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So, can the Timbers effectively break down a low block? It’s complicated.

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With the end of the season closing in, whether or not the Timbers make up enough ground to make the playoffs might depend on that one simple question ... and so far it’s a work in progress

SOCCER: AUG 10 MLS - Vancouver Whitecaps at Portland Timbers Kris Lattimore

If there is any question that will define the remainder of the Portland Timbers’ season, it is probably this: Can they break down a team sitting in a low block? After a few games into a team-record ten-game homestand, the answer to that question has been a disconcerted “maybe.”

The Timbers have shown glimpses of what they are capable of in possession; recent results— a pair of 4-0 home results against the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo come to mind — but it also has to be said that those teams foolishly attacked the Timbers and played right into their hands.

The worries come from an earlier stretch of home games in which the Timbers took just two points out of six against the Colorado Rapids and Orlando City. Various factors contributed to those results, but the main takeaway was that those were two sides that enjoyed sitting back early and were committed defensively. Those games might not have been pleasing to the eye, but the strategy worked, and it will now most likely be the blueprint for nearly every side coming into Providence Park over the next few months.

If you’re curious as to how the Timbers have adjusted to face these more compact sides, the best place to start is with the team’s most recent results: a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps and a 3-2 victory against the Chicago Fire.

While both of these teams sat in a low block and allowed the Timbers a majority of possession, it is essential to take everything observed from the past two games with a grain of salt. Both Vancouver and Chicago may be able to bunker, but that doesn’t mean that they are phenomenal at it. The real test comes in the team’s next two games when they take on defending MLS Cup champions Atlanta United on Sunday and rival Seattle Sounders next Friday.

For now though, let’s look at some of the ways that the Timbers have approached breaking down a low block — both against the Whitecaps and the Fire — and how those tactical tweaks can evolve into a potential solution; one that the team can use down the stretch and will genuinely turn Providence Park into a “house of horrors.”

The roles of the fullbacks

When opponents allow the Timbers to build from the back, there’s a very good chance that the ball is going to be sent out wide to one of the fullbacks. While this is all relatively standard, and might even benefit the opponent as they already forced the ball out wide, what is interesting is how different a role each fullback plays in coach Giovanni Savarese’s system.

Against the Fire, Zarek Valentin played left back, while Jorge Moreira took up his typical role on the right. Much has been made this season about Moreira’s exploits up and down the right side of the field. Against the Fire, he put in one of his best performances of the season as he scored the opening goal as well as providing perfectly weighted through-ball to Cristhian Paredes, who assisted Brian Fernandez on the second goal. Obviously, the downside is how much space he leaves in behind when he bombs up the field. That space was exploited once again, but he did an excellent job of balancing the risk and reward on Wednesday night.

The other benefit of all these runs down the right flank is that it stretches the field horizontally, which gives players such as Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Paredes more room to work. The more space there is to exploit, the easier it becomes to cause the opponent to shift, and the easier it is to find the final ball that results in a goal.

On the other side of the field is Valentin, who has taken over for an injured Jorge Villafana the past few games. The left back’s role seems to fly under the radar in comparison to Moreira, but it might be even more interesting.

Whether it is Valentin or Villafana, the position tends to invert as the team builds from the back before continually changing places with the other player on the left wing — often Blanco — as the team moves up the field. While inverted, Valentin helps overload the midfield when the team is in possession, which makes it harder for an opponent to recover the ball in midfield while opening more passing lanes. When Moreira is caught out of position, this line often shifts and provides cover for him as well. While Valentin is inverted, Blanco plays out wide and often drops down to get the ball before taking it into the attacking third.

In the attacking third is where the left back’s role gets tricky: Blanco is seemingly everywhere on the field, so when he cuts in on his right foot, having an extra defender in midfield is often unnecessary. When this happens, Valentin or Villafana will shift back outside to provide width, which allows Blanco to have more room to operate. So when Blanco is in the middle of the field, the left back is out wide; when Blanco comes wide, the same position is inverted. Simple.

Valentin is more central here, while Blanco is hugging the touchline.
Here, Blanco is more central, while Valentin is hugging the touchline.

