Tagged: Team Defending

Defense First? Timbers to Ride the Rapids?

Portland Timbers travel to Colorado for the first time this year and the challenge for both teams is finding the right balance between attacking and defending.

In their last league home game the Timbers struggled in the first half – not unlike their US Open Cup match as well.

If not for an untimely hand-ball by David Horst and a really terrible PK call against the Dynamo goal keeper it’s likely the Timbers come away with a single point… to be sure they were fortunate as the two goals against in the first half were pretty much to standard given their entire defensive unit this year.

So when getting ready for Colorado it’s quite hard to figure who starts and who doesn’t.  

Does Taylor Peay start at right back?

He probably should given his higher passing accuracy and what appears to be better, heads-up, defensive positioning but in all likelihood Caleb Porter goes with Alvis Powell.

If you’re a Rapids supporter that’s probably a good thing – nearly 60% of all Dynamo attacking pressure came down Powell’s wing.  And when looking at this diagram below we see Colorado is balanced in penetration (touches) but weighs more towards the left side when taking (shots).

CRFC Team Stats

In my pre-match scouting report on Houston they weren’t balanced in penetration – nearly 40% of their penetration was down the right side – yet against Portland – Wade Barrett had his team push left… big time!  It’s likely Colorado will do the same.  MLS teams are pretty good at pressing the weak points an opponent has in defending as those players are more likely to make mistakes.

So if you’re a Timbers supporter hopefully the midfielders will add support for Powell.  I figure Diego Chara and Ben Zemanski in a double pivot as the first recourse should be for Portland to get at least one point.

In thinking about the left fullback.

I’m hopeful Zarek Valentin gets the call but Porter has gone with Jermaine Taylor before.  It was Taylor and Powell who paired up during that two-goal outburst by Houston last weekend…  And given the stingy defense of Colorado it’d be a nightmare for Portland to go a goal down in the first ten minutes.

However viewed the fullbacks do not man the wings alone – it’s likely both Chara and Zemanski start in a double pivot as Porter is going to want to give his team a chance to get at least one point.

And with the double pivot that doesn’t mean Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Lucas Melano won’t have defensive responsibilities – they will and Melano cannot afford to ball-watch this game.

Here’s the same diagram offering up information on the Timbers attack:

PTFC Team Stats

Probably a tad more balanced in attacking touches than Colorado – but the same lean towards taking shots from the left sides appears for Portland as well.

Of note – while Portland has played somewhat more direct this year there average number of long passes (per game) is about 10-15 fewer than Colorado – from a tactical viewpoint that probably translates to slightly more MF play between Valeri, Nagbe, (Chara and Zemanski).

It doesn’t mean both teams won’t try to stretch the defensive back-four with long balls – but given Powell’s tendency to push higher up the pitch Nat Borchers might be really busy this game.

A key indicator on the attacking scheme will be to watch how deep and how quickly the fullbacks for Portland push forward – the less tendency to push forward the more likely Porter is thinking defense first.

So how do the fullbacks work in Colorado?  I asked Chris Brown, to share his thoughts with me on Friday:

Colorado’s fullbacks have been key in shutting down attacking threats, getting narrow when they need to crowd the box but also making smart decisions to step out when they have adequate cover from midfielders Michael Azira and Sam Cronin.

Marc Burch is the first choice left back for the Rapids and Mekeil Williams usually plays at right back. When the cover is there they step out and close down attackers, preventing crosses from coming into the box but also positioning themselves to try and limit the danger from the other teams fullbacks overlapping.

Colorado plays defense first, so the midfield is always there in support, clogging channels and disrupting the attack.

Time and time again Colorado’s opponents have been able to get to the top of the 18 yard box but met with Cronin and Azira, ahead of a narrow back four, have to slow down their attack and pass sideways. If given time to set the defense up in its proper shape, Colorado extremely difficult to break down.

In closing:
Colorado team defensive performance this year as been first class – they are second best across MLS in limiting quality attacking by their opponent.  On the other hand – Portland is the highest quality attacking team in MLS this year.  Below is a diagram intended to show three things:
  1. Dark red bar – Colorado opponent’s average percentages in six categories,
  2. Dark green bar – Portland’s average percentages in six categories, and
  3. What gaps exist between each of those six categories.

CRFC DPWP vs PTFC APWP

In other words:

CRFC opponents average possession percentage is 51% while PTFC, in attack, averages 49% possession.

  • Likely meaning Portland and Colorado will be pretty near even when it comes to possession – the major ‘tell’ on that will be a couple of early goals for one team – most likely driving their possession numbers down as a wayh to protect their lead.

CRFC opponents average 75% passing accuracy while PTFC average 78% passing accuracy.

  • For me this means the best (normal starting) passers on Portland {Nagbe, Zemanski, and Borchers} need to be tuned in and see lots of touches… or the Rapids are paying so much attention to Nagbe that his gravitational pull is making space that others ‘are’ using.

CRFC opponents and PTFC penetration averages are the same.

  • In other words, I wouldn’t expect the defensive tactics for Colorado to be any different this game then any other game this year…

CRFC opponents and PTFC shots taken per completed penetrating pass averages are near the same.

  • As in the previous one – this is likely to mean the percentage of activity offered by Portland, in attack, really isn’t that much different compared to other Rapids opponents…  Meaning – if the Timbers fail to create space atop the 18 yard box it’s likely it’ll be a long day.

CRFC opponents are far less successful in converting shots taken to shots on goal – and shots on goal to goals scored.

