Always trying out new features. In The Graphical, I dig into the Opta data to learn a bit about how a result came about.
By the time Nashville SC really found its footing in Lucas Oil Stadium, the team was down two-nil and the opponent was content to defend a bit. How did it happen? A slow-starting Nashville team was the culprit according to NSC coach Gary Smith.
“No doubt, they were better than us in the first period,” he said. “It’s sometimes difficult to evaluate why, but we certainly started slowly. There were numerous occasions where the ball was lost too cheaply.”
There are a couple items to unpack here: first, that Nashville started slowly (which I don’t quite agree with), and second, that NSC was too sloppy with the ball during that stretch.
I actually felt like Nashville had a slight edge in the balance of play early in the game, thanks in large part to the medium-high press the Boys in Gold were employing. The Eleven broke that press exactly once, with a long-ball over the top, though the success on that one was based more on a couple individual errors (I’ll have a Film Room breakdown of it tomorrow) than a schematic issue. Look how much difficulty Indy had completing passes anywhere past midfield during the first half:
That is a lot of lateral passing in the back, with not much advancement up the field. When you take into account that NSC’s press started just on the Indy side of midfield, the reasons behind that are clear: Nashville’s gameplan forced the Eleven to kick it around at the back a lot, rather than do a whole lot of productive play. One of two balls to beat the press was the assist (long yellow line from the back), and the other (from midfield into the bottom right corner) resulted in a blocked cross by Justin Davis. From the run of play, Indy had nothing going.
Smith’s other statement, that NSC was loose at the back, doesn’t seem to have played a huge role in that half, though he’s right in that it prevented the Boys in Gold from generating as much momentum as their defensive performance might have otherwise allowed. Here are Indy’s defensive actions (including interceptions and tackles won, in particular) from the first half. They had five takeaways in Nashville’s end, which, while they didn’t turn into offense for the Eleven, stomped out what could have been threats from NSC:
There’s one other talking point that has (somewhat inexplicably) come up since the game: that Indy had too many shots in the game, and that led to the Nashville loss. The short counter-argument to that is the Eleven scored on two of their first three efforts on goal, and the other eight shots were ultimately irrelevant.
Another way to look at it is how threatening those shots were. Unfortunately, the Opta data made publicly available from USL clubs traditionally does not include Expected Goals (xG), so there’s not a measure of exactly how dangerous these were, but a look at the graphic is enlightening enough, for the most part.
That’s the two scores (blue circles with green lines – a.k.a. the only two shots by No. 14 Soony Saad in this particular look), one of which isn’t traditionally all that dangerous outside of the simple quality of Saad’s strike.
Then there are two shots from outside the box that were off-target (red circles from 3 and 6 at the top) and one that was blocked (blue No. 7) – those aren’t dangerous shots either. Then you have the low-angle strikes from outside the six-yard box – more shots that are extremely unlikely to score, even if on-target – from No. 8 (on-frame at the top), and Nos. 27 and 99 (off-frame at the bottom).
That’s six of eleven shots that the defense wants the offense to take. There are two philosophies of defense in the final third, which are “don’t allow any shots at all” and “allow shots, but from bad angles, because those won’t score.” Nashville employs both philosophies to a certain extent, and when you have a keeper like Matt Pickens, the latter is highly effective. It was on this day, too, with the two goals coming when the press was broken (i.e. when Nashville was trying for the “don’t let them shoot at all” method and broke down at the back), and from a wonderstrike.
(Though Michael Reed may disagree with my characterization there: “I think it was a decent strike – I’m not going to say a wonderstrike – but he hit it well enough to where he got it on frame. Give credit to him, but I think our goalies are good enough and our defenders are good enough to get pressure and stop that.” Certainly it was not within the run of play).
Simply put, the defensive performance in the final this was fine, as it was in the press over midfield, for the most part. A couple breakdowns, unfortunately, can create the outcome of a game when Nashville isn’t clinical enough in its finishing. That brings me to a final piece, with two pieces to break down.
In the look at right, yellow lines originating from boxes are key passes – successful passes that lead to a shot attempt (whether it’s an assist or the shot is not successfully taken) – and the red, green, or blue lines originating from circles are the resulting shots.
That’s ten key passes, and though the overlaps in location make it difficult to see, 13 total shots – an eye-popping twelve of them inside the box. On more shots inside the box than Indy Eleven had total, Nashville was only able to put four of them on-frame. Those were Mensah’s goal, a strike from Alan Winn (green No. 19 at the top of the six-yard box), and two headers from Bradley Bourgeois (one under Winn’s shot on-target, and another at the opposite corner of the six-yard box covered by a Bourgeois shot off-target – the red No. 22 you can see there covering a green one that you can’t).
Bourgeois was a threat on set pieces – expected of center-backs traditionally, but impressive for one who runs a generous 5-11 in height – but you’d really like to see more clinical finishing from the more offense-oriented personnel. They’ll make those more often than not, maybe, but have we reached the point in the season where we believe this to be a team that just can’t finish?
“You can only ever try and create chances,” Smith said after the game. “Only over a period of time are we going to tell whether or not we have the right bodies to continue to score goals and enough goals, or that becomes a little bit of a trend where we make chances and don’t score. I don’t think the second is a true reflection: I do think we have individuals that are capable of getting on the scoresheet.”
While he’s not yet ready to say the team doesn’t have finishers (among those on the field), the idea has at least popped up in his mind. I’m confident – with what we’ve seen from Winn, Mensah, Michael Cox when he’s played, et al – that they’ll be able to knock those in sooner or later. To date, the team’s 9% scoring rate is largely attributable to sample size, with only 51 shot attempts on the year. Given that four of the five games have come against teams in the top six of the standings at this early stage (No. 10 Bethlehem Steel is the exception), there’s a major opportunity to hit a stride when the going isn’t quite as tough.