MLS-Cup-2018-Atlanta-United-Portland-Timbers-Tactical-Analysis-Analysis
Artwork by @chapulana.

This weekend, Atlanta United stunned the States by beating Portland Timbers to become MLS Cup champions in their second year in the league. Playing in front of 73,000 home fans, they ran out 2-0 victors on the night.

Marksman Josef Martinez grabbed his 35th goal of the season and assisted Franco Escobar late on. But how did Portland perform in the MLS Cup final? In this tactical analysis piece, we’ll take a closer look at Portland’s play and what cost them the 2018 MLS Cup.

Struggles moving up the pitch

A big feature of the way Portland have been playing in the playoffs has been counter-attacking. Rather than taking the game to their opponents, they’ve tended to soak up pressure and hit teams on the break.

This is a game plan they didn’t stray from, but coming up against an energetic Atlanta side, this wasn’t the right approach. This is because of the positions Portland would begin their attacks from being too deep as a result.

MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Here, Sebastian Blanco gets on the ball for Portland but deep in his own half. He’s being closely marked which forces him infield. A supporting Atlanta player pushes forward to shut the passing option off.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Blanco continues to run and continues to be marshalled by the Atlanta midfielder. The assisting player from the previous frame drops in to deal with a pass in behind. But that isn’t necessary as Julian Gressel drops in to shut out Guzman and intercept Blanco’s pass.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Now on the front foot, Atlanta can attack straight away. Gressel sees his left back in acres of space and spreads the ball out to him. Atlanta managed a shot after this but it was turned away for a corner.

This shows how Portland’s approach proved to be detrimental in the long run. This was a theme in the first half as Portland couldn’t deal with the manner of which Atlanta pressed the ball. Also disappointing was the movement off the ball. In that sequence, two passes could have been played if Portland ran into spaces off the ball but it just didn’t happen.

This forced their more attacking players to retreat even further back to get onto the ball. However, this played into Atlanta’s hands and led to the opening goal of the night:

Where was Valeri?

Another key to Portland reaching the 2018 MLS Cup final has been Diego Valeri. The Argentine has been almost unstoppable this season with 14 goals and 12 assists. But the key word there was almost. In the MLS Cup final, the 32-year-old hardly had a kick and was absent when his team needed him most.

MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Here, Valeri finds a space to exploit which was rare on the night. As you can see, his run is being tracked.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
As he receives the ball, he’s surrounded by five Atlanta players. He tries to get the pass off to Blanco but the Atlanta defender pushes up and clears easily.

Over the course of the game, Valeri struggled to dictate play high up the ball. The constant pressure had its desired effect and he began to drop deeper to receive the ball. However, this was incredibly useless when going forward as he was effectively out of the game.

MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Here, Valeri finally has a good amount of space to play in. But its next to the halfway line. With the Atlanta midfielders shifting across, this leaves him one option. To shovel the ball wide to Blanco.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Blanco tries to make the best of the situation but its difficult. Nagbe and Villafana have shut off most of the space on that flank meaning Blanco has to get rid of the ball quickly.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
He crosses into the box but Ebobisse hasn’t set himself and can’t reach it.

This underpins the struggles that Portland had in attack. Without Valeri floating around in the final third, they lost their most effective mode of attack. Trying to expose Atlanta in different ways didn’t really work and they just couldn’t get a grasp of the game.

Ageing defence off the pace

However, it’s not just the attack that lost the game for Portland, but their defence. As a whole, their side is ageing and one area that can be a massive concern in is in defence. Coming up against electric players like Martinez and Miguel Almiron, life will never be easy for defenders, let alone ageing defenders.

Portland’s centre-back pairing for the night was Liam Ridgewell (34) and Larrys Mabiala (31). Throughout the match, it seemed that Mabiala just couldn’t catch up with the game or Martinez. The prolific striker was a handful for him from start to finish.

MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
The first thing to look at here is the distance between Mabiala and his left back. As the ball moved into the corner, he should’ve shifted across to prevent that massive space from happening. Instead, he’s on the back-foot, isn’t prepared for the cross and Martinez has the run on him.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Martinez reaches the ball first unsurprisingly and Mabiala has to desperately tackle with his wrong foot. Luckily for him, Martinez was judged to have dived as he went down under Mabiala’s pressure.

Although he got away with that one, later in the match Mabiala was made to pay.

MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
At first, Mabiala did well to deal with a ball coming into the Portland half. However, now he’s out of position and Martinez is able to run in on the inside channel, cutting Mabiala off.
MLS Cup Final 2018 Portland Timbers 2-0 Atlanta United Tactical Analysis
Desperate again, Mabiala makes a needless, silly challenge which is blown up for a foul. The impressive Diego Chara would probably have caught Martinez so the challenge really wasn’t needed. Atlanta then scored from the free kick which put them 2-0 up.

Summary

In the starting Xl, Portland had six players either the age of 30 or over. Playing in a relentless post-season is bound to have its effect on any player but ageing players even more so. As a squad, the MLS Cup just looked like a step too far for Portland.

Although they were quite pragmatic throughout the playoffs, against Atlanta, they lacked the energy that got them to this stage. With such a quick turnaround of games, maybe not a change of personnel would’ve seen Portland be more competitive, but a change of system.

As we’ve seen with Tata Martino at Atlanta, he hasn’t been scared to adopt different systems for different matches. Looking at the power Atlanta had going forward and the age of the Portland defence, maybe switching to a three at the back could’ve to help isolate Martinez and give the Timbers more protection.

But what is done is done and Portland have a couple of months to assess where they go from here. Do they stick with the majority of this squad or rebuild? We’ll see throughout the off-season.


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