Nashville was the first team to beat Pittsburgh or score on them at Highmark Stadium in league play. It wasn’t the strongest performance, but they got the result.
Quick note: my ratings are score-based after a film review, and on a scale that… there’s technically no range but anything over 15 is generally good and under 9 or so is bad for a full game worth of performance. Community ratings are on a traditional 1-10 scale.
Formation and tactics
Pittsburgh pressed really hard (and fairly high) early in the game. Nashville was forced to pass it back to keeper Matt Pickens for hopeful long balls plenty of times early in the contest. The possession disadvantage that NSC had may understate how much control Pittsburgh had early (since the possession Nashville did have was ineffective). Once NSC settled in a bit, they were able to achieve some of the same things with their press, evening up the game a bit (the strikers were a little more active up top than we usually see – an especially good sign because Allen wasn’t known as an effort guy at Bethlehem – clearly Gary Smith is getting more out of him than the Steel were).
At times, NSC seemed to try to counter the pressure from Pittsburgh by almost shifting to an unbalanced 4-3-3. Michael Reed would drop as more of a lone CDM while Bolu Akinyode would shift wider left, and Taylor Washington would play up the wing with the two strikers in the box. It created more space and made it harder to press in central midfield (and of course, the Boys in Gold could quickly shift back into the more standard 4-4-2 in an instant as long as Washington wasn’t caught way upfield).
Moloto moved to the wing while LaGrassa went in to the No. 10 role after halftime. Almost more a 4-2-3-1 at that point with LaGrassa sinking even deeper than the 4-4-1-1 we sometimes see, and the three guys in the line able to trade across the field. When Hume replaced Allen, it went to a more typical Moloto-up-top traditional “two blocks of four” formation.
London Woodberry played right fullback – something he’d never previously done – with Ryan James on the left. Everyone else’s positions were the same that we’ve become used to (or with slight tweaks broken down above).
Gary Smith community rating: 8.00
Community comment: “First time Pitt’s given up all three points this year. Gary Smith deserves plenty of credit.”
Ladies and gentlemen, your Man of the Match:
Matt Pickens 14.36 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.33
Pickens definitely was not perfect. He had some sketchy moments dealing with back-passes from teammates, and came out awkwardly to deal with a cross or two. At least one Pittsburgh effort would have beaten him if it’d been on-target. However, the rare shots the Riverhounds didn’t miss the frame with were handled by the veteran keeper, including after one of those goofs by a teammate. He was strong in dealing with corner kicks, his distribution was solid (especially on a night when “put it over the top of the defense” was an important tactic), and at the end of the day, the Hounds had zero goals, despite an NSC defense that wasn’t always great in front of Pickens.
London Woodberry 13.11 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00
Live, my opinion was similar to the fans: Woodberry had a good day, but nothing to write home about. Like Pickens, there were some obvious mistakes he made (he let some crosses get off way too easy man-marking on the edge), but he was willing to play the width of his side of the pitch, got forward a bit more readily than a guy who’s been a centerback in the past, and had some nice one-on-one tackles. He faded hard about midway through the second half, which is expected for a guy going the distance in league play for the first time since St. Patrick’s Day. Getting back to full fitness should allow him to be a regular fixture in the side.
Bradley Bourgeois 10.20 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00
The book on Bourgeois is pretty much the same each week: a monster in the air much more than any player his size has right to be (including yet another header on a set piece – though he fouled the keeper getting to this one – that makes it seem like he’s close to scoring). He was a little more… frantic?… dropping into defensive postures on Pittsburgh’s runs down the middle and right side. He seemed to be playing catch-up a bit, and though he did draw even with his mark, you’d rather not have him have to do that. Some of it appeared to be poor communication/awareness with a new player (Woodberry) next to him, so it could be a one-game deal.
Liam Doyle 9.57 (98 minutes) – Community rating 7.00
Doyle probably should have given up a goal early, with some poor man-marking and then a really weak attempt at a headed backpass to Pickens resulting in one of Pittsburgh’s best chances (Pickens made a great save), but was decent other than that. His longball service was good, his marking on corner kicks – with a lot of opportunities – was up-and-down, and he can bang free kicks, missing one just high. Aside from one potentially game-changing error, it was a fine day.
Ryan James 7.69 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00
James was a big piece of the puzzle in the part of the game before Mensah went out (more on that in a bit, of course), but seemed to fade a bit as the game wore on. I believe a big part of that was the shift in gameplan – the forwards didn’t press as high and as hard, so the fullback didn’t have to get forward to cut out the passes and runs that were created with an aggressive strategy. It’s not that he was doing anything bad, he just wasn’t super-involved overall.
