Nashville SC’s defense has been incredibly stout in the run of play this season. Saturday, that wasn’t the case. They allowed more goals from live balls than they previously had all year, by a factor of [divide by zero error]. Let’s break down the first one, an incredible strike from Charleston Battery midfielder Jarad Van Schaik.
Nashville SC has been comfortably on the front foot through the first 13 minutes of a road contest in Charleston. They’ve had about 53.5%-46.5% possession advantage, with an even greater advantage (about 63.5%-36.5%) in touches on the opponent’s half of midfield, and took the only shot of the game.
However, they haven’t been able to turn that advantage into a goal, and that leaves the door open for the Battery. A counter-attack goal is a distinct possibility, and given what we know about how the game turned out, it’s pretty safe to assume that’s what we’re about to see, yeah?
Charleston bangs a free kick from their own end into Nashville territory, and centerback Bradley Bourgeois wins the header.
Lebo Moloto misreads the defender’s approach to him, and tries to dummy the ball to the outside… which happens to be where Charleston’s O’Brian Woodbine actually approaches him, taking the ball away without Moloto ever getting a touch.
The central midfielders are sucked to the left side of the field because they’d be planning to present passing options to Moloto to begin the offensive break. The backline is drawn in that direction largely because right back Darnell King had to squeeze down to cover the ground that Bourgeois had vacated to win the header.
van Schaik runs into the space that King would otherwise be covering, sprinting past a ball-watching Kharlton Belmar in the midfield. Woodbine hits the cross – whether he’s trying to hit striker Arthur Bosua or sees the run from van Schaik turns out to be meaningless – van Schaik sees the ball bounce once in front of him, and swings through the half-volley, burying it upper-left corner.
What it means
There are two individual mistakes here that would be bad in a vacuum, and are made even worse by the context.
- Moloto is in a situation where he cannot give that ball away. It should be a relatively routine trap and moving the ball immediately to LaGrassa (if not just a first-touch pass to LaGrassa because he feels the pressure coming). It could just as comfortably be moving the ball past Woodbine on the dribble. What it can’t be is a turnover without ever getting a touch, and certainly can’t be failing to get a touch, then immediately falling down to give Woodbine a lane to move up the flanks with several passing options.
- Belmar has to be more space-aware. Yes, he’s trying to get wide to provide a switching option for the offensive play that looks like it’s about to begin. However, even when it’s clear that the ball has been turned over, he doesn’t shift into a defensive mindset. Jogging back is generally going to be fine in that situation, honestly. However, he needs to check his back shoulder, see van Schaik’s run, and realize he’s not going to be affordedn the luxury of conserving energy this time. Making van Schaik’s life difficult has to be a priority (or even thought?) there.
Those are unalloyed mistakes that make some of the decisions by teammates into things that situationally don’t work out. It’s not a big deal if Bourgeois is off his backline if Moloto keeps the ball (or even delays Woodbine at all). The fact that it’s in immediate turnover throws the backline into a bit of disarray.
You’d like Bourgeois, in a defensive posture, to be roughly along that blue line, with King bumping out further along it. This defensive posture came as a total surprise, though. Bourgeois actually does a really good job hustling back to get into that position, but a couple factors come into play that still cause a bit of chaos here:
- This backline is playing together for the first time this season, so the communication and feel for each other aren’t up to snuff. While Bourgeois and King were sort of a tandem in preseason (while the first-unit players to start the year, Ken Tribbett and Kosuke Kimura, were a tandem on the right side together), this is their first meaningful action together on the year, and the first meaningful action of the season with Bourgeois playing next to Doyle (though they were the starters for most of last year). King probably doesn’t realize that Bourgeois has the pace to get back into position, so he squeezes inside to cover space that he doesn’t need to.
- Charleston’s formation change was unexpected, and the way the 3-4-3 impacted the defense versus what the expected 4-2-3-1 would have done is totally different. Nashville SC likely didn’t prepare for the 3-4-3. That meant Charleston had more numbers than expected in the offensive zone, and Nashville’s communication and relationships (already strained a bit because of a lineup change) weren’t prepared to compensate for that.
That’s five offensive players for the Battery involved in the play (three forwards and two wingers), whereas Nashville’s preparation was likely for four in this situation (one striker, two wingers, and the offensive midfielder/second striker). Belmar’s mistake – and King’s trouble dealing with it – were exacerbated by that extra runner thanks to the shift in Charleston’s scheme. It looks like everybody you’re expecting to be there is accounted for, with left winger Lewis folding inside… but he’s playing a wing-forward role, with a midfield winger running on late.
Should professional players be able to adjust when the opponent’s formation is different than expected? Certainly. But being perfect for every second of the game against a scheme you didn’t prepare for in-depth (and for an understandable reason: this was the first sign Charleston had shown all year of a three-man backline) is a high bar. Soccer’s a cruel game, and you can be punished even for a momentary slip-up.
In the end, King has to see the cross coming, realize his responsibilities covering the center of the pitch are accounted for by the guy whose job he was assisting, and bump out to make a more meaningful challenge on van Schaik. It’s hardly the greatest sin committed by any player on the play, but he’s ultimately covered for a mistake that wasn’t there (from Bourgeois, who’d recovered just fine) to make the one that was there (Belmar getting run by) count.
Additionally, it’s hard to fault Matt Pickens when a guy takes a strike surprisingly off the bounce rather than settling it. That’s especially true when he’s all alone 15 yards from the goal. Still, given the positioning of the defenders (squeezed to the side of the pitch that the service comes from), he needs to get on his horse to cover the post that has been switched to.
Largely, the two biggest mistakes on the play are things that are going to happen from time to time: Lebo Moloto is a good dribbler, but bound to over-dribble and turn it over occasionally, and offensive-minded midfielders are going to get caught ball-watching from time to time. However, the exacerbating factor of Charleston’s unexpected formation isn’t likely to come up again.
Similarly, Nashville’s other players probably learned a lesson once that they apply the rest of the year going forward – whether that’s King understanding Bourgeois’s pace, the entire team not getting caught by surprise with the half-volley, or even LaGrassa realizing it’s time to take a tactical foul to prevent Woodbine from getting the service off (though as we’d learn later in the game, taking a tactical foul in a seemingly harmless position isn’t going to prevent van Schaik from finding net).
Nashville SC hadn’t previously conceded in the run of play because the team fields smart and talented defensive personnel, but also because they don’t find themselves in scrambles in defensive transition often. While it’d be overly presumptuous to call this goal a one-off, certainly you’d not expect NSC to repeat the mistakes – nor an opponent to strike so perfectly.