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The defensive tactical adjustment that’s helped lead to Portland’s upturn in form

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How has Portland been able to post two straight clean sheets and two straight wins? The answer starts with looking at where they are setting their defensive line.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

After suffering a bit of a CCL-induced mini-tailspin, the Portland Timbers have righted the ship. Having recorded three straight losses in all competition, the Timbers responded with two straight wins over MLS Western Conference rivals San Jose and LA.

Importantly, both of those wins came with clean sheets. In addition to scoring more goals, Portland’s recent upturn in form is undoubtedly built on the back of improved defensive performances.

What’s been the reason for Portland’s more resolute backline? Well, as with anything in soccer, the answer is due to a combination of a few factors. A big one is how Portland is lining up and, specifically, an adjustment as to where their centerbacks are setting their line of confrontation.

The easiest way to see this is by using MLS soccer’s tactical chalkboards. These show individual actions from players during a game, such as blocks, passes, dribbles, and so on. Specifically, we’re going to focus on where on the field Portland’s centerbacks are making defensive plays over the course of the game.

Below is the chalkboard for Portland’s first MLS match against Vancouver. In this instance, it’s set to show all defensive actions for Portland’s two central defenders, Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic:

You can see in the graphic how high up the pitch Mabiala (33) and Zuparic (13) were involved in the play defensively. Both defenders made challenges outside of the final third, and Zuparic in particular was active higher up the field. Their actions were more spread out and are indicative of how rangy both players played in the match.

That game ended in a 1-0 loss. While that wasn’t really the fault of the defensive scheme, that map is emblematic of how and where Portland’s centerbacks played early in the season.

That style of play continued on into the month of May as well. Below is the tactical chalkboard of Zuparic and Bill Tuiloma’s defensive actions during Portland’s 2-1 loss to Seattle earlier this month:

Tuiloma (25) played the majority of that match in lieu of Mabiala, who exited because of an injury in the 15th minute. As you can see, the map of defensive actions for both Tuiloma and Zuparic is once again spread out and far-reaching. Both players had defensive actions beyond the halfway line, and again it shows how aggressive Portland’s central defenders were in that game.

That match was also decided by a dubious penalty and a set piece. It’s a data point for what Portland’s defensive tactics were during that game, however, and it’s illustrative of how the Timbers were set up in the first month of the season.

Up until the match against San Jose, those maps were how Portland’s centerbacks played. In their first four matches, Portland tactically pushed their line of confrontation with respect to the centerbacks higher up the pitch.

And in those matches, including the 4-1 smacking at FC Dallas, the hull that was Portland’s defense was leaking water like swiss cheese. They had allowed eight goals in their previous four league matches, and the Seattle loss was as deflating an exclamation point as any we’ve seen.

Since that game, however, the Timbers have played 180 minutes of shutout soccer. They blanked a team that had been averaging about two goals per game (San Jose), and then shut out the league’s leading goal-scorer (albeit with some help from a red card, but Chicharito was basically made invisible until then).

One reason? They started to sit their centerbacks deeper.

Here’s the defensive chalkboard for Tuiloma and Zuparic in Portland’s 2-0 victory over San Jose:

You can already see how much deeper the cluster of defensive actions for the centerbacks is. Tuiloma and Zuparic sat deeper in those games, and they didn’t directly challenge attackers or recover the ball until deeper in their defensive third. While still venturing a bit from his box, Zuparic in particular was more restrained in where he attacked the ball.

The comparison becomes more apparent when you look at the chalkboard from last week’s 2-0 victory over the LA Galaxy:

It’s a little more spread out than San Jose chalkboard, which very much may be because of the game state where Portland was up a man and leading for basically the entire second half. But, compared to the first two chalkboards, you can see that the average area where most of the defensive actions occur is deeper.

Those deeper lines of defense have also been reflected in Portland’s possession percentage in their previous two matches. At San Jose, they held only about 34% possession. At home against LA, even while spending half the match a man up, Portland still only held about 48% of possession.

When you combine those numbers with the tactical setup shown by the centerbacks, you realize that this is all by design. As has been the case with Giovanni Savarese’s Portland teams in the past, the Timbers have shifted from a more proactive stance to a more reactive state, especially defensively. They’re sitting deeper, as evidenced by the map of their centerback’s defensive actions.

That tactical shift has lead to results. It may still be in the “is it causation or correlation?” stage at the moment with its small sample size, but sitting the centerbacks deeper has lead to two straight clean sheets, both against teams that have proven to be adept at scoring goals.

It’s not necessarily classic “bunker ball” either. In the pair of wins, Portland has been able to (mostly) dictate where they defend and limit opponents’ quality attacking chances. It has allowed them to keep the game in front of them and take advantage of their difference-makers (in particular Eryk Williamson of late) in the attack. They have been opportunistic, yes, but also deliberate in their attacking patterns of play. The only reason they have been able to do so is because of improved solidarity at the back.

So, what’s led to Portland’s recent improved defense and, therefore, their improved results? The answer seems to be a slightly more conservative set up, with specific emphasis on setting their line of confrontation for their centerbacks deeper. While it hasn’t been the prettiest, it has been effective, and that’s exactly what the Timbers have needed.