Jeremy Ebobisse, Timbers vs. NE, 2.22.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Flexibility of Blanco, Ebobisse highlighted as Timbers shift look

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Jeremy Ebobisse can read the writing on the wall as well as the rest of us, and for almost a month, he’s had time to come to grips with it. Now, the Portland Timbers forward has to live out his new reality on the field.

It’s the reality that set in over successive January days when Ebobisse’s team announced the signings of Jarek Niezgoda and Felipe Mora. The former had been rumored for over a month, with the full acquisition of the 24-year-old Pole delayed as he underwent a minor heart procedure. Mora, on the other hand, was a little-discussed acquisition before the Chilean’s loan from Mexico’s UNAM Pumas was announced the next day. Over the course of roughly 24 hours, the Timbers went from one starting-caliber forward to three.

For Ebobisse, who scored 12 times while featuring in every competitive game for the Timbers last season – in both Major League Soccer and U.S. Open Cup – the difference looks like night and day; or, if you’re a pessimist, day and night. Though at various times in 2019 Portland featured other strikers, like Brian Fernandez and Lucas Melano, Ebobisse finished the year as he finished the year before, as the clear first choice for a team that predominantly plays a one-forward system.

“There are two ways to look at it,” Ebobisse explained on Monday, when asked if he’s likely to get more rest this season. “You could look at it as getting more rest throughout the year, but ultimately, we’re all competitors. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year here or your fifth year here. We all want to be on the field as much as possible. Sometimes, at our own expense, we don’t quite realize that we’re putting ourselves in jeopardy, healthwise.”

Recovery from an offseason knee injury has limited Ebobisse’s playing time this preseason, but in Saturday’s loss to the New England Revolution, he saw his longest spell yet, coming on in the 66th minute to finish out the match. During that time, the Timbers showed a look that could change the equations around Ebobisse’s 2020 playing time, equations which have assumed the team would stay with its usual one-striker approach. Playing often on the left of a striking tandem, Ebobisse showed the premises about his playing time at forward may need to consider twice the available minutes.

“We wanted to put some players in, change some things, look at some partnerships as well,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said of his team’s late-match approach. “It was excellent to go with a diamond [shape in midfield] and see how Jebo can play with Mora on top, how we could look with the [winger Sebastián Blanco] pulled inside [to central midfield]. So, [there were] some things that were very good for us to see in this match.”

For some soccer fans, talk for a team’s formations can feel burdensome, with discussions about whether a team should play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-1-2 becoming an exercise in semantics. The same happens when talking about different offensive sets in football, or defensive schemes in basketball. For some, the technical details enhance their enjoyment of a sport. For others, it’s the point at which you tune out.

When it comes to the potential playing time for Timbers like Ebobisse, though, those semantics are important. Between each system, there is a numerical difference between now many midfielders, wingers and forwards get on the field.

What a diamond midfield means for Portland

The possibility of playing a diamond formation in midfield (for the Timbers, a 4-3-1-2) was hinted at last season, when the team used the shape at times toward the end of 2019. The setup gets a second forward into the lineup, a third player into central midfield, albeit at the expense of two wingers. In the diamond’s 4-3-1-2 formation (as opposed to the team’s usual 4-2-3-1), fullbacks are taxed to make up the width lost by sacrificing wingers, with the three conventional midfielders also pressed to get into the wide spaces to prevent teams from exploiting them.

Ebobisse’s skills became particularly valuable in that scenario. In addition to sacrificing some ability to defend in wide spaces, a 4-3-1-2 formation also compromises a team’s attacking threat in those areas. As Ebobisse reminded us on Saturday, though, he’s capable of going toward the left flank and being effective, just as he was during a starting role at the left-wing position last season. Often drifting wide to show for the ball, Ebobisse spent part of his Saturday night forcing New England to account for the abandoned space, putting in crosses toward the Revolution’s far post when the defense failed to adjust quickly enough.

“First of all, I have to say that it’s the best he’s looked so far in training, in games,” Savarese said of Ebobisse’s Saturday turn. “I’m glad that he is getting better, looking stronger, fitter. There’s still a little way to go, but we’re getting him back. That’s important.

“He showed in this pat game that when he plays on top with another player and he goes wide, you still have a presence in the box, he can put some good crosses in, he can find the game there, but also he can find it as a striker, find it also dropping a little bit as he did, into the middle. It is what we wanted to see, and I’m pleased in that area.”

A player whose role may be most dramatically impacted by the formation difference is Blanco. Saturday’s shifts hinted as much. Over the course of the match’s final 24 minutes, the Timbers’ Designated Player was, in terms of his position, in constant motion.

“In some ways, he played four positions,” Savarese said. “But those positions were kind of similar, one from each other, because he still has a lot of freedom to generate his play. He played a little bit on the wide side, left. He played a little bit inside, in the diamond. He played a little bit as a 10, and then he finished up top with Jebo.

“That’s the good thing that we have. Not only he can do that but also other players are able to be flexible. We see [Andy] Polo, we see many other players who can change, if we need it. This is the good thing about this team that we have now.”

Part of the changes will inevitably be sacrifice, if the Timbers do play with two strikers and a diamond midfield more often. Yimmi Chara and Cristhian Paredes were the first to come off on Saturday, with Diego Valeri following soon after. Mora was taken off at the end, a move that spurred the last stop on Blanco’s positional voyage. Just as a one-striker system leaves questions about two of Ebobisse, Mora and Niezgoda, so too does a diamond require players to sacrifice minutes.

Players like Blanco and Ebobisse, though, give the Timbers the flexibility to change. As does right back Jorge Moreira, who has the range to cover the entire right side of the field. As does left back Jorge Villafaña, whose return in the middle of the 2017 season started giving Portland the type of wide options that allow for this approach.

For Ebobisse, though, his equation is different from Blanco’s. Saturday showed the lengths Portland can go to keep Blanco on the field. For Ebobisse, he’ll likely have to beat one, maybe two strikers out, a reality he’s come to accept for 2020.

“When it’s time for me to be on the field, I want to make sure that I maximize that as much as possible,” he says. “I think I’m in a good position based on my body of work last year and what I can bring to the team this year to be out there and perform. If I’m not on the field, I’m supporting the guys out there, knowing that they also bring some qualities to the team, and we all have to complement each other during our time on the field.”