In the 2nd match of the day in the MLS is Back Tournament quarter-finals, the Portland Timbers faced off against NYCFC. Portland was coming off a penalty shoot-out win against Cincinnati and NYCFC a 3-1 lashing versus 2019’s MLS Cup runner-up, Toronto. With two managers of vastly different backgrounds, Ronny Deila of NYCFC having managed throughout Europe, most notably at Celtic, and Giovanni Savarese only in the US, this was an intriguing tactical matchup.
Even with both coaches favouring possession and playing quality football, it was NYCFC who struck first, being awarded what could be described as a soft penalty and converting to put them up 1 – 0 in the 27th minute. Unfortunately for Deila, it proved to not be enough as Savarese’s Timbers were able to find the back of the net late in the first half and twice more in the second. Even with the notable strong goalkeeping from Sean Johnson of NYCFC, the Timbers were able to fend off the NYCFC attacks. This tactical analysis will explain the keys to this match. Specifically, how the Timbers were able to close down the attacking spaces NYCFC looked to exploit as well as how Savarese was able to utilise Diego Valeri off the bench to provide the difference in this MLS is back quarter-final matchup.
To begin this match NYCFC, started off in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. In doing so Deila was looking to utilise his outside backs going forward and pushing the wingers inside to create spaces to play out wide, thereby, creating their typical 3-4-3 shape when attacking and going forward. However, Savarese set up in a 4-4-2 looking to counteract and close down those spaces out wide. As a result, the Portland Timbers regularly looked to counter NYCFC through the wide channel in space the NYCFC outside backs had vacated. Still, perhaps the most notable aspect of these lineups was Deigo Valeri of Portland starting on the bench. However, once brought on in the second half, he proved to be the difference in the match.
NYCFC’s inability to break down the low blocks of 4
Apart from their early penalty converted by Jesús Medina, NYCFC struggled to break down Portland. This was in large part due to their two low blocks of four which remained well organised and committed. However, there was one other glaring issue which, had NYCFC tweaked, could have provided more fruitful attacking chances. The tweak would’ve been to stop having holding midfielders drop low between the centre-backs to receive the ball and, instead, move them to sit behind and between the Timbers centre forwards closer to their goal. Dropping low to receive the ball immediately eliminated the numerical advantage NYCFC had in the middle of the field. Through their formations, NYCFC had a natural 3v2 advantage which they could’ve utilised more.
This picture provides a great example of how NYCFC looked to attack. Here we see the holding midfielder has dropped low between the centre-backs to receive the ball. Meanwhile, the outside-backs have started to push higher, which is exactly how they would like to build possession. However, because Portland is not pressing, NYCFC has created their own problem. They’ve now created a back three and pushed their outside-backs higher, making their usual 3-4-3 shape. But since Portland has two blocks of four, they still have an 8v7 advantage defending. In this situation, if NYCFC had pushed their holding midfielder higher, they would have been able to create their advantage centrally and likely created more quality attacking chances. Similarly, if the NYCFC midfielder had looked to engage one of the Timbers forwards, that would also have created opportunities to play through them. However, in this match, more often then not they were content to cycle the ball wide and struggled to break the Timbers down.
Even in the instances when NYCFC was able to break into the Timbers half, Savarese’s defensive tactics were able to eliminate the spaces to play.
Here we see exactly how they were able to do so. In this sequence, the Timbers have forced NYCFC to play wide and are sliding to cover. In these situations, the Timbers tactics utilised the outside-back going to press the ball while the wide midfielder drops to cut out any passes inside.
Meanwhile, the Timbers central midfielders also slide across and the nearest centre forward looks to provide pressure to any NYCFC backwards pass. As a result, NYCFC wasn’t able to play into their forward’s feet centrally which caused them to play backwards or sideways if they wanted to maintain possession. The two keys to preventing quality attacking chances for NYCFC was their inability to break down those blocks of four as well as not exploiting their natural numerical advantage in the centre of the field.
Portland on the counter
While both teams had similar possession statistics, after further analysis, it was Portland’s quality on the counter that proved to be the keys to this match. More specifically, it was Sebastián Blanco, who previously had a stint with West Brom of the EPL, and second-half substitute Diego Valeri who were the difference makers. The quality both these players provided on the counter with perfectly weighted and times passes is what provided the Timbers with the majority of their scoring chances. That, coupled with exploiting the vacant space out wide created by NYCFC’s outside-backs going forward, were the tactics deployed by Savarese.
In this sequence which created the first Timbers goal, we see Blanco on the ball. Left-back Jorge Villafana has checked back creating the space for Blanco to slip a ball in behind the NYCFC defence.
Due to Blanco’s pass being well-weighted on the ground, Villafana is able to play a first time ball across the box which finds its way back to Blanco who bends a ball beyond Johnson and into the net, putting the game level at 1 – 1 just before the end of the half.
Similarly, the second goal comes from the incredible quality of Valeri this time from controlled possession.
In this sequence, Villafana is on the ball. Valeri cleverly checks towards Villafana, bringing the NYCFC holding midfielder with him, creating space in behind. Valeri then quickly checks off the back shoulder of his defender and Villafana plays a great ball in behind. From there Valeri plays a quick one-two pass to his other centre forward.
From here Valeri takes a brilliant first touch and crushes the ball near post past Johnson, putting the Timbers up 2 – 1 and netting a goal after having been on the field for 20 minutes.
The Timbers third and final goal, which sealed the deal, similarly comes from a quality counterattack down the left side the of field. Blanco was able to pick the ball up and find an overlapping Andy Polo who went on to score an incredible solo goal. After receiving the pass from Blanco Polo looks to cut inside onto his right foot.
After slipping past the outstretched foot of a lazy tackle from the NYCFC defender, Polo squares up to the goal. The NYCFC centre-back is unable to get a block on Polo’s shot and ends up again in the back of Johnson’s net. While Polo provided the quality in this 1v1 situation the pass again coming from Blanco to start this counter is why he was so valuable in this match, providing quality on the ball in these attacking situations.
This analysis has shown just how brilliant Savarese’s tactics were against Deila and NYCFC. Still, it was NYCFC’s inability to break down the low blocks of the Timbers that kept them quiet outside of the questionable penalty. That, combined with the quality on the counter of Blanco and Valeri, in particular, is what made the difference. With the semi-final quickly approaching, the question for Savarese has to be, does he continue to bring Valeri off the bench or does the 34-year-old still have a couple 90 minute plus matches still left in him.