March 13th, 2013 by Kelly McLain
Many Portland fans are rightfully concerned about the Timbers defense (giving up five goals in two games tends to make people a little nervous). To help analyze the current state of defensive affairs, let’s break down Montreal’s second goal from this past Saturday and outline how Caleb Porter’s defensive system, as well as his offensive system, impact the back line and the type of situations we can expect to see this season.
As most are well aware by now, Porter has implemented a high pressure defensive scheme designed to clamp down on the opposition high up the pitch in an attempt to win the ball back as quickly as possible. We’ll see that philosophy in action here in a moment, but we must also look at the offensive system and how that can have an impact on the defense once possession is lost. One of the keys for the new-look Timbers is to throw numbers forward to overwhelm the opponents, this includes the outside backs. Ryan Miller on the right and Michael Harrington on the left are both expected to get forward quite liberally throughout a match—just not at the same time. Harrington spoke to this point last week: “I want to be able to get forward, help the attack, stretch them out on the wings, and provide that width for us.” But Harrington cautioned that the duo, generally separated by 30 or more yards, had to be smart. “Me and Ryan have to have balance,” Harrington said. “If one goes, one’s got to hold. It’s really an understanding between me and Ryan. We’re on opposite sides of the field, we can’t communicate, but just by our movements we can communicate. You kind of move off of each other. It’s a seesaw.”
Montreal’s second goal is an example of what can happen when that seesaw is broken. But to start, we have to look at the Timbers on offense:
↑ This is the sequence prior to the one that leads to the Impact goal, but we need to start here to set the stage. Diego Chara has dropped deep to pick up the ball on a Donovan Ricketts restart. Notice that Chara is almost in the space you would expect to see Miller in, except Miller is way up field already waiting to join in on the eventual attack.
↑ Chara plays the ball into the feet of Valeri who has an uncharacteristically poor first touch and loses the ball moments after this screenshot. And now we get a look at Miller. Yes, that’s Miller on the far sideline further forward than at least Valeri and Will Johnson that we can see. And even though Harrington’s not visible on this camera view, we’ll go ahead and assume that the seesaw is functioning as it should and he’s hanging back. These first two screenshots are merely to show how Porter wants his offense to function. But it can put a strain on the defense at times…
↑ Montreal promptly gives the ball back to Portland with an attempted long ball over the top. And here we can see the seesaw in perfect working order. We know where Miller is, and now we can see Harrington is in fact hanging back like a good seesaw partner should. It should be noted that Montreal’s Felipe is exploiting the space where a typical right back would be, but Portland has three defenders back who could sort out the marking if the situation became dangerous (in this case it obviously isn’t dangerous, but you can see the theory involved in the system).
↑ So Ricketts collects and rolls the ball out to Silvestre. At first, Silvestre appears to be looking to play down the right side. Miller is already in an advanced position having never come back after Valeri lost possession.
↑ But Silvestre doesn’t like what he sees and turns to play the ball out the left side to Harrington.
↑ Now here is where the seesaw breaks. Clearly it is Harrington’s turn to make a foray into the attack. The ball is on the left side of the field and Harrington is the guy who has it—there are no other indicators needed to tell Miller that he should be retreating. But we’ll see in a moment that he does not.
↑ Harrington tries to work a give-go with Will Johnson, one-touching the ball towards the center of the field and immediately taking off down the sideline.
↑ But Johnson opts out of the return pass to Harrington and instead plays a square ball into Ben Zemanski.
↑ Johnson’s pass is off the mark. Montreal takes over possession just inside the Timbers’ half of the field, and now there’s a problem. There really shouldn’t be, but look at the top of the screenshot at the far side of the field. No Miller. We know that Harrington just bolted down the near sideline, and we can clearly see that Miller is nowhere close to being able to recover and support the two center backs.
↑ Two quick Montreal passes later and we switch camera angles to the view shown on the replay. In a word: scary. Two things are working against the Timbers here. First, the outside backs, while encouraged to get forward, have not kept their seesaw balance (Harrington is not visible in this shot, but he’s essentially even with Miller). Second, the team’s now-instinctive reaction to losing the ball sees all four midfielders (perhaps a tad nervous from the giveaway in their own end of the field) pressuring the Impact’s Patrice Bernier (and not getting organized and marking free players). Combining these two mistakes is disastrous. Bernier plays the throughball and Montreal have a 4v2 with Portland’s center backs.
↑ The final element that compounds this sequence of errors is lack of communication. Silvestre gets pulled out wide to close down Andres Romero. Andrew Jean-Baptiste is left to sort out the mayhem—which he doesn’t do. Nor does Ricketts. Nor does Johnson. No one says anything or motions to anyone. Jean-Baptiste looks to be hit with overload. He sees an unmarked Felipe, but he knows Marco De Vaio and Sanna Nyassi are both coming in at the back post with no Miller in sight to help out. He freezes, and neither steps in front of Felipe nor instructs Johnson to get goal-side. Ricketts doesn’t direct any traffic, Johnson presumably thinks Jean-Baptiste will step to Felipe, and the whole debacle ends with a clinical finish that ultimately sinks Portland’s chances at any points.