The Graphical: Nashville SC 2-0 Memphis 901 FC

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for insights from Nashville SC’s most recent game. A 2-0 in-state rivalry win is today’s source material.

Breaking the lines

Whereas Nashville SC was mostly content to dominate on the flanks in last week’s win over Ottawa Fury FC, they spent plenty of time trying to play through the Memphis defense. This was particularly notable from the central midfielders, Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 7.31.44 AM.png
Attacking left-to-right, LaGrassa is No. 20 and Reed No. 17

As you can see, there are certainly some shorter passes, and some lateral (or backwards) ones, but primarily, they were focused on playing forward, with a lot of long diagonals involved.

These are important passes in the 4-4-2 as Nashville SC runs it. The central midfielders are defense-first, playing as a double-pivot (one or the other capable of cycling forward in possession, but both concentrating on owning the middle of the pitch defensively). If they don’t have a bit of ambition going forward with their passes – and as you can see, they moved up the pitch, as well – you end up with “empty bucket” syndrome, like we saw against Saint Louis FC.

Memphis 901 FC was the type of opponent that gives up space between the lines, and while they were well-organized in the final defensive third, getting the ball into those areas with longer, often field-switching passes prevented them from being settled regularly, and allowed Nashville its 14 shots inside the box.

Owning zone 14

A team that lets you play between the lines (like Memphis did – even though they’d upgraded talent with a few first-time players on the pitch after signing earlier in the week) also tends to leave the crucial “zone 14” open on the pitch, and Nashville SC took advantage.

They were able to get the ball into that dangerous area (highlighted in the pass map on the left), and either distribute from it or shoot (image on the right).

As you can see from the pass map, it’s not even necessary to pass into a more dangerous area when the ball reaches that zone – though certainly it doesn’t hurt – because even moving the ball to the wings finds plenty of space, since the defense has to react to the ball being in zone 14. Dragging defenders out of position and moving into the space they’ve vacated creates offensive chances.

You can also see that Nashville took six of its 21 shots from zone 14. Generally, shots outside the box are not preferred to shots inside the box (which have a greater chance of going in, naturally). However, taking those shots – which Nashville didn’t do a ton of, at least not shots that had a credible chance of going in – opens up the passing lanes into the box going forward. If the defense believes you’re going to shoot, and potentially score, from that area, they have to cover farther from their own goalie, opening further gaps in behind, etc.

The importance of zone 14 (USMNT fans know it as the “Pulisic goes here” area) can derive from its direct impact on the game. As we saw Saturday, the indirect impact can be just as crucial.

King of the touchline?

At long last, offseason signing Darnell King made his debut at right back. He was active along the touchline, but more interesting was what he did on his forays to the interior of the pitch.

That’s a hallmark of his style (at San Antonio FC last year, he was a key offensive player while also seeing time at centerback and in the midfield). He’s going to “underlap” – cut inside the winger while getting forward – at least as frequently as he’s going to overlap.

The underlap plays into the skillet of Nashville SC’s other players, too, because when the right back folds inside, it often gives the winger a one-on-one out on the flanks. When that winger is Kharlton Belmar, he’s going to dominate that one-on-one matchup with his incredible ability on the ball, and create offense for the rest of his teammates (sometimes including King).

Compare that passing map to Kosuke Kimura’s in the Saint Louis FC game, in which he got a staggering 111 touches.

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 7.48.10 AM.png

That’s a lot of the ball, a lot of safe passing, and not nearly as much speculative, outside of true crosses. King’s style is going to be more risky on average, and he probably doesn’t have the motor of Kimura (does anyone?) to recover back if those chances don’t pay off.

However, given the utter dominance of NSC’s defense so far this year (just two goals conceded, one on a set piece and another on the second-phase set piece after a failed clearance), there’s value in upping the risk slightly unless and until it bites the team. More scoring punch – even if it comes with a transition opportunity or two for the opposition – is worth the tradeoff, given that the centerbacks, keepers, and central midfielders have been able to prevent those moments from turning into opponent goals.

Backing off the press

One downside (depending on how you view it) of Nashville’s switch to primarily a 4-4-2 formation with side-by-side strikers has been less emphasis on the high press. A team like Memphis – first-year unit without long-standing on-field relationships between players, some guys with lesser ability on the ball – seems like one you’d try to exploit by pressing up the pitch.

Nashville’s defensive action map shows they did not do that:

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 8.15.04 AM.png
Memphis attacking right to left.

It’s more difficult to press with a true two-high striker formation for a variety of different reasons.

  • Side-by-side strikers provide more width across the field, but you lose spacing at that second level (the three offensive midfielders) which can be a major key to preventing easy passes from a play at the back.
  • The pressing assignments for the strikers are less obvious than a single-high “striker always pressures the ball” method.
  • The wide midfielders in a 4-4-2 tend to be closer to the touchline, so they have a tougher time squeezing inside to take away passing lanes (especially with more opened up at the first level).
  • The wide midfielders are also more likely to be in crossing positions offensively, so they have more ground to cover getting into position in the re-press, making it less a fit.

When you take into account some of the talent Memphis employs (centerback Marc Burch is a 13-year MLS vet, keeper Jeff Caldwell is on loan from a New York City FC team that obsessively plays out of the back), perhaps it does indeed make more sense to not try to press them, particularly if your formation is set up in a way that doesn’t make it easy.

It will be interesting to see (particularly when Cameron Lancaster returns) whether Nashville SC goes back to the high press this season. It’s certainly still part of the toolkit, but may be less a staple of the side over the rest of the season.

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