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Inside PTFC | The 5 important changes that come with the Timbers' new 4-2-3-1

Let’s not be coy about this. Beyond a Player of the Week-caliber performance from Sebastián Blanco, a needed road win and the awakening of an attack that he begun to precipitate doubts, the big takeaway from a 4-1 breakout victory at Real Salt Lake was how well the Portland Timbers performed in the day’s formation, the 4-2-3-1.

It was the first time the team had started with that setup since early June – a 2-0 U.S. Open Cup win over San Jose – but that hardly counts, as a rotated team that featured a number of Timbers 2 talents used to the approach T2 head coach Cameron Knowles has employed for much of the season. Before that, the team last used the formation in March, at the New York Red Bulls, during a 4-0 loss that punctuated a 0-2-0 start. For whatever success the team had previously with the formation, this year’s team looked unsettled in the approach at the season's onset.

Unsettled, until Saturday, that is. For one day, nearly seven months removed from that disappointment at Red Bull Arena, the Timbers looked like a 4-2-3-1 team, not only in delivering a three-goal road victory but, in the versatility they showed over 90 minutes, how they played out of their returned approach.

“I think it helped us to reach a little bit further wide," Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said of the 4-2-3-1 change after the match. "To pressure that way they couldn’t put in too many balls behind. Even though they did have some moments, in the second half we did a better job covering higher and dropping quicker. And it was, as I said, a very good performance by our guys.”

Perhaps it will prove an aberrational performance, but for two weeks until Real Salt Lake arrives in Portland for the team's next regular-season match on Oct. 21 (2pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), the question will be what the Timbers can achieve out of their new formation.

That’s something the last two-plus games of the season will reveal. For now, it’s worth looking back on Saturday and considering what one match has told us, so far.

Freeing up Diego Valeri

There was no clearer moment than against Toronto FC, when Major League Soccer’s reigning Most Valuable Player, as evidenced on the night's first goal spent much of the night wider than usual in the team’s attacking shape. You can see Diego Valeri early, in this clip, wide on the flank away from the ball, perhaps focusing some of TFC's attention away from where Portland was about to pounce:

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar place for him, who has often during his North American career done damage drifting into similar positions. But for a Timbers team that had been playing dueling playmakers most of the season, it revealed a new way of approaching their attacking challenges. While Valeri had, at prior points this season, been used as a decoy against teams that over-committed to him (see: trip to Colorado), August’s home game against the league’s defending champions represented something different.

On a basic level, switching to a 4-2-3-1 seems to alleviate Valeri’s decoy responsibilities, pushing Sebastián Blanco out left and leaving the team’s captain in the middle of the park. He’s the one who will serve as the outlet out of the back, in theory. He’s the one that will have to turn and make plays when facing the defense.

Yet look at how things actually played out on Saturday. Not only did Blanco do most of his work coming into the middle of the formation, but when the team needed him most, he was the one that delivered the final product. Cutting across the formation to deliver from the right flank, on the first goal (below); cleaning up a failed clearance on the second; surging into space on the left for the third.

While being cast to the left of Portland’s setup, Blanco had the freedom to go where he needed.

Taking Blanco out of the middle was one of my major misgivings when, before Saturday, people asked me about going back to a 4-2-3-1. How do you move your most important playmaker farther from the ball? But the way Savarese implemented his new formation ended up preserving Blanco’s effectiveness, and in the way the Argentine attacker moved freely across the width of the field, the game was a reminder that starting positions in a given formation only imply so much.

Leveraging Villafaña

Part of what might be so viable about a left winger cutting in is the new personnel Portland has on the flank.

For most of the year, the team has started Zarek Valentin at left back, a player whose best season as a professional has proved a stabilizing presence for the team. With Valentin there, though, the team had to adjust its tactics, bringing the right-footed player into more of a midfield role in the attacking phase, and relying on other players to provide the threat opposite opposing right backs.

It’s not an uncommon tactic in the world’s game anymore – using “inverted fullbacks” has been en vogue for a few years, now – but it does represent a particular kind of approach. On the left, below, we see that a lot of Valentin's (No. 16) actions on July 21 against Montreal cast up in that midfield role at the edge of the team's attacking third. Jorge Villafaña (No. 4), in contrast, got wider and played more direct in his shift against Dallas on Sept. 29.

Having Villafaña back on the left, though, changes things. While Valentin would still provide width on the flank, it almost always had to end with him cutting inside to be at his most effective. With Villafaña, the space that gets vacated by Blanco can be filled by somebody whose skills translate to a sustained wide presence. Instead of coming centrally to augment the midfield, Villafaña can supplement that best use of Blanco.

On one level, this is a six-of-one-half, half-dozen-of-the-other scenario. Some teams tailor their roster to make the most of inverted fullbacks and are better for it (see: Manchester City, last season). While too early to know, for sure, if the Timbers will be better for their change, it does make the most of Villafaña’s skills, which in turn may get the most out of Blanco.

