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Pivoting Back to the Double Pivot?

Is the Timbers’ double-pivot central midfield a thing of the past? Not so fast.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re three games into the post-leg-break era for Will Johnson, and by just about any measure Johnson has met or exceeded every reasonable expectation for the weeks following his return to the field. Johnson has slotted seamlessly back into central midfield and the Timbers defense has been as strong as ever with the captain back patrolling the center of the park.

But there has been a great deal of discussion about how to set up the Timbers’ central midfield with Johnson back in the fold. That discussion largely stems from difference between the Timbers’ central-midfield experience in 2013 and the trials of 2014. The difference, with a notable exception to be discussed later, wasn’t personnel. Last year, with Diego Chara and Johnson patrolling central midfield, the Timbers had the same double-pivot setup that was so successful in 2013.

Caleb Porter’s debut campaign was also a little bit of an oddity across MLS tactically, however, with an extraordinarily strong correlation between possession percentage and points.

And, looking beyond bald possession statistics, MLS teams in 2013 held the ball extraordinarily high on the field, with only 40.42% of league-wide passes in the possessing team’s own half, 59.58% in the possession team’s attacking half, and 17.21% finding their destination in the final third.

The Timbers’ opponents in 2013 were even more aggressive in where they held the ball, with only 37.25% of passes in their own half, 62.75% of passes in the attacking half, and a whopping 18.54% of Timbers’ opponents passes into the final third. Thus, with the Timbers’ opponents holding the ball high, having two ball-winners in central midfield made a lot of sense: Both Chara and Johnson could be aggressive in getting into the ball-winning zone without being pulled too far out of position because of their opponents’ generally advanced attacking position. This certainly contributed to the Timbers’ midfield dominance in 2013 that allowed Portland to boast the third-best defense in MLS despite questions in central defense.

In 2014, however, the importance of possession started to wane and teams started holding the ball a little bit deeper to go more direct toward goal.

Although the general relationship between possession and points still existed, the correlation wasn’t nearly as tight in 2014 as it was in 2013, with many more successful teams on the table having possession percentages at or below 50%.

Consistent with this trend, the league-wide zonal passing numbers made a subtle, but significant shift toward deeper positions. In 2014, 42.22% of MLS passes were in the possessing team’s own half (1.80% higher than the year before), while, not surprisingly, 57.78% of passes were in the attacking half. The more dramatic relative drop, however, was in passes into the final-third, which dropped to just 15.25% of total passes.

The Timbers opponents in 2014 followed this trend. Although teams playing the Timbers still held the ball higher than league average in 2014, the percentage of passes in their own half rose slightly to 37.97% from 37.25%, the percentage of passes in the attacking half dropped slightly to 62.03% from 62.75%, and the number of passes into the final third dropped significantly to 16.41% from 18.54%.

In layman’s terms, MLS as a whole reacted to the high-possession (both geographically and mathematically) trends of 2013 by sitting deeper to keep from exposing their lines to possession-based opponents, going more direct when it comes time to go at goal, and looking to counter more vigorously. And Timbers’ opponents followed largely the same pattern, except with a disproportionately large drop in final-third passes relative to the decrease in attacking-half passes.

As a result, however, the Timbers’ ball-winning zone dropped further back toward midfield in their opponents’ attacking half. Which brings us back to Johnson and Chara. With both of the Timbers’ first-choice central midfielders having very strong ball-winning instincts, the deeper ball-winning zone forced them to come farther out to get stuck in. This, however, exposed the Timbers’ central-midfield imbalance and often opened exploitable gaps between Portland’s midfield and defensive lines. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Timbers’ centerbacks through much of 2014 (various combinations of Futty, Rauwshan McKenzie, Norberto Paparatto, Danny O'Rourke, and Pa Modou Kah) were not good at managing a high line. Add to that the questions in central defense that the midfield (and Donovan Ricketts) largely covered up in 2013, and you have most of the recipe (with a dash of occasionally poor defensive commitment from the wingers) for the Timbers early- and mid-2014 defensive disaster.

After Johnson’s injury at Toronto, however, the Timbers turned to Ben Zemanski to join Chara in central midfield. Unlike Johnson, who is a box-to-box ball winner and attacker, Zemanski is much more comfortable sitting in front of the backline and operation from a deeper defensive position and keeping shape offensively. Zemanski’s presence as an added layer of protection in front of the backline freed up Chara to ball-win with impunity while keeping the central midfield in relative balance both defensively and in there attack. Between this improved balance in central midfield and the arrival of Liam Ridgewell, it’s no surprise that the Timbers logged three of their seven 2014 shutouts in the four games after Johnson went down.

