While Penn FC does have a decent defense (three goals allowed through four games heading into last week’s matchup), the Boys in Gold coming away unable to get a victory against one of the worst teams in the East was… less than ideal.
There were multiple reasons for that (some out of NSC’s control, like pitch conditions and a referee watching his first-ever game of soccer), but some of the best missed chances seemed to follow a bit of a theme of Nashville’s own doing: an inability to create space backside, and when that was rectified, a failure to find those players making runs into space on the backside of the play to get great opportunities on goal.
Here are the three primary instances, with the chalkboard mixed in:
Obviously there’s a lot going on here, with three separate plays. The first demonstrates the initial problem, the second and third show that Nashville was able to fix that, but not take advantage of it.
- It’s worth noting that there was a bit of a formation shift in this game. Rather than having two strikers side-by-side in Ropapa Mensah and Lebo Moloto in the 4-4-2, they were stacked with Moloto behind Mensah more often than not in a 4-4-1-1. While Moloto has generally played a bit more recessed than his other striker since the move to the 4-4-2, it was more pronounced (and they were staying more vertically aligned across the field) than in previous matchups.
- In this play, both Mensah and Moloto are dragged pretty far to the right sideline – and again, stacked one on top of the other, about the same distance from that sideline. That means there’s tons of space to the other side, with the defense dragged to the right, as well.
- Thanks to the difference in spacing without a striker to the left and one to the right, the left midfielder or fullback needs to push forward into that space. Instead, we see Taylor Washington running vaguely into middle territory, and Justin Davis’s run too late to get up the wing in time for involvement in the play. Washington should probably push into the box, opening that middle area for Michael Reed (who had dropped deep at the beginning of the play).
- Mensah’s inexperience comes out here – the inexperience that had him start the season as a sub, rather than starter, and plays a major role in the team’s lack of scoring. He’s in a hold-up position, drawing two centerbacks (exactly what you’d like that hold-up player to do), but drifts offside for basically no reason. It’s close enough that Moloto can’t tell he’s in an offside position, and the play is spoiled.
- While the offside is what actually ends the play here, note the lack of options (Washington, Davis, Reed, etc.) that Mensah would have had otherwise. Had he remained in an onside position prior to Moloto playing the ball, he’s left with basically no option but a low-angle shot.
- Here, we see a play initiated from the other sideline, from a throw by Davis. He throws Mensah over the top, putting him in a dangerous position, and again drawing the attention of multiple (this time three!) defenders.
- Mensah does a good job settling the ball – something he is working on doing more consistently – and works from left to right at the top corner of the box (for the record, that seems to be one of his favorite positions: he’s made that exact same dribble multiple times in the past two or three games).
- This time, the experience of Robin Shroot – and Moloto not being the one to play the initial ball in – means there’s a bit more experience in the midfielder/second striker in making useful runs. Shroot works into the box, and Moloto is in a spot where the ball can be laid off to him for a shot.
- However, Mensah doesn’t handle the ball quite cleanly and with his head up, instead bouncing off a defender and burying his eyes downward to keep possession. He doesn’t see Shroot’s run – which would have had the veteran Englishman unmarked in the box – until it’s too late.
- Mensah plays the ball over the top, but Shroot has to leave it because he’s in an offside position. It trickles harmlessly to the endline (and it’s worth noting that it may not have been accurate enough to give Shroot the opportunity his run deserved in the first place).
- This one is somewhat similar to a hybrid of the first two. Mensah dishes the ball to a streaking Moloto, whose dink pass over the top puts Shroot in an outstanding position. Moloto’s distribution makes the play, and it ends up with Shroot running into space (on this instance, timed well to give him a chance).
- Shroot takes a swing and a miss on the initial volley. Not the greatest look, but hardly a damning mistake. Again, the field and ball were wet, and that’s hardly an easy kick to take anyway. Still, you’d like to see a pure goal-getter do better.
- Where Shroot really spoils this one is letting his eyes get big in front of the goalmouth, and trying to have a second go at scoring. The keeper has had time to react, and is well off his line closing down Shroot.
- Washington has learned from his previous mistake, and is making a nice run into space (not too aggressive on goal, either – this really is the perfect run for the situation). If Shroot shows a little more composure, he has a wide open teammate with the opportunity to dunk it into the net.
- Instead, Shroot boots it into the on-rushing keeper, ending the threat.
Some of the problems here are a matter of lack of overall chemistry between the players. It’s worth noting they’ve only been together for about three months (whereas other teams at least had a bit of a core returning). They should still be jelling a bit better by now, looked at in a vacuum.
Another issue that makes it tougher is a formation change. Gary Smith worked his 5-3-2 throughout preseason and the first couple games of the regular season. Sensing that the goals weren’t coming, a move to a higher-potential 4-4-2 was made. It’s the right change (and even though the scoring isn’t coming in waves, the eyeball test indicates it’s at least closer to arriving), but the players worked in different roles in the preseason. In the 5-3-2, for example, Washington would have been a wingback more suited to crossing the ball than receiving it for a shot. Play one indicates that he’s still adjusting to the responsibilities of a midfielder, and specifically a winger rather than a tightly-grouped bunch like would have been in the 5-3-2.
Similarly, the shift from a 4-4-2 to more of a 4-4-1-1 changes the spacing up top, and having Moloto/Mensah playing off each other in diagonal runs in the former would have necessitated less width in the box from a midfielder. Stacking them resulted in being pulled to one side of the field, and a midfielder who took a second to adjust to the change in responsibility/shape.
Mensah’s overall inexperience was on display here. I’ve tried to pump the brakes on the hype train at times (sometimes to solid effect, but mostly futilely), and you can see why here. Even though he’s probably the best goal-scorer NSC has at this time, he’s also going to be a bit more mistake-prone than he’s going to show by the end of the year (or less ready to make “the play after the play,” as was the case in play two).
The third play shows that Washington was able to adjust to the shape of his team’s formation (and to another weird pitch, something Nashville is going to get very used to in the USL, obviously), and be a bigger threat than he had been with a similar opportunity early in the game. The problem was that Shroot flubbed it – not his only howler in front of goal, which had fans up in arms about his playing time – wasting a nice play.
Without inverted wingers (the lefty Washington on the right and righty Winn/Shroot on the left, like we saw against Indy), and instead with both players on their natural foot for crosses, I understand why Winn – more a scorer than a crosser – didn’t make the starting lineup, and with the defensive struggles (more than expected), not putitng him in as a sub was the right move for this game. However, he’s the one player I would expect to have gotten into the same dangerous positions Shroot did – which Shroot deserves credit for, by the way, more than he’s getting – but I also would think he’d have shown a bit more class on the finishes.