  • For me this represents a major concern for Colorado – the quality of finishing (who’da thought that’d be said about Portland this year) by the Timbers is superb – so even if Colorado stays pretty tight at the back – that ‘pretty tight’ might not be tight enough!

It should be a classic battle of a potent attacking team against a potent defending team.

Best, Chris

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MLS – Week 32 – Down to One Battle (Portland or Vancouver)?

The Playoffs are all but settled barring the final team to advance out of the Great Northwest… is it Vancouver or Portland?

Given that I’ll spend a few minutes on each team offering up some strengths and weaknesses but first; as usual the Possession with Purpose Family of Indices beginning with the Composite Index:

CPWP Strategic Index MLS Week 32

Note that like last year the teams with a positive CPWP Index rating are all in the Playoffs.

In addition – the correlation (R2) of this Index to Average Points in the League Table remains .85…  better than last year’s .77.

The pear-shaped anomaly is Portland versus Vancouver, at this time…

If Portland squeak in then the Index is ten for ten…  that’s two reasons why I think Portland still advances; the other is I just simply love following and watching the Timbers play… apart from when their defense melts.

Anyhow – I digress…  the main reason why Portland is so high in this Index comes down to one thing – Attack – and like last week and for the better part of this season they are third best in their overall attack as seen below:

APWP Strategic Index MLS Week 32

The most obvious reason for this high rating is down to Goals Scored – but:

They are also 6th best in overall possession (52.12%) compared to Vancouver who are 7th worst.

That is deceiving though – worst is probably the incorrect word and here’s why.

Paul Robinson plays to a different style than Caleb Porter… Paul likes to run counter-attacking a bit more and is willing to cede possession in order to generate time and space based upon the opponent making mistakes.

On the other hand Caleb is more willing to let his more aggressive attacking scheme generate that needed time and space a bit more…

With respect to passing accuracy – not much between these two teams… Portland averages 67.35% while Vancouver averages 67.00% – that’s after 33 games and 6513 passes for Portland and 6534 passes for Vancouver…

In looking at Possession with the intent to Penetrate – Portland sits at 23.80% while Vancouver sits at 23.47% – so that pretty much means – with two different styles both teams penetrate roughly the same amount based upon almost exactly the same amount of passes.

And the differences aren’t that much as the teams look to score either; Portland takes shots 37.66% of the time they penetrate while Vancouver takes shots 35.15% of the time they penetrate.  And if you read this article you may see why the Timbers didn’t score against Real Salt Lake last Friday.

So here’s where the big difference takes shape – and the real attacking talent of the Timbers separates itself from Vancouver.

Portland average 36.33% of their Shots Taken being on Goal – while Vancouver average just 26.32%.

That difference, in overall shooting accuracy, sees Portland averaging 1.79 goals per game while Vancouver averages just 1.24 goals per game.

Yet… Vancouver are on the leading edge of making the Playoffs – why is that?  Defense.  And here’s the DPWP Strategic Index to begin to highlight the difference:

DPWP Strategic Index MLS Week 32

So what are the details?

We already know that opponents of the Timbers possess the ball less than opponents of the Whitecaps – so volume of possession is not the issue here.

In terms of passing accuracy, opponents of the Timbers average 76.09% passing accuracy while opponents of Vancouver average 77.48% passing accuracy.

What’s that mean?

Well one view, my view, is that with added possession, the opponent for the Whitecaps is seeing an increase in their own passing accuracy because they have more time and space outside the Vancouver Defending Final Third.  Those passes are easier and perhaps more frequent than those inside the Whitecaps Defending Final Third.

What about penetration?

Opponents of Vancouver penetrate 23.33% of the time they possess the ball while opponents of Portland penetrate 26.95% of the time they possess the ball.

Realistically what this is indicating is the Whitecaps yield possession outside their Defending Final Third (FAR) better than Portland.

Portland opponents have less possession, by almost 4% points compared to Vancouver opponent’s, and yet the Timbers also cede penetration by as much as 3% more…

In other words Portland’s line is probably playing too high… or their defenders are too exposed given their higher rate of attack?

There may be other reasons but those two are usually worthy ones to consider… perhaps others have a different view?

As an example… on altering the defensive line and how it can alter Goals Against can be found here: Philadelphia Union.

So how about Shots Taken per penetrating possession?

Opponents of Portland also generate more shots taken per penetration (18.16%) versus Vancouver opponent’s at 16.97%.  So, again not only is the volume higher the percentage is higher…

In addition, the opponent’s are more accurate against Portland (35.32%) in putting those shots on goal.

Whereas Whitecaps opponents put just 32.10% on goal.  And likewise here – not only is the percentage higher but the volume is higher – a lose-lose situation for Portland in comparison to Vancouver.

Finally, the Timbers opponent’s end up with 29.32% of those Shots on Goal scoring, for a Goals Against of 1.58.  While the Whitecaps are again lower with an opponent success rate of 26.17% with a Goals Against of 1.21.

In Closing:

I’m not sure the picture can be any more clear than that…

Sadly, or happily, depending on who you follow – the Vancouver Whitecaps, at this time, reinforce that a team who defends better will go further in a Championship run than a team who attacks better.

And given that complete dominance in defensive difference it’s highly unlikely that just one or two players have fixed the defense compared to how bad it was last year.

However viewed, Rosenstadt Til I Die!

Rosenstadt Til I Die

Best, Chris

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