Bolu Akinyode 13.54 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00
The book on Akinyode is pretty well-established at this point, too: he’s generally going to be conservative with his passing (though there were some nice attempts forward, as well as quick-pass gives-and-go in this one), but very consistent in completing those passes. When he gets caught upfield, he doesn’t have the motor to run things down working back every time, but he’s a physically intimidating presence in midfield, and due to his lateral range teams can’t really avoid him.
Matt LaGrassa 13.00 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00
I’m happy to see LaGrassa carving out a role, because he’s too good a player to not see the field (as was the case for a few games in a row after Akinyode’s appearance). His versatility was on display in this one, playing as a right-sided wide midfielder, across the middle as a box-to-box guy, and even as the No. 10 in place of Lebo Moloto when the two traded roles after the half. He’s prone to making a total head-scratching decision here and there (just booting it aimlessly upfield when he’s the most advanced player on the team, for example), but his technical quality is notable.
Taylor Washington 11.03 (73 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33
Presumably, Washington’s community rating slipped simply because he didn’t spend as much time on the field, because he was fantastic when he was out there. He didn’t whip in quite as many crosses as we’ve seen from him as a wide midfielder, but he managed to work his way into the box, and got down the sideline on long runs. He even had a couple headers that could have found teammates waiting back post on a luckier day.
Michael Reed 8.19 (98 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33
Reed’s up-and-down form continued, in my eyes. He’s continuing to be a bit more adventurous with his passing and dribbling technique, but the first tough seems to let him down a little too frequently to accomplish what he’s going for every time. His headed passes aren’t a keystone of his game, but he had a couple mistakes with them in this one. More than anything, he just wasn’t as involved in the second half (which is understandable: it seems a trend with this team that one CDM or the other has a big game while the other lets him have his moment. It was Akinyode’s day to be more involved).
Ismaila Jome 3.38 (25 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33
He hasn’t had enough time on the pitch to make a serious impact yet, but I think NSC fans are really going to like Jome. Stylistically, he’s similar to Washington (a little less one-sided to the left, but not as fast), in that he likes to get forward and whip the ball in, and isn’t afraid of getting a little dirty defensively. Two players with different skills but the same style of play can be like-for-like replacements, and Jome coming in seemed mostly designed toward getting Washington rest, not because of poor performance.
Lebo Moloto 10.72 (64 minutes) – Community rating: 7.33
Gary Smith clearly seemed to want to rest Moloto (who has carried this team to a large extent through 10 games), but didn’t have the opportunity when Mensah went out. Moloto showed off his versatility by first stepping in as a like-for-like (ish) replacement for Mensah, then shifted out to the right wide midfield position – to me, it seemed like a way to not have to make him run down long balls, saving some of that energy – then played his more usual false nine toward the end of the game when Tucker Hume came on. He had some spectacular dribble moves, and instead of trying to force something at the end of them, was willing to cycle the ball back and make sure he’d consolidate possession for his team.
Brandon Allen 8.95 (87 minutes) – Community rating: 8.00
I alluded above to Allen’s effort in the high press, and it’s pretty notable because he quickly developed a reputation in his short shift at Bethlehem Steel for not being willing to put in that defensive work: clearly this was a guy who lost faith in his squad early, and was mailing it in until a better situation came along. The goal that he got was a total garbage goal – and while the nomenclature may sound insulting, believe me that it’s not: it’s the sort of goal NSC wasn’t finishing before he came along, and he’s exactly the one they needed to clean up the trash and put the ball in the net. His hold-up play was iffy in this one, but that’s hardly the greatest sin for a goal-getter.
Tucker Hume 2.58 (11 minutes) – Community rating: 6.33
Hume didn’t get much playing time, but he was inserted for a specific purpose, and executed it perfectly: serve as a hold-up guy for the Boys in Gold to lob it downfield to, killing time and potentially getting lucky for an offensive rush and counter-attack goal to seal the game. He showed effort in the press too, which for a big (sometimes slow-moving) guy, that’s a nice addition to his game.
Ropapa Mensah 2.29 (34 minutes) – Community rating: 9.00
I try to get these posts done before the press conference on a regular gameweek, but with this heavily-populated portion of the schedule, I’m actually glad we got to hear from Gary Smith before I wrote, because his explanation made Mensah’s performance clear. Something was just off with the talented Ghanaian, from a bit of technical quality dropoff to a couple bad decisions with the ball at his feet. Suffering from illness (and that being what took him out of the game, rather than an injury sustained during play) makes sense. Mensah still put in effort, particularly in the high pressure, but didn’t have it on the day, and wisely made the choice to call it early and maintain energy for future outings.
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