Now, this isn’t to say Will Johnson is a bad player. In fact, he’s a very good player. But the success of the Zemanski-Chara pairing had many thinking in the offseason that perhaps the double-ball-winner setup may not be ideal for the Timbers’ holding midfield.

Simply put, many wondered whether the Timbers’ double pivot in central midfield remained viable.

The league-wide passing data has continued to evolve in 2015.

As you can see, the strong correlation between possession percentage and points from 2013 (and loose but still significant correlation of 2014) has vanished entirely.

The league-wide positional passing statistics haven’t changed much from 2014, however, with 41.46% of passes in the possessing team’s own half (down from 42.22%), 58.54% of passes in the possessing team’s attacking half (up from 57.78%), and 15.55% into the final third (up from 15.25% in 2014).

Whereas teams league-wide are holding the ball marginally higher in midfield in 2015, Timbers’ opponents have dropped a little bit deeper with 38.65% of their passes in their own half (up marginally from 37.97%), 61.35% of passes in their attacking half (down from 62.03%), but a somewhat surprisingly low 15.65% into the final third (down 16.41% in 2014 and 18.54% in 2013). In sum, therefore, Timbers’ opponents in 2015 have been holding the ball deeper than even in 2014, contrary to a modest league-wide trend toward higher geographic possession. If anything for the Timbers, then, it would seem to be important this year to not overcommit to ball winning with both defensive midfielders because the defensive ball-winning zone appears to be a little bit deeper than it was in 2014 when it caused the Timbers problems.

So it was with some interest that many watched how Johnson would reintegrate back into the Timbers midfield. Would Portland revert to the double-pivot central midfield with two box-to-box ball winners, or would Caleb Porter try to recreate the balance he found with Chara and Zemanski, but with Johnson back in his rightful spot?

Three games into Will Johnson’s 2015 season, that question remains unanswered. Against D.C. United in Johnson’s debut, it appeared the Timbers would be reverting to their familiar double-pivot midfield with both Johnson and Chara operating box to box.

Two weeks later against New England, however, the Timbers put in arguably their best home performance of the season in a dominant 2-0 win over the Revolution. The Timbers’ buildups throughput the game against New England were as sharp as we’ve seen them at least since their unfortunate 2-1 loss at Vancouver, and the defense was stifling, limiting a talented New England side to a pathetic four shots (with only one inside the box).

Against the Revolution, Johnson played as much more of a traditional six, with most of his distribution coming from the Timbers’ own half in front of the backline, while Chara was given pretty much free reign to roam wherever he liked. Especially in light of the fact that Johnson is not completely recovered from his leg break, this dynamic made an awful lot of sense: The Timbers could keep the defensive balance they benefitted from during the Zemanski Era in central midfield while working Johnson back into form. Moreover, if Johnson could successfully make the transition to being a truer holding midfielder, he could very well extend his peak-performance career by two or three years in a position that presents fewer athletic demands.

Asked after the New England game about how he thought the balance between Chara and Johnson was working, Porter gushed:

Really well. You know in some ways because Will isn't quite one-hundred percent in terms of being able to cover the type of ground that he normally can cover, I think positionally those two guys have never been better. You look at the two games they've played, we have two clean sheets.

As such, heading into the Timbers’ home fixture against Houston this last weekend, it was more than reasonable to expect the Timbers would have a similar look between Chara and Johnson. And that’s what happened, right?

Wrong. Johnson and Chara reverted to the double-pivot system in which Johnson worked box-to-box on the left side while Chara patrolled the same area on the right despite the considerable allure of a system in which Johnson (at least for the time being) plays as a six while Chara plays as the eight.

Although it may have been possible in Johnson’s debut against D.C. United that the captain was going a little bit rogue and succumbing to his box-to-box instincts in contravention of a game plan that had him slated more as a six, Chara and Johnson’s respective horizontal positional discipline against Houston certainly makes that double pivot look intentional.

So in spite of league-wide and Timbers-opponent-specific conditions appearing ripe for Porter to try to tuck Johnson in as a six behind Chara, it isn’t at all clear that the Timbers are going to restore their central midfield balance in that way. Whereas a couple weeks ago a more single-pivot look appeared to be a clear path forward for Chara and Johnson for the foreseeable future, looking at the three games they have played together in 2015 as a whole, it is possible that the Timbers are pivoting back to the double pivot.

How is this going to play out from here?

Stay tuned.