Welcome to The Graphical, in which I mine the Opta data for insights as to how Nashville SC’s most recent result came about. You can also see more conventional game coverage from the big win here at For Club and Country, and don’t forget to vote in community player ratings before the deadline, coming tomorrow or Wednesday.
Shoot your shot
Nashville dominated this game in total shots taken (20-12), unblocked shots (15-8), and shots inside the box (12-5), but only best FC Cincinnati 3-2 in terms of the number of shots that were actually on the frame. What happened?
We’re going to end up back with the narrative “Nashville can’t finish” which had mercifully left us with a nice run of offensive form in the past several weeks. Based on the stats alone, that might feel fair, but the majority of those misses this week were within a foot of the frame (or on one Lebo Moloto shot, off it), and – while it stinks – there’s just an element of crappy luck. It happens, it doesn’t mean the team stinks, that’s just soccer.
This is a high-variance game where a couple inches one way or the other on two occasions can completely change the outcome (just ask Sunil Gulati!). Even in hockey – obviously, there are tones of a famous line from The Mighty Ducks in that previous sentence – games very rarely finish 1-0, so there are more opportunities to make up for that single instance of poor luck.
Against a good offensive (but poor defensive) team like FC Cincinnati, you need to make your chances count on your end. NSC didn’t, but prevented FCC from paying it back, so in the end, you take the randomness, see that on another day Nashville’s dominance is likely to pay off, and move along.
Lebo forcing matters?
I didn’t really notice this until working on film review – or at least in such a way that I recognized a clear pattern – but it really seemed like Lebo Moloto’s first half really involved the South African trying to erase the demons of last time the team played in Nissan Stadium.
In that game, Moloto had about two and a half chances to end the scoreless draw, and give his team, the win. The pressure of trying to prevent the same result from coming to fruition looked like it was wearing on him early. Here are his first-half shots and incomplete passes:
Part of the graph on the right is a little bit of unfamiliarity with exactly where he can expect teammates to be when he’s in a new role (he clearly roamed side-to-side quite a bit, but played significantly on the right wing, rather than primarily as the second striker – while Matt LaGrassa had an adjustment himself to taking over Moloto’s typical role). A lot of it seemed to be forcing the issue, though.
Both of Moloto’s shots on-target from outside the box were earlier in a possession than he should have been accepting that as the best look he was going to get, and indeed, both were basically harmlessly caught by the keeper without too much stress. The off-target one from outside the box had more power to it and hit the post… again, a couple inches to the left and it could have completely changed this game.
Moloto settled down with more time in his familiar role and reduced pressure in the second half, but didn’t take a single shot (for better or for worse: some opportunities were spoiled by passing miscommunications at the top of the box). It wasn’t a bad performance overall – he wound up my second-best NSC player on the day – but settling into the big-game atmosphere a bit earlier will be a priority next time Cincinnati is the opponent.
Allen dropping back
I try not to get too deep into responding to specific criticisms I read elsewhere in these posts (not least of which because they often don’t deserve attention), but I read a “Brandon Allen is lazy and won’t drop into midfield to receive the ball” take (from a coach at a local youth club! Maybe parents do your research on coaches before signing kids up), which couldn’t have been more wrong in this game.
Sometimes it is true – the counter-argument would be “it’s literally his job in the 4-4-1-1 to hang on the centerback’s shoulder and run into space when his team has the ball” – but Allen’s role was different in this one. Maybe it was playing without Moloto as his second striker, certainly a large part of it was the amount (and the specific locations) of space created by Cincinnati’s formation being questionably sound in their defensive half, but he dropped as deep as he ever has since joining this club. Here’s the touchmap:
I would almost contend that he was dropping too deep at times, and holding the back four a little deeper could have created more space for LaGrassa, Moloto, and Winn to interplay better and get good looks. Of course, that he got plenty of looks in the box probably means that’s overly nitpicking. The other part of that complaint – that Allen is lazy and doesn’t work hard in the re-press defensively – has never been true since he joined Nashville SC.
Allen is far from a perfect player. He had a couple giveaways, seems to be a little audacious with his shooting at times (and overly conservative at others), and too often tries to play for the foul instead of using his strength to ward off a defender and make an opportunity. However, he deserved a legit penalty call (or two) on the play that has fans upset he’s some sort of diver. Negative takes about Allen about this specific game (one of his better ones since joining NSC outside of actually shooting the ball into the back of the net) are either knee-jerk from those who were emotional after a loss – which is fair – or under-informed, whether by choice or inability.
Better opportunities, less execution
The narrative after the game was that Nashville dominated the first half, while Cincinnati was clearly the better team in the second. While there’s an element of truth to that – FCC certainly had two of the better chances of the second half, though both came against the run of play – I don’t think it’s an accurate description.
Nashville finished the first half with 59.9% of possession, and the full game with 60.0% – which is to say, they had even more of the ball in the second half than they did in the first. They only launched seven shots after getting 13 off before the break, but look at the improved quality of those shots:
Seven of 13 first-half shots were outside the box (which admittedly includes two of the three on-target, though I’ve already discussed those above), six inside the box. After the break? One outside the box, six inside.
The same number of extremely high-quality looks (NSC actually had another inside the box in the second half – but Kosuke’s Kimura was so far off-frame that Opta apparently didn’t register it as a shooting attempt), and perhaps a bit more judiciousness in taking them isn’t much of a backslide. On the other hand, it is possibly a return to one of the early-season problems of probing for the perfect shot, rather than taking what’s available and hoping for a mistake, rebound, etc.
There’s a middle ground, but I wouldn’t characterize this as a tale of two halves as much as it has been. Take away one or both of the major individual mistakes by a defender who came on cold after an injury to a starter, and Cincinnati finishes the game with zero (0) shots on-goal in the entire game, while Nashville’s performance was similarly frustrating across the 94 minutes.
I suspect FC Cincinnati will come back much stronger the next time these teams play, but I also suspect that Nashville is more likely to take advantage of the opportunities that are afforded them.
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