Darlington Nagbe has taken on a greater playmaking role in the Portland Timbers’ attack in the absence of Diego Valeri. And, in managing this opening stretch of 2015 without his primary playmaker, Caleb Porter has deployed a starting unit and style that suits Nagbe’s attributes nicely.
As discussed last week, the Timbers have been very direct during the first two games of the young season - looking to get out on the counter attack and get to the box before their opponent has a chance to recover. Although this style is correctly associated with long passes from the defense into the attack, another feature is it creates a lot of situations in which attackers are asked to take defenders on one-v-one.
This is where Nagbe may be better than anybody in MLS, as a sequence just two minutes into the Timbers’ game against the Los Angeles Galaxy demonstrates.
We begin with Liam Ridgewell intercepting a Galaxy pass into the box and playing a long ball forward for Fanendo Adi. This sort of distribution is a strength for Ridgewell, as he demonstrated again with a picture-perfect diagonal ball to Darlington Nagbe on the Timbers’ second goal. In the Timbers world we’re used to here, Ridgdwell would either play this ball to Rodney Wallace or Jack Jewsbury to build out of the back. But Ridgewell certainly has the green light right now to be a bit more ambitious, which he is here.
In this case it falls for Adi, who settles the ball into Nagbe’s path. At this point the Galaxy seem to be in perfectly fine shape defensively - Juninho is tracking Nagbe, Robbie Rogers has his eye on Adi with the ability to pass him off to Omar Gonzalez depending on Adi’s run, Leonardo has Dairon Asprilla marked, and Dan Gargan is in place to cover a run from Wallace should he make it.
Juninho goes in to win an early challenge against Nagbe and Rogers wisely steps to provide cover. At this point Adi has effectively been passed on to Gonzalez, which is just fine from a Galaxy perspective because assuming Adi continues into the box, that’s the most natural player to pick Adi up. Adi and Wallace are committed to their runs, but L.A. has them covered. Meanwhile, Asprilla stays close to the touchline to provide a combination partner for Nagbe should he need it.
As he does, though, Nagbe rides the challenge from Juninho with relative ease. Juninho, as the picture indicates, is now sad because he’s effectively been eliminated from the play by Nagbe. Adi and Wallace continue their runs toward the box, while Rogers steps to Nagbe to try his luck.
It doesn’t go much better for Rogers than Juninho, as Nagbe uses a quick combination with Asprilla to cut the Galaxy left back out of the play. Neither Asprilla nor Nagbe hesitate as Nagbe continues his run down the touchline while Asprilla wastes no time in looking to play him in behind Leonardo, who now has to shift over to try to cover Nagbe in space. Meanwhile, Wallace and Adi are still running toward the box.
Leonardo against Nagbe in space is a matchup that the Timbers love, and it doesn’t take long for the Brazilian centerback to join the Galaxy frowny-face brigade. Nagbe has cut one player out with his ability to ride challenges, a second player out with a quick combination, and a third player out with his pace. These are all very Nagbe things.
A triumvirate of Galaxy victims isn’t enough for Nagbe, however, and this time he’s going to use intelligence to eliminate a fourth player. Instead of driving toward the byline, Nagbe immediately cuts inside and runs right at Gonzalez. As you can see, Gonzalez’s attention immediately shifts from Adi to Nagbe. In reality here, Gonzalez is pretty much already cooked. He can’t let Nagbe continue his run, but the moment he steps to the Timbers’ playmaker Nagbe will play Adi into the box. By running straight at Gonzalez, Nagbe has put him in no-man’s land, which means at this point, we could probably add a frowny face to Gonzalez’s name, but for courtesy’s sake we won’t until the next frame.
That’s better. It takes a few steps, but Gonzalez eventually has to step toward Nagbe, which is exactly what Darlington has been waiting for. He immediately plays the ball square for Adi, who is now completely unmarked. Adi has a couple choices at this point. Gargan has to try to bite over to cover Adi, creating the possibility that the big man could play Wallace through on goal. Adi, however, has enough space that he can choose to take a crack at goal himself.
Adi’s a striker. The choice really isn’t much of one for him. As you can tell, Wallace wants the ball, but Adi has a look at the net and is going to take it. In most circumstances it’d be hard to blame him, except that in this instance Adi makes a mess of his finish to kill the sequence.
But the sequence was really crafted by the Timbers’ primary playmaker right now - Darlington Nagbe. The Timbers’ usual setup relies on Valeri’s vision and creativity to be the primary chance-creating forces. But Porter isn’t trying to make Nagbe into Valeri. Rather, the Timbers’ style right now let’s Nagbe be Nagbe in his fulfillment of the playmaking role.
And so while Darlington Nagbe deserves credit for stepping up to fill some of the void left by Valeri’s absence, Caleb Porter also deserves plaudits for making significant tactical adjustments to put Nagbe in a position to succeed at that task.
Nagbe is doing it his way, and that’s working out just fine in the Timbers’ current system.
Below is a video of the play (minus Ridgewell's initial pass):