I’ve written before about Roberto Martinez before, after he had performed what would be his last great escape from relegation with Wigan Athletic. That was in May 2012, not a particularly happy time to be a Timbers fan, and I’d used Martinez’s attacking, possession-based tactics as a potential model for refreshing a lacklustre Timbers FC. Though the specifics of Martinez’s tactics have changed since then, and his goals a bit loftier than simply staying up, his Everton side are still playing football that is offensive and attractive to watch. It’s also effective. At his new club, Martinez has outstripped his predecessor, the often grumpy and dour, but pragmatic Scot, and done so by playing attractive football.
Caleb Porter arrived in Portland, in much the same way that Martinez found his way to Everton. Both had flirted with “big jobs” before the right club at the right time came along. Neither of those clubs are particularly flashy, and indeed both live at least somewhat in the media shadow of a better-attended regional rival, but they were the right place for a coach who can get a great return from limited resources (although the MLS structure levels out the financial disparity somewhat). One who is able to get a squad of often vastly varying skill levels working cohesively as part of a unit. Martinez got the best out of guys who, with the best will in the world, likely wouldn’t have played Premier League football under just about any other circumstance. The nature of the MLS salary cap forces coaches here to find players with solid technical skills who can fulfill a role within a team that could also have a World Cup winner or UEFA Champions League legend (or two, or three, or however many NYCFC say they want, dammit).
For some coaches, this means hiring in guys who will see out much of the (usually short) MLS careers from the bench, occasionally flirting with a run in the team. They can come in and do a job, and be generally trusted to not fall over themselves in the process. Hopefully the roots being laid down by US Soccer will lead to an increase in quality of the players coming through, or the league may see an overall dip as new clubs enter and dilute the pool, but for now the fans of every MLS club can look at their rosters and point to at least 2 or 3 of “those guys”, and the faces generally change every year or so.
Portland, for the most part, didn’t look at it that way though. Rather than see this limited talent pool as just that, a limitation, they turned it on its head. Tapping into something Martinez also realised when faced with keeping a team that, on financial and support-level terms, had no place being in that league, Porter and Wilkinson looked at what players could actually do, rather than where they had played. Or as Jonathan Wilson says much more betterer than me do:
Specialisation, paradoxically, enables universality as players are defined less by their positions than by what they can do.
In hiring a guy like, as an example, Ben Zemanski, Portland were hiring a very particular set of skills, not simply a right back and/or holding midfielder. Skills that could be deployed as part of the overall strategy that didn’t rely on Zemanski having to play in a certain position. If Zemanski’s skills were needed in what some would term the right wing, then that’s where Zemanski would play, even if Zemanski as a right winger isn’t a notion that would strike many as obvious. And that’s because he’s not playing as a right winger, he’s playing the Zemanski role in the right wing zone, for a specific purpose. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it gets to the heart of the just why Porter got it so right where so many other first time coaches get it wrong. Many still cling to notions of teams playing in 4-2-3-1s or 4-4-2s, but in truth most teams play in phases and transitions, in zones and spaces, with shifting lines. You can get so caught up playing the tactical numbers game that you lose sight of the only number that truly matters: the 11 players on the pitch. In this case it’s more important what a player can actually do, and not what the supposedly “are”. It’s increasingly difficult to pin down the “best positions” of Timbers players, yet we keep trying to define someone like Darlington Nagbe as an attacker, or a midfielder, or one of the many, ever-increasing levels of granulation between the two roles. I’m as guilty if not more as anyone, but do we really have to say anything more than Darlington Nagbe is Darlington Nagbe? And that he does what Darlington Nagbe does, not because Darlington Nagbe can, but because no-one else can. Who cares if he’s an inside-out inverted false trequartista according to some self-appointed armchair expert? He has particular skills and abilities, and an understanding with his teammates that makes his actual position on the field largely irrelevant so long as it is serving the betterment of the whole team.
We don’t fully know yet what Gaston Fernandez will bring to the attack. It will be different than what we got from Ryan Johnson, that seems clear. Fernandez hasn’t been signed to be the new Johnson though, not like Kris Boyd was the new Kenny Cooper. He’s been brought in because his skills match Porter’s renewed vision for the team on the pitch, in much the same way that Pep Guardiola took over at Bayern Munich and immediately identified a way to improve a team that had just won the Champions League. Porter didn’t have such a high benchmark, but he, like Pep, knew exactly what his team needed. Now, having set his own high mark, and faced with the departure of a key part of the attack, he has re-calibrated, adding Maxi Urruti and Fernandez to the pack, and giving it a shuffle.
[Guardiola] wanted Mario Götze… instead of an orthodox striker [which] has made it much easier… to break down negative opponents who defend… near their own penalty box.
It’s clear that the Timbers aren’t resting on their laurels after a fantastic first year, and are aware of the potential pitfalls ahead. Martinez often had an enforced turnover at Wigan, as those that impressed the year before were stripped out by bigger clubs, but the changes at Portland have the air of “all part of the plan”. It’s a delicate balancing act of enforced disruption and change against a desire for continuity and stability. Despite a couple of big changes in personnel, reflecting shifts in playing style, at no point does it feel like the Timbers front office are panic buying to cover their asses here. Winning Head Coach of the Year puts a tighter spotlight on you, so it’s different kind of pressure to what Porter faced. It’s reassuring then to see him, and the rest of the team, go about business as usual. There hasn’t been a knee jerk reaction to go out and bring in a “big name” to take the team to the “next level”. I don’t mean to disparage the guys we signed, but none of those moves were going to makes waves far outside the US Soccer bubble. No, instead they were the guys Porter and Wilkinson wanted. The right guys. As fun as I’m sure it must be to be a Toronto FC fan right now, especially that club, I’m much happier to see that Portland are secure enough in what they have and where they are heading that they don’t have to sign “individuals” to improve the team.
