The Portland Timbers 4-4-2 formation made its debut two weekends ago against Sporting Kansas City. That match saw all pre-planned tactics thrown out the window when Diego Chara earned himself a red card within a dozen minutes. Saturday night against D.C. United, however, Caleb Porter got to break out his dual striker attack for real. The results were less than stellar. The team managed only ren shots despite controlling 56.6% of possession and spending much of the game down two goals.
An Analysis of the Portland Timbers 4-4-2
Why did they switch to it?
The necessity to switch to a 4-4-2 was born out of two issues. The first was a way to get both Fanendo Adi and Jack McInerney on the pitch at the same time. They are complimentary players that are both capable of scoring in their own way. Adi is the physical force that will overwhelm a defense with sheer force and determination. He isn’t afraid to take on three defenders at once on his way towards the goal or rise above them to win a header. He draws fouls well and is one of the most effective finishers in MLS. McInerney is better at getting into space and finishing with that space. Ideally, the two on the pitch together can create some room for Adi to charge along and/or allow McInerney to keep separate from the chaos in the middle and get a goal or two with all the room around him.
The second reason for a formation shift is Portland’s poor wing play. Coming into the season, Dairon Asprilla was expected to step in for Rodney Wallace and play as if the Costa Rican never left. On the other side, Lucas Melano would continue the development that he showed at the end of last season and in the playoffs. Well, Asprilla was so bad that he was shipped off to Colombia for more quality playing time and Melano has been inconsistent at best. The 4-4-2 supposedly would allow the Timbers to play more direct and derive their width from the full backs as opposed to the forwards.
The 4-4-2 is also better suited to counterattacking than the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that the Rose City had been using.
What went wrong?
The problem with the Portland Timbers 4-4-2 was there were too many players playing outside their natural and/or most efficient positions. Diego Valeri is the most obvious example here. He spent too much of the match isolated on the right side of the formation. He only has half the pitch to work with out there. When he plays centrally, he has the entire width to play around with. This better takes advantage of his passing ability as well as his unique talent to pull goals out of nowhere.
Valeri not being able to set any of the playmakers up meant that Portland was completely unable to work the ball into the penalty area to create chances. Here’s the heatmap for the Timbers in that D.C United match courtesy of WhoScored.com:
There are very, very few touches in the attacking penalty area, especially for a dual striker formation. The attack really suffered without Valeri in the middle to connect the midfield with the strikers.
How can they make it better?
The 4-4-2 is not exactly a lost cause. There are ways it can work, just not using a more traditional formation. Caleb Porter will just need to look at the two things he wants to do (get Adi and McInerney out there at the same time and tone down the emphasis on wing play) and fix what went wrong on Saturday night.
Here’s your answer:
The 4-4-2 diamond gets more players in their natural positions while focussing play through the middle, where the team can do the most damage. Valeri can sit in the hole to set up Adi and McInerney with chances. Darlington Nagbe and Ned Grabavoy can link the defense with the forwards after Diego Chara wins the ball back and starts the break. Gone is Lucas Melano and his inconsistent play. Any width in the formation is provided by the full backs Alvas Powell and Vytautas Andriuskevicius (henceforth known as Vytas for simplicity).
This keeps everyone in their most effective position while playing to the team’s strengths while keeping both strikers on the field at the same time.
In the end, the 4-4-2 is a noble thing for the Timbers to pursue. They just need to make sure to build their tactics in a way that compliments the team’s best traits and uses their players in the most efficient way possible.