Welcome (back) to The Graphical, in which I mine the Opta data for insights as to how Nashville SC’s most recent result came about.
Your shift is on my team sheet
This was the second game in a row where Nashville reverted back to the 3-5-2 that they’d started the year playing. While they announced a 4-4-2 lineup, check out these average positions:
That’s Liam Doyle (5) in the dead center, with Justin Davis (2) and London Woodberry (28) playing left and right centerback positions, respectively. Taylor Washington (23) and Ish Jome (11) are your wingbacks, while the three central midfielders actually remain relatively closely bunched – albeit with Lebo Moloto a touch ahead as the No. 10 in jersey and in role – and the strikers are close together, as well.
Gary Smith ran out this formation for much of preseason and then the first two regular season games… but scrapped it when the offensive output was struggling. He wanted to create more width, connecting through the midfield, and space to roam up top in the 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) that became the formation du jour.
So, why does it work to actually reinvigorate the offense at this point in the year? Let’s go to a few other illustrations to figure it out.
Making the most of Lebo
We know Lebo Moloto can shoot the ball, and shoot it pretty darn well at times. However, that’s actually not the strength of his game, and playing him as the second striker sort of forces him into that role: he has to shoot, because there’s only one option that’s going to be in a more dangerous position than him on a regular basis.
Here’s a little chart of my own, rather than one directly from Opta:
As you can see, this is on pace to be one of his best years (almost certainly THE best, which is notable given he was a key player on the USL runners-up last year), but certainly with a bit of a different style of play: he has skewed toward scoring more than ever before.
Here’s what his game against Ottawa looked like, as he moved back to a No. 8/10 role with two true strikers ahead of him:
That’s much more in line with what he’s done in his previous three USL seasons. Given that his best season came under current Nashville SC Technical Director Mike Jacobs when Jacobs held the same position at Swope Park Rangers, it’s more likely the role he was brought in to play from the get-go: he’s a creator, rather than a pure out-and-out scorer. (That also explains part of why it’s fit better to slide him to the wing and play two strikers when still using the 4-4-2, as well).
What else changes?
It should come as no surprise that, with two wingbacks who are tasked with staying wide and getting up and down the field (but with more freedom on the “up” part than they have in the 4-4-2, and also more responsibility to create the width that is sacrificed without wide midfielders), Nashville SC’s gameplan involved a lot of crosses. Enter Tucker Hume, the Big Bird-esque target striker to bring those crosses in. The personnel and gameplan matched up well.
That’s a heck of a lot of crosses, and as you can see, many of them came from the left foot of Taylor Washington (two successful, 11 unsuccessful, three chances created). The image on the right is offensive-third touches for the strikers (Hume, Brandon Allen, and Ropapa Mensah). While we know those guys can create a little bit – in Hume’s case, more than most opponents expect – but in this game, they were able to spend a bit more time hanging out in the box, because they ball was being crossed in to them.
This wasn’t necessarily the best gameplan for the team, or the best personnel to trot out. For this game, it certainly ended up that way, though, and the combination of great personnel and a solid gameplan is less impactful than the fact that each of those was the right fit for the other. Ottawa ran an even backline (and we’ve previously seen that Nashville’s cross-happy gameplan has typically been used more against odd backlines), so it’ll be a tactical chess match to watch as NSC matches up with different formations and ideas from the opponents going forward.
Playing two true strikers – and without one like Moloto, who can track back to defend or sink for the ball like Moloto – there is going to be some connectivity lost in the passing game and in defending. That’s not too big a deal because you are now granted the opportunity to play one of the midfielders higher up the pitch, as long as the wingbacks can track along the entire sideline (both offensive and defensive zones) to maintain width.
This formation does make for an awkward fit for some personnel, though: Where does Alan Winn fit in? He’ll have to carve out a role as that No. 10 (probably the backup to Moloto) or develop a bit more ruthless an edge as an out-and-out striker who isn’t quite as tasked with creating. While Ish Jome started at right wingback, it’s a bit of a shoehorn for him (he’s a left-sided player who’s been far more comfortable over there to this point in his NSC career), and while left wingback is a possibility, it means there’s a bit of a potential logjam over there with Washington and Ryan James also left-sided wingbacks and only Kosuke Kimura on the right (though obviously Jome can be on the right, and James can play on that side, as well). That’s less a “there’s not a spot for a particular guy” and more a “this makes for a weird depth chart over there.”
While this does make it easier for Matt LaGrassam to play a more natural central role, that means there’s once again a situation where we have three bodies for two central defensive midfield spots – in this game, it meant Bolu Akinyode was relegated to the bench until Nashville went with a defense-heavy lineup for the final 10 minutes. Again, less a “weird fit” and more a “makes it tough to get good players on the field” problem (which is the better problem to have, obviously).
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