The best part of how Savarese uses his fullbacks is how it all comes together. When one side decides to invert or come into the middle, the other side provides width as the formation shifts. It works the same the other way too, ensuring that the Timbers have enough horizontal spacing to allow their creative midfielders the time and space to make decisions and critical plays, whether it be through transition or possession. Besides, as was on full display Wednesday night, Moreira is a heck of a weapon to have when it comes to breaking down a compact defense.

Chara and building out from the back

When people think about Diego Chara, they tend to think of his defensive contributions that are so vital to a team that likes to open itself up in transition. However, Chara is much more than a classic number six that shields the back line, he’s also a player that can maintain possession of the ball and start the attack from the back line.

When the ball doesn’t go to the fullbacks, it often ends up at the feet of Chara, who drops back between the two center backs as they split apart for width. From there, Chara has shown himself to be capable of connecting lines himself, while also knowing when to make that pass to his midfield partner so he can take the ball up. As you can see in the images below, Chara consistently does this throughout the game, but it often goes unnoticed while his 40-yard recovery runs, precise tackles, and that big smile receive all the attention.

As you can see, Chara sometimes acts as a third center back in both transition and possession purposes.

While carrying the ball out of the back may not be the native Colombian’s main priority, having the skills to be able to drop back and fill that role allows others to play further up the field. It also allows more players to have more time and space to find the key pass that unlocks a stingy defense.

Attacking the box

Building out of the back against a team that concedes possession and half of the field is the easy part. The hard work comes when it’s time to break the opponents low block down and find that elusive goal.

Frequently — and the Timbers are susceptible to this too — when a team sits back and allows space out wide, it’s tempting to send in crosses all game and hope for just one or two to result in shots on frame. That is a very inefficient strategy and frustrating for any fan to watch. While it’s easy to only implore a team to play down the middle, that in itself is challenging and produces its own set of challenges. This is why most teams revert back to their crossing habits as the game progresses.

When teams cross the ball into a crowded box, the most important ball isn’t the first one — it’s the second one. What the Timbers did well against the Fire was having deeper midfielders, such as Paredes, ready to attack the box and win those second balls and deflections. Once the ball is in the box, chaos ensues, and having more players able to attack that chaos increases the chance of something positive coming out of the play. On Wednesday night, the Timbers took advantage of that chaos for their second goal. There was no second ball, but because of Paredes’ late-arriving run, he was able to beat his defender in midfield and arrive in the box unmarked before squaring the ball to Fernandez for the goal.

Throughout any game, there’s inevitably going to be crosses or hopeful balls played into the box. While those balls may be inefficient most of the time, sometimes they become the most likely to turn into goals. It all relies on how many bodies there are in the box and the runs that the players make. If a midfielder can beat his man and become an unmarked asset in the box, however, it only increases the team’s odds of scoring. Savarese does an excellent job of taking advantage of that.

Increasing pace of play

While tactical tweaks certainly help any attack, the most efficient and effective way to break down a low block might also be the most simple.

The logic is straight-forward: The faster a team can move the ball, the more shifted a defense becomes. More shifted means more space, which in turn means more opportunities for that killer ball that becomes a goal. Often these quick passes are thought of as primarily being vital in transition; however, the ball can move just as fast in possession and build-up play.

Throughout the game against Chicago, the Timbers generated many chances through quick one–two passing between the flanks and the midfield. In the first half, a series of passes between Blanco and Valeri almost resulted in a goal. In the second half, a give and go between Moreira and Tomas Conechny provided one of the team’s best attacking moments.

While it may be simple, increasing the pace of play throughout the park keeps the defense on its feet while allowing players to grow in confidence on the ball. When the Timbers picked up their pace of play, more opportunities came. When they were content with allowing movement to become stagnant, the team fell into a malaise.

At the end of the day, possession means nothing if it’s not used effectively. Against Chicago, the Timbers had 63 percent of the possession but looked largely toothless in front of goal in the second half, despite generating many chances. The easiest way to break an opponent down is score first. Once the Timbers force the opposing team to chase the game, more transition opportunities open up, and that’s the team’s bread and butter; the hard part is just finding that first goal.

Do the Timbers have answers when it comes to breaking down an opponent sitting in a low block? The team’s playoff run could all come down to that simple question. While it still might be too early to tell, they have shown some promising signs over the past few games. Whether Savarese has found the formula or not, one thing is likely: They won’t stop innovating now.