It should be hardly controversial to say the 2018 Portland Timbers have yet to discover their tactical identity.
Throughout much of preseason, new head coach Gio Savarese preached a desire to press high and be proactive from his preferred 4-2-3-1 set. And for much of preseason, that’s what we saw the Timbers trying to do. Personnel limitations in a Chara-less central midfield and underperformance from much of the backline made for some rough moments, to be sure, but even when Savarese strayed from his 4-2-3-1 the Timbers more or less remained true to his pressing principles.
As a result, notwithstanding the uncertainty of how the Timbers would fill Chara’s absence, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Savarese deployed his team in the high-pressing 4-2-3-1 in the season opener in Los Angeles. This was Savarese setting up the Timbers as he would like to see them become accustomed to playing.
The returns in the season opener were mixed, as the high press itself wasn’t a failure. For extended stretches of the game, the Timbers were fairly effective in disrupting the Galaxy in the middle third or higher, and the chances that Timbers created largely came from the fruits of their high press. The result was certainly poor (and could’ve been worse), but the Timbers genuinely looked like the better team on the field for a significant portion of the game.
It wasn’t without its downsides, though. When the Galaxy broke the Timbers’ press, Saverese found his fullbacks isolated in space with little to no winger or defensive midfield support. Marco Farfan and Alvas Powell both wilted badly under that pressure.
The following week against the New York Red Bulls’ largely reserve lineup, Savarese was much more selective in how he deployed the press, sitting in a deeper block except when the Timbers saw an opportunity to pin the Red Bulls against their left touchline. Look at the difference in where the Timbers’ defensive actions occurred against the Red Bulls as opposed to at the Galaxy:
The problem, though, was the Timbers had moments of distressingly low pressure in Harrison while lacking the organization, commitment, and — quite frankly — quality on the ball to keep the young, largely inexperienced Red Bulls at bay while playing a lower block. After Savarese went away from his stated desire for the Timbers to press high, the team responded by looking utterly lost against a second-choice opponent.
The loss to the Red Bulls, then, was a setback in finding this team’s tactical identity and cohesion. Sprinkle in a disappointingly hefty dose of lack of commitment, and the Timbers looked as far from being able to win an MLS game as they have since 2012.
Going away from the press, then, proved to be far from an immediate panacea. The issues with Savarese’s more comprehensive pressing scheme exposed against the Galaxy, however, very much remain. And they’re pretty fundamental with the way the Timbers roster is set up.
As with many four-man backline setups, a traditional 4-2-3-1 flattens into a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 in defense, with the wingers tucking in to complete the banks of four and to protect the fullbacks. When 4-2-3-1 teams press high, therefore, their first line of pressing typically comes from the number-nine and the number-ten because those players can commit to the press without exposing the team’s defensive shape.
To be sure, true pressing teams don’t exclusively press with their nines and tens, but they’re a crucial cog in any pressing scheme. At the very least a pressing 4-2-3-1’s nine and ten need to be able to create enough problems along the opposing backline to push opponents into either hoofing the ball long or playing harried passes into traps set by wingers and defensive midfielders. If the nine and ten are effective in doing so, the pressing team can force turnovers in their attacking half while allowing the wingers and d-mids to take only calculated risks.
For all their other immense qualities, Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri, are both well below average when it comes to operating in a high press. Take a look at their collective defensive actions when the Timbers pressed the Galaxy:
That’s hardly active, but it’s also hardly surprising for two players who are neither known for their pace or their defensive chops. Against the Galaxy, Adi and Valeri simply weren’t registering the deliverables in the high press, and they weren’t distressing the LA backline into nearly enough long balls or harried outlets. There’s also little reason to think Adi and Valeri have much in the way of unexplored upside in this phase of the game. And although Samuel Armenteros appears to be somewhat more effective than Adi in this respect, he hasn’t yet shown that he is a significant pressing upgrade over the incumbent striker.
Because they’re not going to get much in this respect from their first-choice nine and ten, as a pressing outfit the Timbers have to be unusually aggressive with their wingers and their defensive midfielders, especially their eight. The Timbers have the personnel to be reasonably effective in doing so (Diego Chara is almost a perfect eight for the job, and Sebastian Blanco is more than happy to go into a tackle), but the lack of support from up top still causes problems. When the Timbers’ press gets broken, that aggression from the d-mids and wingers exposes the Timbers’ suspect fullbacks and centerbacks, which is exactly what caused their demise against the Galaxy.
Savarese, then, finds himself at a crossroads. Is he going to try to commit to making the high press work with a roster that’s ill-suited to do so in important ways, or is he going to scrap that approach two weeks into the season and return to a selectively pressing scheme more akin to what Caleb Porter used in his later years?
Asked about whether he is reevaluating his approach at training this week, Gio was, well, Gio:
We always reevaluate — every single game to see how we can do something better. That’s what we’re doing in order to see what is the right combination and what is the next step for the next match. But everything is a lot better when we build with a united group that is pushing the same direction, and that’s what we’re going to start seeing going forward.
It’s hard to know, frankly, whether that’s a genuine indication that Savarese is thinking about going in a different direction with the team’s primary style, or if it is just the type of nicely-presented word salad that has become characteristic of Savarese’s media availabilities.
The question, though, has to be on his mind heading into the last three games of a five-game opening road stretch from which the Timbers look poised to take nothing.
Savarese is without a doubt entitled to enough patience from the locker room and the fanbase to allow him time to figure this out. Given his resume, the reasonable bet is that he will sort it out and put his new team on a more promising path.
Whether that happens before the Timbers find themselves behind the eight-ball for this MLS season, however, very much remains to be seen.