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Better Defending Leads to Better Attacking?

While this might not be the case with every team in soccer, most good teams seem to be those who get it right in defending first and then use that good defending to get better in attacking.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With the Timbers this year the data certainly seems to support that observation.

In my previous article I tried to offer up some key indicators showing how the defense got better as the season progressed.  I'll try to offer up in this article what I feel is pretty compelling evidence to indicate that as their defense got better, their attack got better.

I would offer that most should know that the Timbers had one of the best attacks in Major League Soccer.

But what some may have missed is that the peak operating conditions for their best attack did not occur until after their defense got fixed.

To begin I'll offer up this diagram first to help set the tone about possession and some misunderstandings about more possession means better:

I've used the same three Phases from the first article.  Pictured above are the Timbers statistics for Possession, Volume of Passes, and Passing Accuracy as a whole.

Like last time - red indicates the worst number, amber indicates an improvement from red, and green indicates an improvement from amber.

Surpising, perhaps, is the continued decrease in overall possession percentage along with average volume of passes attempted.

I wouldn't have expected that given all the regular media coverage showing the Timbers as a possession-based team but it makes sense when seeing the changes on the defensive side.

If you're going to cede time and space outside the defending third to permit more penetration then it only makes sense your own possession statistics will reduce.

What's kinda cool is even with the decrease in passing volume, and possession percentage, the passing accuracy got better.

As for the actions occuring that lead to those statistics I'd offer a couple of things at least; the Timbers were turning the ball over less in bad places; making simpler passes (more patient), moving the ball quicker from the middle third to the attacking third, and, in general - making better use of the time and space the opponent yields after turning the ball over to Portland.

Moving on to Penetration into the Opponents Defending Final Third:

Same thing here - as the defending improved the attacking improved.

What's nice here is that even with the amount of overall possession percentage decreasing, the volume, and percentage of accuracy in penetration increased.

I'd say the Timbers made better use of the time and space the opponent offered after coughing up the ball on a turnover...

All told, with space as a premium, in the final third, the Timbers passing accuracy improved by 3% points.

For some that might not mean much (going from 66% to 69%) but with 100 passes offered that is three more completions.

And with a guy like Diego Valeri, who can offer up a single instance of brilliant vision, those three or four more completed passes can be the difference between a goal and no-goal.

All told - increased penetration, and accuracy led to more goals scored.

In looking at the goals scored; more was better here too... with one exception:

Where the rubber meets the road - putting the ball into the back of the net.

Before stating the obvious - some info on the first percentage offered - Shots Taken per Penetrating Possession.

For me, this indicator is pretty interesting.

Great teams, like FC Bayern, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus, Arsenal, Ajax, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, and others show having a slightly lower percentage here is better.

In other words this statistic, with some of the better teams, points more towards being a measurement of patience as opposed to anything else.

I don't offer this lightly - when speaking with others at the World Conference on Science and Soccer (specifically the head for statistics at Arsenal FC and folks working at PROZONE) we agreed that this calculation probably provided the best way to try and measure what doesn't get measured by normal statistics...  i.e. an intuitive way to measure increased or decreased time and space.

If you want more on those types of statistics suggest you read Hurried Passes and Open Shots Open Passes.

In the case of Portland, as their 'measured patience' got better, their shots on goal and goals scored increased.

In recalling the recent game against Real Salt Lake, the Timbers had 23 shots taken that game - that translated to a 24.86% in shots taken per penetrating possession... way high.

So while Shots Taken increased, Shots on Goal increased, and Goals Scored increased - the creation of getting those opportunities decreased - patience...

In Closing:

For me, the statistics are pretty compelling, in a number of areas, beginning with possesion and ending with goals scoring.

Bottom line at the bottom; as the Timbers defense got better - the attack got better - and for the most part it's down to making better use of time and space - while having the skilled players to execute the mission.

Best, Chris