This week we saw the MLS move one game closer to the postseason with a clash between Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake. Both teams are locked in a very tight race to secure a spot in the western conference playoffs. After analysis, it was clear that neither team were able to get a full grip on the match in what turned out to be a somewhat sloppy affair. Portland’s defensive tactics and Real Salt Lake’s poor transition tactics proved to be the deciding factor of the match.
With a 1-0 win and 3 points gained, Portland moved to within two points of the final western conference playoff berth. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how they did it.
Real Salt Lake opted to maintain their usual formation of 4-3-3 Defending/4-4-1-1 formation, while Portland came out in a 4-2-3-1 in attack and 4-4-2 in defence.
Portland are without starting goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. In another hit to the defensive unit, centre-back Larrys Mabiala was also absent with a thigh knock.
Real Salt Lake were missing the midfield presence of Nick Besler, who was out with a foot problem.
Portland out of possession: high press
Depending on the game moment and the location of the ball, Portland used different defensive strategies. Early in the game, if RSL had possession in their defensive third, Portland pressed high in a man-marking scheme.
Pressing high up the pitch allowed Portland to control the space and time available to the RSL defensive line. The Timbers conceded possession to RSL’s backline while applying directional pressure and cutting off nearby passing options. This calculated defensive pressure forced RSL into long balls to the forwards who were outnumbered by Portland defenders. Portland then typically gained possession in the middle or attacking third and immediately started their attack. We saw this situation play out many times within the opening minutes of the match.
Portland would allow RSL’s centre-backs Justen Glad and Nedum Onuoha to receive the ball free of pressure and face upfield. Portland’s centre forward Brian Fernández would then direct play to either flank with a curved run towards the ball carrying defender. Fernández did this not through a full pressure sprint, but a calculated jog. This slightly slower pressure by Fernández communicated to his downfield teammates that he was about to initiate a press.
Once the centre-back responded to the pressure and passed the ball wide to a full-back, the full Portland press would begin. Fernández continued his run to pressure the full-back while creating a cover shadow (blue in the picture below) to prevent access to the two centrally located centre-backs. As this was occurring, Diego Valeri would push forward to man-mark RSL’s pivot player Kelyn Rowe. Portland’s ball side winger (in the case of the picture below: Sebastián Blanco) would also pressure the ball carrier while maintaining a cover shadow. Blanco’s cover shadow would prevent direct forward access to RSL’s right-winger Jefferson Savarino.
Fernández forces play to RSL’s right flank while Portland’s midfielders man-mark nearby passing options. By also utilizing cover shadows (blue triangles) to eliminate additional passing options, Portland forces RSL’s Aaron Herrera into a sloppy long pass that leads to a dangerous turnover
This localised pressure would leave RSL’s full-back with no immediate passing options and force the ball carrier into passing a long ball forward. This pressing tactic leads directly to the game’s only goal in the 16th minute.
The Timbers pressured RSL right-back Aaron Herrera into a sloppy aerial ball forward which lead to Portland quickly gaining possession. Portland then immediately played the ball forward to Valeri who was in a large pocket of space. There, Valeri had enough time to fire in a goal from outside the box.
Throughout the opening quarter-hour, Portland’s use of high pressing nullified the Real Salt Lake attack while creating an attacking platform in the form of dangerous turnovers.
Portland out of possession: midblock
A high press requires a great level of individual effort from players mentally and physically. This style of defence is not sustainable for a full 90-minute match. Therefore, Portland had to also use a secondary form of team defence that allowed the players to “rest” while also preventing attacks. After scoring a goal in the 16th minute, Portland took their foot off the gas when defending.
This came in the form of a 4-4-2 midblock. By dropping the defensive line 10-15m, Portland prioritized maintaining a compact team shape and preventing attacking access through midfield players. By focusing on covering space as opposed to players, the Portland players were also given time to recover energy levels.
This tactic allowed the Timbers to keep their block within the central channel and half-spaces to prevent advancement through the centre of the field. Portland would once again allow the opposing centre-backs possession of the ball and opt to prioritise restricting passing lanes to central attacking players. This typically lead to the ball being circulated to an RSL full-back. As the ball was passed out to the wide flank, the Portland block would shift horizontally and look to smother any attacking threat.
In the midblock, the pressure to RSL’s full-back would be applied by the wide midfielder as opposed to the forward. This allowed Portland to keep the front two players (Fernández and Valeri) positioned centrally to cut off any central attacking options. Behind the pressuring midfielder, the Portland block would shift over to also cut off any nearby passing options. RSL passing options then became a back pass to a centre-back or an attempt to switch the field under pressure. Both options being completely ok with a Portland team who were patient and waiting for a mistake to pounce on.
Portland utilized the 4-4-2 midblock for most of the match. This allowed the Timbers to prevent significant attacks while waiting for scoring chances to present themselves.
Real Salt Lake: vulnerable on the counter-attack
Immediately upon losing the ball, Real Salt Lake were extremely vulnerable to counter-attack. In possession, RSL typically pushed their full-backs forward to provide overloads in the midfield and attacking lines. Due to this attacking movement, Real Salt Lake were not positioned well to defend against the fast and furious Portland counters.
Promptly after gaining the ball, Portland would play the ball forward to Fernández. The forward would either drop into space to receive or push forward behind the defensive line. The striker’s movements drew in not one, but multiple Real Salt Lake defenders. This left the RSL defensive line out of shape and unable to control the already vulnerable spaces.
As the RSL defenders moved to pressure the ball, Portland would unleash two players to occupy the exposed half-spaces. Once in the half-space, each attacker pushed to the offside line in anticipation of a dangerous through-ball. Real Salt Lake’s lack of defensive awareness consistently left them open to scoring chances. Pictured below are four RSL defenders drawn to a dribbling Fernández while nearby attacking players move to support in the unprotected half-spaces.
Real Salt Lake’s vulnerability in defensive transition was exploited to create scoring chances many times throughout the match.
An early goal played right into Portland’s tactical plan and allowed them to sit back in a comfortable defensive block and play the counter for the remainder of the match. Despite having more possession, Portland’s defensive tactics prevented RSL from progressing cleanly up the field. In the end, Real Salt Lake were unable to create enough goal scoring chances to save the game.
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