Saturday, Nashville SC headman Gary Smith made what would be a popular personnel change prior to his team’s match against Bethlehem Steel: he inserted winger Alan Winn into the lineup.
Winn earned popularity in the preseason by assisting on NSC’s first-ever goal (finished by Ropapa Mensah in the Atlanta United friendly) and notching three tallies of his own. Though two came on penalty kicks, rather than from the run of play, his nose for goal and overall speed gave fans an early affinity for his game.
There was another key change in this game that allowed Winn to have the impact he ultimately would: a change in tactics to a 4-4-2 formation. That put Winn on the right wing, a more natural position than he had in NSC’s typical 5-3-2: he doesn’t have the defensive chops to play wingback in that role, but didn’t seem to ever be entirely comfortable as a pure striker next to another goal-scorer.
Playing in a four-man midfield, he has the freedom to get upfield, without the responsibility to get back defensively. Whether he was getting into dangerous positions off-ball or dribbling into them, Winn was a constant pest for the Steel (albeit an opponent that was playing a man-down for almost the entirety of the contest).
When he got there, though, his ability to be clinical in front of net wasn’t always the greatest.
As you can see, Winn possessed the ball in the box a lot. That did not turn into any goals – NSC’s lone score came on a penalty earned and taken by Michael Cox (as a side note, getting his confidence up with a penalty kick should be a positive for the Boys in Gold going forward). Winn was hardly the only player who was imperfect on the day. Here are the plays above:
- 8′ Winn makes a great interception, and pushes the ball up the field quickly. However, he has an early two-on-one play available with Michael Cox, but doesn’t recognize early enough that he can spring Cox in alone on the keeper. Instead, he ultimately slows the ball up and cuts it back to Lebo Moloto, turning a 2-on-1 advantage into a 3-on-5 disadvantage.
- Winn steps up for another takeaway, but his first-touch pass is going to a player who… isn’t there. It appears he’s expecting Ryan James to be in the wingback spot he’d occupy in the 5-3-2, rather than the pure fullback role he had in the 4-4-2.
- Winn gets the ball deep in the penalty area. He looks up and recognizes that there’s no numbers advantage (an improvement from earlier!), but dances on the ball too much, allowing a second defender to arrive. He tries to split the two defenders, almost accomplishing it but instead turning the ball over.
- Similar to the previous play, Winn gets the ball charging down the sideline, in a slightly wider position than before. The pass is a tiny bit behind him, meaning he has to slow up which allows his defender to recover. Winn sets that defender up to get beaten to the endline, but a nice move to get some space is wasted when he runs himself out of room to the endline. The ball is taken away and he tries to draw the foul call.
- Again, Winn’s speed gets him in behind the defense, and this time the service from Lebo Moloto is inch-perfect so defenders can’t catch up, and he’s one-on-one with the keeper. However, he slows down, gets the ball caught up in his feet, and doesn’t get a shot off.
- The final play is a fairly egregious one, unfortunately (but pretty quickly correctable, on the more fortunate side of things). A nice long-ball in from Justin Davis – and a touch wide from Michael Cox – gives Winn the ball in a bit of space near the edge of the penalty area. There are six defenders in the central area or the right side. Fortunately, Taylor Washington’s marker has fallen asleep a bit, and he has acres of space to run into for a switch from Winn. He doesn’t see it, and the ball is recycled while Bethlehem’s numbers recover.
As you can tell, these errors fall into two major categories: big-picture questions about vision, and indecision in one-on-one playmaking with the ball. I posit that both of these come down to the same underlying issue: inexperience.
This is a team that was put together with just a couple weeks of training together before the season, and despite a high load in the preseason, is still just clear of a couple months total of time together. Winn, who joined the side the week of the Atlanta United friendly, has even less time with the whole group, and is one of the youngsters of the outfit, having played college soccer just this past Fall.
The team also tinkered with multiple different formations in the preseason, but primarily based out of the 5-3-2. In that setup, Winn was either a striker (where he also played in college) or a centrally-located attacking midfielder. While he had last week to prepare for this wing role, he’s even less experienced in it than he is generally as a Nashville SC player. He also seemed more comfortable as an inverted winger – a playmaker who cuts in and shoots with his dominant foot toward the interior portion of the field – on the left side, so there’s a bit of an adjustment to playing on the wide side with his right foot a crossing threat more so than a shooting threat.
That is all to explain that these aren’t mistakes I’d expect Winn to continue making. With more experience, with more time in the professional setup, and more time getting used to game speed in regular-season USL action, he’ll be ready to make those plays, be ready to keep the head up and look for runners, and be ready to know what can and can’t work technique-wise in one-v-one situations.
It’s extremely important to note that I’m not trying to kill Winn here (indeed, he was my man of the match), and that he wasted opportunities meant… he created them in the first place, something we haven’t seen nearly enough of so far this young season. As he settles into a role, he’s a major candidate to just click and start pouring in the goals.