Jeremy, the all-around

A week after we speculated what a two-forward set offers the Timbers, the team thrived in a one-front, with Jeremy Ebobisse at the point of the attack. From somebody who began the season working his way through T2 to a player who, in the team’s biggest regular-season game this year, helped lead a dominant performance, Ebobisse’s covered a lot of ground on the roster over the course of the 2018 season. Though he has only logged 354 minutes in MLS this season, he’s becoming somebody the team can feel comfortable starting no matter the occasion.

The goal Ebobisse scored this weekend (above) was the obvious exemplar of what he provides, and not only because it was an excellent, first-time finish. In a screenshot we used last week, we highlighted Ebobisse’s willingness to provide a threat away from the ball, giving balance to an attack which, with Blanco, Valeri and Samuel Armenteros, has enough players who can do damage on the ball. This weekend, we saw what that ability to read play, balance the attack, and stay dangerous off the ball can yield: goals.

If the goal was reminiscent of Ebobisse’s other MLS score this season, that’s because it came off practically the same play, but we’ve also seen instances where players failed to deliver that final product on Blanco’s crosses. Ebobisse’s providing he can not only do that, but in his hold up play, ability to compete aerially, and his conscientious effort in defense, he can be a plus player even when he’s not scoring goals.

It’s a parallel I drew on Talk Timbers, last week, that of former Germany striker Miroslav Klöse. Klöse wasn’t always an electric goal scorer as Germany went to a 4-2-3-1 formation a decade ago, but his ability to be effective high or in midfield, wide or through the middle, on or off ball provided was foundational to the formation’s success. His success made Klöse an early prototype for a 4-2-3-1 forward, and although Ebobisse might not be doing his work at the same level, he is performing out of the same mold.

Guzmán with a safety net

Was it a coincidence that David Guzmán’s best performance of 2018 was the first in which he partnered with Diego Chara? Remember, the two other times Guzmán started in that position in MLS, this season (at LA Galaxy; at New York Red Bulls), Chara was out. The only other time he was called into the role before Saturday? The second half against Minnesota United, when Portland outscored their hosts, 2-0.

We can’t ignore the fact that the players may have just played better on Saturday. Had the Timbers played as well in Houston or Minnesota, regardless of the formation, they may have gotten the same result. But there’s something to be said about putting players in positions they are most comfortable. In theory, that should yield better performances. And on Saturday, Guzmán was more comfortable than at any other time this season.

The biggest reason for that is probably Chara. As we saw in the first half against Minnesota, Guzmán tends to drift out of his holding midfield position, especially in the defensive phase. When you don’t have somebody next to him, you’re leaving space open in one of the most dangerous spots of the field, in front of the defense. When you have a Chara partnering Guzmán, though, you move to the opposite end of that danger spectrum: having an expert at reading play, knowing when he can and can’t go upfield.

That relationship works for Chara, too. When discussing Chara in this space last Monday, we introduced him as a No. 6, because that’s the reputation he’s accrued during his time in Major League Soccer. But Chara is not your typical No. 6, nor is he always best used as one. As Savarese’s deployment of his most valuable player has shown, there is a side to the Colombian’s game which begs for him to play higher up. When Guzmán is next to him in a double pivot, Chara has license to do so, as circumstances demand.

Saturday’s formation may be the best way to get the most out of both players, but again, all that assumes players are playing to their potential. If individuals perform as they did in the first half at Minnesota, there is no formation that can cure those problems. But if the 4-2-3-1 gets players like Guzmán in their most comfortable roles, you’re at least increasing the chance players will put their best foot forward.

The defending shape

Go player by player, position by position through the Timbers’ Saturday team, and there aren’t many whose lives change drastically with a switch of formations. For so many players, the change is pretty subtle.

One place where the world changes for many, though, is in the defensive phase. In almost every other formation the team played ahead of Saturday’s game – be that a 4-3-2-1, or a 4-3-1-2, or a 3-5-2 – the defensive look was largely the same. Once opponents established possession in the Timbers’ defensive half, a pyramid-like shape would form, where keeping play wide became one of the team’s defining principles.

With a 4-2-3-1, the shape is entirely different in the defensive phase, going back to the “banks of four” cliché so many lean on when detailing teams’ approaches. Now, instead of the pyramid, Portland has two lines of four players, midfield on top of defense, trying to stymie oppositions, with the transition between corner-kick defending and the team's base defensive approach also complicating matters on the night's goal.

It creates a different responsibility for players like Andy Polo, who have to track runners into the space rather than, before, relying on the shape to do the work. But it’s also a responsibility players have had most of their careers, and just like the other changes a new formation brings, the difference is likely to prove subtle.

Still, there is a reason why many wanted the Timbers to go back to a 4-2-3-1. Even if that difference, upon examination, comes down to confidence in what’s worked before, that’s still something to be considered. If the roles are similar but players perform better in a 4-2-3-1, then that’s a huge point in favor of the 4-2-3-1.

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