chara? For comparison, Rodney Wallace was a less than stellar 32/43. That's pretty bad, but understandable for a young fullback. Palmer, Jewsbury, and Songo'o/Alexander were all funneling up the same side, and managed to accomplish nothing beyond passing the ball to each other like a deranged game of Hot Potato. Anyway, ranting aside, the most interesting part of this map, in my opinion, is the lower right hand corner and upper right hand corner. Right there is the reason we lost this match. The defense had a gaping hole in the right corner, and was completely unable to make any plays. Everything that has been discussed so far came into play to cost the Timbers. Basically, Smith would release, blowing past Palmer in the process, collect the pass from Minda (who, as has been noted, completely controlled the center of the pitch, and was able to distribute essentially freely), take it to the corner, and place a cross right into the center of the box. Whether it is the fault of Spencer or Jewsbury, the Timbers proved incapable of stopping this incredibly simple tactic. There wasn't any coordination or help given, and the Timbers lost their cohesion before falling apart.

In conclusion, Spencer has to come up with a strategy for holding the middle of the field, and for covering the obvious deficiencies in the wings. The situation isn't irretrievable by any means, as spurts of play have shown the Timbers to be a deadly team capable of shredding a defense, but it won't do any good unless they can control the ball and prevent themselves from being pushed back by one player.

Wow, sorry for the length. I'm curious about what you guys all think. I freely admit my knowledge of soccer tactics isn't complete, so if I missed anything, please let me know.

Legend (For Timbers):

Light Green Circle: Completed Pass/Shot on Target

Magenta (?) Circle: Incomplete Pass/Shot

Dark Blue Circle: Ball Recovery

Chivas is basically similar, Green is good, red is bad, and dark red/black is ball recovery.


Alright guys, I don't believe I have to say this but, just in case, please do not submit anything racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise not appropriate for even the younger Timbers fans.

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