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All Possession and No Play

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The Portland Timbers' defensive tactics made for a dull game on Sunday. Despite the late 1-0 victory, the Seattle Sounders struggled to respond to Portland's strategy and their own problems in the offensive third.

Is this  going the way we planned?
Is this going the way we planned?
MikeRussellFOTO

AllPossess1

Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey are creative forwards - not in the conventional sense of the term, but in their ability to move off and on the ball. The resulting high forward pass share is one of the most prominent features of the Seattle Sounders' tactical system, and one of the most distinct differences between Seattle and Portland. Above, we see the accumulated share of the teams' basic passes and defensive actions by position prior to Sunday's game. The two teams have exhibited a similar balance between the midfield and backline for defensive actions in 2015, and comparable reliance on midfield ball distribution. Portland's lone forward in a 4-2-3-1 accounts for some - but not all - of the difference in forward pass share.

If I were to plot up the pie charts for Sunday's game, they would look very similar to those above. The largest difference was a 4.77% increase in midfield defense share for Seattle (about the same size as the Sounders' forward defense share wedge), and that could be explained in part by Osvaldo Alonso's presence back in the starting lineup. These numbers are often fairly consistent from game to game... which places the within-game numbers firmly in context:

AllPossession2b

Caleb Porter brought the Timbers north first to defend. The plots above depict the change in tactical posture of the two teams in Role Chart space (increasing pass share (in %) on x axis and defense share on the y-axis). The two farthest left represent the difference in share between the first half performance and the pre-game numbers, and the next 4 exhibit tactical changes through key moments in the game.

Portland sacrificed offensive upside in the first half by substantially increasing pass rate within the defensive line, and sitting back to win the ball of Seattle's attackers. The strategy largely worked. Alvas Powell extinguished the left side of the attack, and the CB pairing of Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers stepped up aggressively against Martins and Dempsey. At the half, the teams were even on score if not on chances, then things changed.

Shots Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3
Seattle 5 5 0
Portland 2 5 4
Passes per minute
Seattle 6.29 5.91 2.77
Portland 6.51 3.47 6.38
Defensive Actions per minute
Seattle 0.73 0.31 1.08
Portland 1.00 0.75 0.77

Portland largely abandoned the backline possession approach, and played a more direct game through the midfield. However, the Timbers still struggled to effectively bring the forwards into the game even up to the modest standards of 2015 to date, until Fanendo Adi came into the game. Adi had only 4 minutes on the field before Seattle took the lead. The increase in Seattle's forward pass share in phase 3 reflects the significant role Martins and Dempsey played helping to kill off the game.

Seattle absorbed the initial pressure after the half with increased defensive reliance on the backline as well as a dose of its own defense-by-possession approach. Nevertheless, Portland's success in defense from the first half - as well as its tactical control over the subsequent 30 minutes - should prompt concern for the next meeting. Defensive tactics can make random luck a significant factor in in the result. On Sunday, the ball bounced in Seattle's favor, but we should hope for more control over the contest - rather than reactionary tactics - in the future.

Edit- I detected a small but meaningful error in the second figure (scale should say 10% rather than 15%). Within-game variations in share significantly exceed changes between games, but not by quite so much as originally shown.

All raw data was collected from whoscored.com.