Most team previews revolve around a man-by-man (or position-by-position) overview of the talent on the roster. This multi-part preview will indeed have plenty of that, but it’s going to take a different approach.
Instead of reviewing the goalkeepers, and all responsibilities of the goalkeepers (and the individuals’ ability to execute those responsibilities), then repeating it with defenders, midfielders, and forwards, I’m going to break things down a different way. I’ll be looking at the four principal phases of the game, and how each position (and individual) fits into that particular phase.
Especially with a Nashville SC team that last year had a very solid performance in defending from 1-11 on the field, but had different failings (in different positions) when it came to putting the ball into the back of the net, this should be a better way to explore what went well and what didn’t last year, and which areas (rather than specific positions) are better or worse in 2019.
So what are the four phases of the game?
Breaking it down relatively simply (each of the four primary phases can be further stratified, or the lines between some of the phases can be blurred), they are: Attack, Transitioning from Attack to Defense, Defense, and Transitioning from Defense to Attack. The names are reasonably descriptive, of course, but generally they are defined as such:
How the team approaches scoring when the ball is settled, and not really in a transition opportunity. Of course, some teams opt to primarily score their goals through the counter-attack, but even for them that’d more likely be considered the transition from defense to attack. If they have no settled scoring to speak of – well, that’s a bad thing. Does a team pump balls in from the wings on crosses? Play through a creative No. 10? Play tiki-taka to get into dangerous positions and dunk the ball home on the doorstep? There’s no one right way to run an offense.
Transitioning from Attack to Defense
How does the team react when they give the ball away? Do they put pressure on defenders who have the ball at their feet, or try to drop back as quickly to get into their settled defensive shape (“bunker,” to a degree)? Do they do different things depending where on the pitch they’ve turned it over, or how the opponents gets it (intercepted pass? saved shot? etc.)?
What formation does the team drop into when they’re trying to get bodies behind the ball (or do they continue to pressure the ball even when the transition phase is over)? This isn’t necessarily the same as it is on offense: the United States Men’s National Team showed a 3-2-2-3 in attack and a 4-1-4-1 in defense in its recent friendlies, for example – Gregg Berhalter was likely inspired by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City doing much the same over the past few years.
Transitioning from Defense to Attack
When the team earns a turnover, or stops an opponent shot, or otherwise takes over possession, how quickly do they try to advance up the field to score? How do they attempt to advance the ball? Long passing over the top (a hallmark of bunker-and-counter teams and sometimes dismissively referred to as “English style”), short passes to maintain possession and control the ball through midfield, individuals carrying the ball at their own feet, and some combination of the bunch (including long passes that can still be a little more conservative, like big switches across the field of play) are all involved in basically every gameplan, it’s simply a matter of which is emphasized.
Tying it all together
So, it’s easy to see how some of those lines get blurred. Where does the transition into attack simply become a settled attack situation? That’s in the eye of the beholder or the coach. In theory, a team’s philosophy will allow them to seamlessly tie the pieces together over time.
So what did Nashville SC primarily do last year? While they used a 3-5-2 at times and variations on a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, there were a couple consistencies no matter what. The centerbacks (whether there were two or three of them) stayed deep in all four phases of the game, and Nashville typically stayed relatively conservative in keeping the two central midfielders in defense-first positions (deeper in their own end, in front of those centerbacks) in all four phases, with some limited exceptions.
How they pressured in transition (often with one striker providing token pressure), how they built from back to front (the keeper almost always played the ball long for 50/50 balls in midfield, but sometimes the fullbacks stayed deep while other times they overlapped the wide midfielders) were quite a bit more variable.
In the next few days, I’ll take a closer look at each of the four phases to break down what the 2019 Nashville SC team will look like – though I will finish with attack (excitement!) instead of working in the order above.