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Chalk Talk: O Captain! My Captain!

The Portland Timbers were without their captain for the first time in an MLS competition. His absence was noticeable but was it truly a detriment to the Timbers?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

First I want to say sorry for not keeping this going through the condensed schedule in June. My personal life and the Timbers' schedule conspired against me and I was not able to get these complete. I am back in the saddle and I think this one will bring up some interesting points. (Once again these are image heavy so be prepared mobile users)

In the match thread and again in the recaps an idea was floating around that Ben Zemanski was one of the reasons Portland struggled at times. Zemanski based the ball backwards too often and let's face it he was not Will Johnson. I wanted to explore this thought processes and took a look at Zemanski's distribution.

First off here his Zemanski's heatmap and his total stats:

Ben Zemanski Columbus

The biggest takeaway I get from this heatmap is that either the Timbers did not get forward enough or he played more of a CDM and let chara play the CAM. I lean towards the earlier thought, which I will explain why later. However, it is possible that without Will Johnson in there Caleb Porter switched away from the usual double pivot (for those of you unfamiliar with the term double pivot go here).

Now let's take a look at his distribution: (A reminder that red dots mean unsuccessful pass, green with red boarders are successful passes)

Ben Zemanski Columbus Distribution

Not a lot of backwards passing but there was a lot of passing square and not a lot through the middle of the field. For comparison sake here is Diego Chara's distribution map.

Diego Chara Columbus Distribution

Looking at the two distribution maps you can see a pattern. Almost all of the attacks must have come through down the wings or over the top of the defense. Thinking back on the game, especially after Pa Modou Kah was sent off, I don't remember the Timbers playing through the middle at all. Which makes sense because when Kalif was subbed off Valeri moved from a central position to a position outside on the wing. This then left a gaping hole in the middle of Portland's offense which they could not fill because they only had 10 men.

Added to the fact that Portland was down a man was the defensive shape of Columbus. Here is how it looked to me from what I saw on the broadcast.

football formations

Columbus did not want Portland to have any time in the middle of the field, especially Portland's playmakers. So they clogged the middle of the field and had their second forward track back to apply pressure (Actually he fouled them more than he applied pressure) and disrupt the possession. As you can see by the formation of the Timbers the lack of any presence in the middle forced the ball either over the midfield to RJ or up the wings through the outside backs. Which explains the distribution of Zemanski and Chara, as well as Zemanski's heat map.

While missing Will Johnson does hurt the team I don't think Zemanski was the reason Portland couldn't generate a goal. The upcoming game against LAG will give the best idea of how much missing Will hurts the Timbers. My guess is not as much as we think.

For good measure I went back and tried to find a game similar to the Columbus game and the only one in recent memory I could think of was the LA Galaxy away game. Here is Will Johnson's distribution map for that game:

Will Johnson LA Distribution

I know it is trying to compare apples to oranges but the Will's distribution on that game showed a lot of passes to the win and very few up the middle. Of course all of this analysis of a team playing down a man for 80 minutes could be considered useless but hey I am the king of useless information, just ask my students :)