As the Major League Soccer is resuming on 8 July 2020, we look at one of the tightest matches of the 2019 season between two teams from different conferences: New York City from East conference vs Portland Timbers from the west conference. Portland Timbers came to the Yankee stadium losing only two of their last six away games. The home team was in a sparkling form and were on a 14 match unbeaten run. NYCFC were quite a superior team but in this fixture between the two teams, Portland Timbers had an upper hand in terms of stats. Portland Timbers won three of the four meetings between these two teams and won the last two in two.
This tactical analysis will examine the tactics, formations, and players of both the teams. This analysis will help you to understand as to why New York City were not able to even get a point from the game even after dominating it for the most part.
New York City retained their 4-3-3 possession which has been their common formation in the last few games. Domenec Torrent the former assistant coach at Manchester City made two changes from their last game against Seattle, replacing both the wingers. Ronald Matarrita who played the role of left-back in the last match replaced Ismael Tajouri-Shradi on the right wing. Maximiliano Moralez who has played in Serie A was given a more forward role in the left wing. Ebenezer Ofori replaced Alexandru Mitrita while Moralez and Matarrita played as inverted wingers. Alexander Ring played the more defensive role of a single pivot in the match.
Portland Timbers went with the same formation of 4-4-1-1 but made five changes in their squad from the last match. Giovanni Savarese replaced both the full-back and two midfielders in the centre. Darion Asprilla replaced Jeremy Ebobisse. Zarek Valentin took the position of right-back and the youngster Marco Farfan occupied the left-back. The two midfielders who played today were Andres Flores on the left and Renzo Zambrano on the right. The major reason for the changes was squad rotation trying to keep the players fit since Timbers played most of their last few matches away. Their lone striker Brian Fernandes was in amazing form, scoring six goals in his last five matches in the Major League Soccer.
New York City building from the back
New York City employed tactics of building from the back with the help of a single pivot. Ring would drop back in and both the centre-backs would split wide whenever Brad Stuver would have the ball.
In this picture, it can be seen how both Sebastien Ibeagha and Maxime Chanot split wide to the edge of the box. Ring also drops down near the 18-yard box to create options for Stuver. He now has three options to pass the ball, if we exclude the pass to Ring which can be a little risky as he is surrounded by Valleri and Fernandes. He can now either play the ball to Ibeagha to his right or a lob pass to Chanot in the open space or to Keaton Parks who has also dropped down to receive the ball. This also helps NYCFC to drag the Timbers midfielders in the defensive third and create space in the midfield.
It can be seen in the picture below that Stuver passes the ball to Parks. Diego Valleri’s and Fernandes’ movements are towards Park to press him. Park can now either pass the ball back to the goalie, or Ibeagha, or he can also try to penetrate the pass to Ring in the open space in midfield. If the ball is passed to either Ibeagha or Stuver, they can still play the lob pass in the open space to Ring as both the Timbers players’ movement is forward pressing Park. This approach also allowed their full-backs to play more high on the pitch to support their inverted wingers.
The stats above show how Stuver had most of his passes in his defensive third as a part of their tactics of building from the back.
Timbers taking a direct approach
Timbers’ tactic was the complete opposite of NYCFC’s. They adopted a more direct approach through long balls in the wing, and their more preferred area was right wing.
It can be seen here in the above image how Timbers’ goalkeeper is trying to pass the ball long. Even further are the Timber players in the image who move up high on the pitch for the long ball.
It can be seen here that the majority of the balls by Steve Clark were beyond his defensive third, mostly on the flanks. We can see in the green box the two players who received the long balls played in the right wing. One of the reasons for this could be the strength of Asprilla which allows him to win headers and duels.
The long pass share percentage of Timbers below tells us about their direct approach.
Bruno Fernandes playing on the shoulders
Fernandes was always playing high up on the shoulders of NYCFC’s two centre-backs, trying to exploit the opponent’s high line.
