The Graphical: Nashville SC 2-0 Loudoun United

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for insights into the game that you may not have noticed (or been able to figure what specifically it was you noticed) from Nashville SC’s latest game.

The press lives

Did you think Nashville SC’s preseason reliance on a high press would disappear once the games counted? Think it no longer: NSC was heavy in the action playing aggressive defense on enemy turf. Here’s a look at their defensive actions (tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, ball recoveries) in Loudoun’s half of the pitch:

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 3.18.50 PM
Nashville attacking the goal to the right.

The chronology along the bottom is a little bit enlightening, too. NSC was far more press-reliant in the first half (below the unhighlighted portion of the field), and by the time Cameron Lancaster broke the seal on the game (moments after that lonesome No. 11 along the bottom, close to the 20 and 9 on the field), they really backed off: only three more defensive actions in the opponent’s half after that point.

Of course, banging back-to-back goals is one reason to back off, and another is that the opponent doesn’t have enough of the ball for you to take it away from them in their own half (I’ll get to possession a bit more in a moment). Loudoun was also content to hoof it upfield to prevent turning it over in their own end, with 21 unsuccessful passes attempting to cross midfield.

Loudoun couldn’t deal with the press, nor could they play over it.

Possession dominance

Nashville SC had 60.6% of the ball, leaving only 39.4% for Loudoun. There was not an area of the passing game in which Nashville SC let the visitors outdo them.

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 3.36.41 PMTake a look at those numbers on the right: Nashville had many more passes, was significantly more successful with those passes, was able to bang the ball long a bit (so this wasn’t just about passing back and forth across the back – as was too frequently the case when they managed to build up big possession numbers last year), and was generally not just the team that happened to have more success on the day, but rather the one that was the better team. You expect that against a team that wasn’t completely put together until during the course of last week. You didn’t always get it last year from NSC, so there’s still a feeling of relief that the offseason improvement doesn’t appear to have been a mirage.

It’s also worth noting (and should be no surprise given the above) that Loudoun very rarely got the ball into remotely dangerous areas, and when they did, it seemed to be a little more luck-based. Take a look at the touchmap:

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 3.41.23 PM.png
Loudoun attacking right to left.

If you don’t get the joke in my beautiful artwork, “Pulisic goes here” became a fixture of USMNT touchmaps during the Dave Sarachan era when the Americans’ best player was unavailable, indicating that the team basically had no offensive bite without him.

I strongly suspect that Pulisic will never play for Loudoun United, but for whatever reason – be it personnel-oriented or the ability of their opponent (and most likely a combination of both) – they had zero success getting the ball into Zones 14 (in the center of the field approaching the top of the box) and 15 (the right wing area at the same distance from the offensive endline).

Shooting for the happy medium

Last year’s Nashville SC team seemed a bit trigger-shy when it came to taking that final shot, which meant the team got into dangerous areas and didn’t make anything of it (whether that was a goal or at least a shot to give themselves a chance at one). Adding two shot-happy strikers should help in that regard, but there’s also something to be said for not just taking more shots, but the right shots.

Lebo Moloto’s unfortunate dribble out of bounds certainly goes back to last year’s “the shot not taken” issue, but the first half actually saw a bit of unwise shooting by the Boys in Gold, too. Fortunately, it seemed to be far better after the break:

That’s the first half on the left, and the second half on the right. Blue circles with a blue line indicate shots that were blocked by a defender other than the goalie… and the first half has a lot of those. In fact, seven of Nashville SC’s shots in the half were blocked, and the other two were off-target (including an audacious launch from midfielder Matt LaGrassa).

In the second half, on the right, there are still some long bombs, but only one of the seven shots in the last 45 was blocked, and even that was from a relatively dangerous position by Ríos (14). Four of them were on-target, and that resulted in a pair of goals. The average distance of those attempts was much-improved, too (so there are fewer defenders available to get in the way).

All-in-all, was the an improvement in decision-making that will persist? Was it a first-half anomaly not to worry about? …did the audacity to try some shots that had a low chance of going in actually make make it easier to generate high-quality attempts after halftime? To some degree, the answer to each is probably “yes,” but for the most part, we’ll need more than a one-game sample size to know.

Do the Kharlton

I’m certain I’ll get into more depth on this topic in future games, but the performance of Kharlton Belmar was an impressive one: he was probably my man of the match, but all he had to show for it on the chalkboard was this:

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 4.12.09 PM.png
Nashville attacking left-to-right

His impact was certainly far more than “failed to complete bunch of crosses, took a couple shots, and completed one or two dangerous passes into the box.” His versatility (he started on the left wing, as we mostly – though not exclusively – saw in preseason, but as you can see, was more frequently on the right side of the formation) can be a huge weapon for Nashville SC, and I’ll bet we see much more fluidity with positions up top this season, in part because of the skillset he provides.

It helps that Lebo Moloto, Cameron Lancaster, and (to a lesser degree, as he’s the one more likely stuck in a central position) Daniel Ríos can play essentially anywhere in the front four. It should be even better when Alan Winn returns from his concussion and Ropapa Mensah is fit enough to play, since both of them are multi-position threats, too. I’m a sucker for some positional versatility, especially high up the field, and Belmar is not only versatile, but brings a different element of speed along with that versatility than NSC has had.

Even if the end product was lacking in preseason and on Saturday evening, I’m confident that he’ll be a major piece of the offensive success if the Boys in Gold are to find it on a consistent basis.

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