Nashville SC

From the film room: Pittsburgh levels it up

Nashville SC gave up a stoppage-time goal to drop points on the road last weekend. It was not fun! How did the game-tying goal come about? Through tears, I managed to break it down.

The situation

Nashville SC dominated the Pittsburgh Riverhounds through 87 minutes Saturday. Alas, Bob Lilley’s side managed a goal in the 88th, and took control of the run of play for the final few minutes. After that first goal, they managed to pour on the pressure.

Nashville SC, having given up the first goal in a 5-3-2 formation, has made a bit of a tactical shift. They’re in a pure 4-4-2, with Ropapa Mensah sliding back to right midfield, Justin Davis up to left midfield, and Michael Reed to the second striker position.

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 12.41.26 PM.png
Two obvious blocks of four, with the strikers providing pressure up top.

Pittsburgh is once again playing out of the back a bit, and is throwing numbers forward to chase that game tying goal.

What happens

They’d find said goal!

Pitt2.2019-05-02 12_43_55.gif

The ball gets played over the top, and Nashville SC’s two blocks of four immediately break down. Eventually, Kevin Kerr gets the ball near the touchline (with very little pressure), crosses it to the back post, and a lonesome Ryan James tries to play it back across the face of goal.

He finds the chest of Kosuke Kimura, and the veteran right back is (correctly by the scoring manual, unfairly by how much he deserves it) credited with the own goal. Pittsburgh has tied the game, and the teams would split points.

Why it happened

I alluded to it above, but let’s take a close look at what happens to Nashville SC’s formation as the team drops from pressure into a pure defensive posture.

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 12.41.26 PMScreen Shot 2019-05-02 at 12.43.39 PM

There’s not even a particularly complex set of passing movements to draw NSC’s lines so far out of position: Bradley Bourgeois has to step to the left to account for the ball over the top, he and Ken Tribbett only have OK communication as a centerback pairing (Liam Doyle has actually shifted to left back!), Tribbett steps up to deal with the backpass, and Justin Davis slides back to recover help at the left back as Doyle covers for Tribbett…

Basically there’s a lot of rotation going on here, and it’s not executed well. Guys are playing positions that are unnatural to them, alongside teammates with whom they don’t have a ton of experience, and things get thrown into a blender.

All that might not still matter if not for…

Ropapa Mensah checks his back shoulder, sees James running full-sprint to the back post, and doesn’t show a ton of interest in covering that run. Given he’s man-marking James (Kimura is inside man-marking Robbie Mertz), that’s not a super-great thing!

That free back-post run is the greatest sin on the play, and probably the greatest individual mistake so far this season. It was aided by the amount of space Kerr had to fire the cross, blame for which goes to a combination of the formation shift – and the subsequent out-of-position play – the poor communication by NSC players (which again goes back to the shift), and least of all but still relevant, an inability by Davis to get on his horse and trouble the crosser.

Going forward

There’s a common refrain among some corners of the fanbase that Ropapa Mensah should play more. He’s a pure goal-scorer, and a guy who is going to go out and try something creative to make things happen. In addition to fitness (and sometimes the negative effects of those attempts to make things happen), this play is an example of why he is only substitute right now in the grand scheme. It’d be one thing if he didn’t see the runner – also a very bad thing, in fairness – but seeing James and opting not to cover is worse.

I mentioned that the attempt to be overly conservative led to the first goal, and to me, an overcorrection led to this one. Instead of sitting back, Nashville was attempting to shift into a high-pressing 4-4-2 (the formation and philosophy they employed throughout preseason and have used at times so far in the regular season). Making it tough for Pittsburgh to get the ball out of the back wasn’t a horrible idea. When the Riverhounds successfully played over the top, it was mooted, and there was a scramble to recover.

Some variation of a 4-5-1 (or a 4-4-1-1, if you prefer) probably would have made more sense here. Two high-pressing strikers didn’t have the opportunity to get back into the play, helping Pittsburgh unbalance the defensive and midfield lines with simple passes. Having an extra midfielder (with the lone striker still pressing high – and given the defensive deficiencies described above, it shouldn’t surprise I thought Mensah made more sense as the striker than a 4-4-2 midfielder in this situation) would have alleviated some of that, even if he’d been in a slightly advanced position to press just a bit.

The Pittsburgh goals both combined bad luck for Nashville, a tactical choice (one overly conservative, one overly aggressive), and some individual mistakes. You’d expect the luck to balance out over the course of the year, and some learning to be done i the other two aspects. With a talented-yet-inconsistent Atlanta United 2 up next, and undefeated Tampa Bay Rowdies after that, NSC has to implement the corrections quickly.


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