NYCFC loses the ball and Sebastian Blanco receives the pass. It can be seen here how Fernandes makes a run between both the opponents’ centre-backs to counter-attack from the lob pass by Blanco. This puts NYCYFC in a spot of bother as it creates a 1 v 1 situation for Stuver. A poor second touch from Fernandes and good goalkeeping save NYCFC from conceding a second.
The formation by both the teams always meant there would always be opportunities in the centre of the pitch. Once the goal was scored by Timbers in the opening 15 minutes, they changed their defensive tactics in terms of pressing. There was less pressure in the midfield and they adopted the tactic of pressing only when NYCFC reach their defensive third. Savarese would also ask to drop everyone back except Fernandes and Valleri for the counter-attack.
The picture above tells a few points. First, we can see how there are gaps in the first line of defence and open space between both lines of defence. Ring can pass the ball to the Castellanos in the middle. Second, it can be seen that there is no pressure from Timbers on Ring. Valleri highlighted here shows no intent of pressing and drops a little in the hope of receiving the ball if NYCYFC lose the ball in the midfield.
On the right of Ring, Farfaran and Blanco also do not press. Their movement is backwards. The second picture below shows how Ring progresses and they have dropped back. But once Ring is in their defensive third, Zambrano moves forward to press him.
NYCFC changing the tactics in the second half
Torrent realised that they were not able to break through the centre and also were not able to make much out from the attacks in the wing so he altered his tactics. He changed the formation to 3-4-2-1 bringing in one more man in the midfield to support the full-backs and wingers. The NYCFC full-backs played higher up on the pitch for most of the match. The picture below shows the average position of each player on the pitch.
The picture above shows how both Chanot on the left and Anton Tinnerholm on the right played higher up on the pitch – almost in the opposition half. The image on the right shows the changes in the formation in the second half. In the first half, they tried to play more on left through Sweat but did not have much success. They sacrificed Tinneholm on the right from the backline to play on the right wing. Ring was also brought into a more attacking role in the second half. Matarrita was shifted to his more natural side on the left in midfield. Parks and Moralez occupied the attacking third in the centre to link up with Vallentin Castellanos. This worked for NYCFC as they created much more chances, particularly on the right wing as Tinneholm played a more attacking role.
XG (Expected goal) dynamics shows here how the chances of scoring goal kept on increasing in the second half. Tinnerholm played an important role in creating these chances as he had the highest number of passes to the final third for NYCFC with 81% accuracy. It also shows how they attacked more from right wing through Tinnerholm and Ring.
Lack of quality in the final third
NYCFC tried to play most of the game through the wings but it did not yield any result. The surprising statistic was that NYCFC had not scored a single goal from the header this season. This shows it was not their game. Out of 34 crosses, only 15 were successful. Most of the crosses were successfully defended or blocked by Timbers. They were only able to have one shot from 13 corners in the match. This was the result of the lack of quality in the final third by NYCFC. They were not able to create much space in the box.
In the above picture, Farfan has lost his balance while defending. Moralez gets a good chance to at least trouble the keeper. He also has space to pass it to Castellanos in the centre but instead, he decides to shoot. Moralez hits it straight to Farfan who is still half on the ground and once again the shot is blocked which had been the story for NYCFC all day. It helped them to win the corner.
Moreover, Castellanos had a day to forget. The two towering French centre-backs did not give him any space to attack.
It can be seen here how Larrys Mabiala in the green circle closes the gap for Castellanos to shoot. Claude Dielna is already marking him tightly which makes it extremely difficult for Castellanos to shoot. This results in a powerless shot on target. This was also his only shot on target in the match, a stat to forget for him.
This game brought an end to NYCFC’s fine run of form. On the other hand, Timbers continued their form away and make it three out of three against NYCFC. NYCFC dominated the possession and also created a few good chances and they at least deserved a point from the game as per the analysis. However, good defending from the Timbers and a little luck helped them take all three points. One poor mistake from Igbeaha in the box cost NYCFC the game and NYCFC failing to convert half-chances in the box were also one of the major reasons for them failing to score.