From the film room: High press creates scoring opportunity

Nashville SC, at least with a one-game sample size, seems set to follow through on implementing the high press shown in the preseason. As mentioned in multiple season preview pieces, that makes sense for a team that intends to kick-start its offense.

A high press can create quick-change scoring opportunities. Here’s one example from Saturday’s game against Loudoun United. Although this one didn’t end in a goal (or even a shot on goal, as both ensuing attempts were blocked), you can see how it will give opportunities, and with strikers who are very willing to shoot – and capable of turning shots into goals – it should pay off eventually.

The situation

There are 12 minutes gone in the first half against Loudoun United. NSC has had a couple looks at goal, but after a third-minute miss by Lebo Moloto, hasn’t seriously threatened to score. The Boys in Gold are working their high press after a turnover deep in the Loudoun end.

The press gives Cameron Lancaster an opportunity with the ball, but he turns it over. Instead of dropping back (like they did for much of last year), the team keeps the pressure on.

The film

What happens

Lancaster has the ball taken away by midfielder Sandor Bustamante. With a concentration of Nashville bodies in the area, he goes for a backpass to his right fullback, Akeem Ward. The spacing along the backline for Loudoun is pretty poor, which gives NSC a boost here.

As soon as Ward gets the ball, he has nowhere to go: striker Daniel Ríos is taking away passing options to centerback Harri Hawkins and Antonio Bustamante, midfielder Lebo Moloto has both Antonio and Sandor Bustamante cut off from the ball, while Lancaster has sunk slightly to get in the way of any pass farther upfield, and Kosuke Kimura cuts off left fullback Peabo Doue and is also in position to intercept any cross-field pass.

With Ward encroaching on Donovan Pines’s territory a bit, Pines doesn’t have any space to get into position to receive a pass and relieve that pressure (while there’s nobody from the right side of the Loudoun midfield in the zip code if he wants to keep the ball on that side of the field.

Kharlton Belmar’s pressure allows the Nashville left winger to tackle the ball away, where it falls to Ríos. While both his shot and the rebound strike from Lancaster are blocked, with a little more luck one or both could have been legit chances to score.

What it means

There are a few takeaways here, one of which is the obvious “maybe Loudoun should have signed a team early enough to get some practices in together.” If Ward and Pines had more chemistry and a better understanding of the spacing in the design, the press on this particular play wouldn’t have worked quite so well.

From an NSC perspective:

  • Where last year Lancaster’s turnover would have seen all but the lone striker (in this case Ríos, then it would have been Brandon Allen more often than not) drop back and get into a defensive posture, Nashville SC aggressively steps up to have three of the front four cut off passing angles, and the fourth apply pressure directly to the ball.
  • NSC gets particularly aggressive when the ball is passed backward from a midfielder to a defender. They sense blood in the water and go for it.
  • Belmar’s ability to arrive at the ball-carrier under control, give a big frame to prevent him from trying to clear the ball, and then to cleanly tackle the ball away is a huge key here.
  • The poor spacing between Ward and Pines is a blessing and a curse: while it helps facilitate the turnover, it also allows Pines to be in a position to block Ríos’s initial shot.
  • Having the players who are ready to fire away is nonetheless important when you’re going to press high: the transition opportunity will close with relative quickness, depending on the recovery speed of the defense, and a decisive move to shoot is important.

It’s unclear if Nashville will press quite as hard when the caliber of the competition rises: it’s clear that the mess at the back for Loudoun played a role in the success on this particular play. However, picking the spots to press (when there’s a backpass, especially in a situation where Nashville already has numbers up, is a good one) can make for an aggressive team that’s still not going to over-extend itself.

There is something to be said for opening the team up to counter-attacks. Had the ball gotten out, Nashville would have had only five defensive field players – the defenders aside from Kimura (though his motor would have allowed a recovery) and the central defensive midfielders – back in the instance of Loudoun popping it back over the top. Teams that have that ability are going to see NSC be a little more conservative – and to be fair the team backed off the heavy press once they had a 2-0 lead in the game.

Still, having this weapon in the tool belt doesn’t mean that Nashville is obligated to use it at all times. It can give opportunities for quick-change scoring (see the gegenpress used by Man City and Liverpool, who are perhaps not coincidentally leading the Premier League and into the quarterfinals of the UEFA champions league), and that’s something an NSC team that was at times anemic offensively can use.

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