Which isn’t really fair to Toronto, I guess, because Portland actually signed their “big name” last year. True, Diego Valeri was not a name on the lips of many before joining Portland, but Merritt Paulson and his team went big on buying talent in its prime, rather than waiting for the benches in England to get a bit too hard for aging posteriors. And true, he also had his Champions League cake and ate it, but a 35 year-old oh-he’s-still-playing Mikael Silvestre is a world away from the glamour signings we’ve seen elsewhere. The Timbers quite literally got passed over when just such a marquee player came to the league, with Dempsey parachuting in with bundles of cash, never to be seen again. Or at least, not until he relegates Fulham first. I mean, not until he acclimatizes to the MLS. The key to Portland’s success last year was not based on signing players based on their individual abilities, or monetary “worth” but in how their skill integrated into a possession based, pressing game that draws a comparison to the success of Guardiola in Germany, as highlighted by Rafael Honigstein.
Guardiola’s football philosophy is based on dominating possession, creating a constant numerical advantage in midfield and aggressive pressing.
Will Johnson and Diego Chara do the work of three men as it is, and they are often helped by the likes of Nagbe, Alhassan and Wallace, as well as Valeri on occasion, to ensure that Portland win the battle for territory as far up the pitch, and away from their goal, as possible without sacrificing defensive integrity. This latter point was an especial concern last year where the Timbers lacked pace and turning speed in the heart of the defence; it’s no use pushing the other team way back if they are able to, ala one of Jose Mourinho’s sides, tear you to quivering shreds on the counter, or pop balls into the space between defence and goalkeeper, begging for just one momentary lapse in concentration. I’m not sure how fast Norberto Paparatto is, and I look forward to catching the upcoming friendlies to see how he integrates (as well as simply having some soccer to talk about at last). So, pace on the outside might be even more important to cover in behind, with a similar one up/one back relationship to Johnson and Chara.
Guardiola and Martinez share a desire to play a controlling, attacking game, and that’s what the Timbers have seen under Caleb Porter. It’s perhaps unfair to always compare Porter to other coaches, but he doesn’t work in a bubble and clearly he’s a great student of the game himself, so I’m sure there are things he sees in other teams that he thinks could work within his own overall strategy, philosophy, style, plan, whatever you want to call it. What elevated Porter above the rest last year was that he was more than a tactical magpie though, he brought his own raft of ideas and innovation. As apple-botherer Isaac Newton once said, and Oasis later misquoted, probably after thinking it was a John Lennon lyric or something, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Being able to adapt in order to always stay a step ahead of the tactical evolution of other teams is was separates the merely good from the great, and to do that you first need to have an acute understanding of exactly what it is other teams are doing. Porter’s shown that so far, and while it’s too soon to say he’s a great coach quite yet, at the very least he’s damn good at his job, and he’s shown himself capable of staying ahead of his opposite number, even during the hustle and flow of the ninety minutes. It certainly bodes well.
Eventually, people like me will stop drawing the lazy and trite comparisons to other teams. I’m sure over the next couple of years or so, if things continue to go according to plan, we’ll start to hear about teams playing in a “Porter-like” fashion, if not sooner. Nothing stays exclusive for long in soccer, and the innovators need to work twice as hard to stay ahead. It’s worth saying though that Porter does still only 1 year of top level coaching under his belt, and you can ask the supporters of any Michael Laudrup managed team how fun the second year can often be. There’s no danger of the sense of a loss of focus and interest that accompanies the Laudrup slump with Porter, but he wouldn’t be the first to encounter at least a “settling” dip in year two. He gets a big test on the continental stage late in the year with the CONCACAF Champions League too, which poses all kinds of new questions about his squad management skills. The answers he has given so far have been pretty definitive, and there’s no reason to doubt he won’t keep proving doubters wrong, but realistically this is mostly uncharted territory for the club as a whole, and last’s year success came despite enormous strain placed upon the team, especially in defence. This year, even if it goes well, or especially if it does, will be every bit as strenuous as the last, and that’s not accounting for the wear and tear of a long and busy schedule.
To return to the lazy comparisons for a moment, I recently noted that WhoScored.com has started counting MLS stats alongside the major European leagues. I had a brief look at Martinez’s Everton team, in terms of possession and pass accuracy, and they are, respectively, 5th (56.3%) and 6th (83.4%) overall, noticeably up from the 9th (52.9%) and 11th (79.4%) under David Moyes last season. Though the site doesn’t record MLS stats for 2012, the Timbers were 3rd (53.6%) and 4th (78.6%) last year, and those are both percentages that I’m sure Caleb Porter would be seeking to improve as a matter of course. Maybe not quite to “Pep’s Bayern” levels (70.4% and 88.5%), not yet, but this has never been about expecting instant results. Things went so well last year that it seems kinda dumb to even question quite how it went so well despite so many setbacks and the fact it was essentially an entirely new team. It just did, because magic. But that doesn’t change the overall long term plan. It’s great to get a jump start, but it’s no cause to deviate from the blueprint.
No, it’s just business as usual in Portland, and the business is winning.