The Intangible Man

I mentioned in my match report for the Vancouver match that there was more I’d have liked to write about Jorge Perlaza’s role in the match, but was limited by what I could illustrate thanks to Major League Soccer Soccer Dot Com’s pitiful match “highlights” package. Well, fortunately (or not…) I now have access to MLS Live, so let’s do this thing.

There’s no doubt that Perlaza is a player that will divide fans. I’m of the opinion that he’s a valuable asset to the team, and a great foil to Kris Boyd. Others will point to a poor shots-on-goal rate, or his erratic finishing and ask, what’s the point in a striker that doesn’t score goals?

I can’t really argue that point. He doesn’t score a lot. I don’t think that’s his strong suit, and I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by trying to make the case it is for contrarians sake.

I do believe that in that position he’s the best the Timbers have to offer (I haven’t seen enough of Fucito to comment on him, but I hope to see more from him) at the moment. The past handful of matches prior to the Whitecaps have seen Darlington Nagbe played as the partner to Boyd and I don’t think it’s been a happy marriage up top, despite a record of 1 win and 2 draws.

The issue for me is that I don’t feel that Nagbe is suited to the role and it negates many of his strengths and natural flair. Perlaza on the other hands, thrives in the role and, I feel, has a greater understanding with Boyd.

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Finding a partner for Boyd is a vital piece in the puzzle for the Timbers. The Scot has always done his best work when he’s had a regular foil up top with him, be that Colin Nish at Kilmarnock, Steven Naismith at Killie and Rangers or Kenny Miller at Rangers and Scotland.

All these guys will stay close to Boyd, do a lot of the off-the-ball running into channels and opening space up, as well linking up the play to bring in others around Boyd to support him or feed the ball into his feet.

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Time and again you notice the link-up play between Boyd and Perlaza. The flick-ons or little reverse balls come off here, where they weren’t with Nagbe. It’s not that Nagbe isn’t as good as Perlaza, he just doesn’t have that instinctive nous for the role, as yet. It’s similar to how Emile Heskey would bring out the best in Michael Owen. Owen was a fantastic striker on his own, but put Heskey alongside him and Owen’s game was lifted a notch. The benefit of having a good counterfoil and intuitive understanding.

As well as his link-up with Boyd, Perlaza also brings a pragmatism to the role. Like his compatriot Diego Chara, he’s not going to bring a lot of flash and dazzle. What he will bring is intelligent running, good possession play and a bridge between midfield and attack.

You can see in the above example that Perlaza picks up the ball on the edge of the box, but his first instinct isn’t to try and turn to get a shot off, it’s that Alexander’s overlapping run on the outside presents a better opportunity, so he retains possession by feed in the midfielder.

This is a feature of Perlaza’s game, and it’s perhaps why he doesn’t have the ratio of shots at goal you might expect from a striker. Sure, a greedier, less pragmatic striker might’ve tried to take a touch and fire in an early shot and maybe it flies into the top corner for a Goal of the Week contender, but 99 times out 100 he’s tackled and loses possession and the Timbers find themselves with players caught out of position on the break.

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This passage, to me, is the essence of Jorge Perlaza. His running beyond Boyd gives the big guy an easy pass to make. It would’ve been easy for Perlaza to get his head down and try to run at goal, but with a defender at his shoulder, he weighs the odds and decides that keeping the ball is more important.

By laying it off to Alhassan he also allows Boyd to get into the box, where you want him, but rather than stand still, he keeps moving and runs into the space behind the defender. This forces the defender to choose – cover Perlaza or close down the ball. He covers Perlaza and Alhassan has time to get the ball under control and make moves in field. The run comes of nothing, but Perlaza is on hand again to give his team mate an out ball. He lays it back to Jewsbury in space, whose cross is into a dangerous area where Boyd is lurking.

Nothing flashy. Nothing particularly stands out as especially noteworthy, but at each point Perlaza is thinking and weighing up the options and taking the pragmatic option. He doesn’t hide at any point, or try to take on too much. He does the simple things well, and from that the Timbers are able to engineer a chance to threaten the Whitecaps defence.

There are times when you want a bit more invention and daring up top, and that’s when Perlaza perhaps becomes more of an inhibitor than a facilitator. Those are the occasions when perhaps Fucito could be the better option, or throwing Nagbe up top can pay dividends.

The problem for me with Nagbe up top is that he’s easily taken out of the match by experienced defenders.

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These guys know who to use the full range of the defender’s book of tricks to keep a player off-balance and under control. Darlington Nagbe has the potential to be a big star in MLS, and possibly beyond these shores, but for now he lacks the physical attributes – too often he can be dominated by defenders, and pushed around – and the tactical nous to play the role, if that is indeed where he’s destined to end up.

Nagbe as yet doesn’t have Perlaza’s canny ability to use his body to hold off defenders, or to retain the ball as efficiently. His best work come when he can get turned, get the ball at his feet and run at players. Play him up top, and defenders will intimidate him; play him deeper and let him run at those same guys with the ball at his feet and the tables are turned.

With Perlaza up top, you get a lot of movement right across the width of the pitch, allowing Boyd to concentrate his efforts in staying in that central third, where he can be more dangerous.

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Here Perlaza’s running out wide takes him past a defender and lets him get a cross in. The cross is a good one, but narrowly missed by Nagbe – whose run from deep is excellent and much more what you want to see from him – and Boyd. When the ball comes back in, Perlaza shows he does have a strikers anticipation by getting his head to ball, despite giving away a height advantage to all around him.

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Again we see Perlaza making the run out wide. It’s a fairly simple little move, but not one every attacker would make. Others might stay central and look to work a one-two with Alexander or Boyd, or look for a through ball through the centre or a spinning run out to the right side of the box. Perlaza though will make a selfless move out of the area, and force the defender to make a choice. He rarely gives the defenders a simple job – he’ll make them think, keep them moving and on their toes.

His ability to bring out the best in Boyd will pay dividends. Having someone on the same wavelength that he can rely on takes a lot of the pressure off Boyd’s shoulders. His passing success rate takes a significant jump when Perlaza is on the field.

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These figures are over the last six matches – 3 where Perlaza has partnered Boyd from the start, and 3 with Nagbe.

Just like Chara links defence and midifeld, so Perlaza does with midfield and attack. He also brings Boyd into the game more, and that can’t be a bad thing for a team that’s been starved of goals.

Despite his own relative lack of shots, the team also engineer more attempts at goal when Perlaza in on the pitch. Over a 90 minute period, the Timbers average almost 13 shots-on-goal when Perlaza is on the field, compared to less than 11 when he’s not. One of the reasons behind that jump, I suspect, is that with Perlaza up top there are less turnovers in the final third. Keeping possession in the final third might not get the hearts racing in the way a mazy dribble through a ruck of defenders might, but it does allow the Timbers to keep up the pressure and work a shooting opportunity elsewhere.

His ability to bring others into play, keep defenders on their toes and get the best out of Boyd are all key reasons why I feel Perlaza is an important player for the Timbers. Yes, he doesn’t score enough. Yes, he can frustrate. Yes, it’s not necessarily exciting to watch. I’m not going to argue that Perlaza is a superstar.

It would be great to see him get a goal or two soon and, hopefully, get some off his back but I’m happy if he keeps on doing what he’s doing. I’m sure the goals will come for him, but they’ll certainly also come for others.

Perlaza up top, Nagbe in the hole. Alhassan, Alexander, Songo’o, Zizzo – take your pick – providing creativity from midfield. The tools are there for the Timbers to build a House of Pain for MLS defences.