Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for some insights on Nashville SC’s most recent game. A waterlogged two-nil win over Atlanta United 2 is today’s source material.
Some press, but sit back with the lead
Nashville SC’s first goal was fortuitous (a golazo from Atlanta midfielder Will Vint), the second was well-struck. What is apparent is that after building the lead, Nashville SC backed off high pressure.
That was particularly true once the field conditions went downhill. Here are Nashville SC’s defensive actions before the hourlong lightning delay, and those after. The Boys in Gold (white) were attacking right-to-left:
That’s hardly a gegenpress, to be fair, but over a third of NSC’s pre-delay defensive actions (11 of 30 from players other than the keeper) came on the Atlanta side of midfield. After the break? Six of 46 non-keeper actions came in opposing territory. If you look only after halftime, just three total defensive actions, two by Kharlton Belmar and one by Kosuke Kimura, came in opposing territory.
As alluded to above, that’s for a couple reasons: the field conditions meant that pressing really wasn’t worth it, and Nashville’s lead meant that there wasn’t as much to gain by pressing as there was to lose – since the field conditions meant Atlanta would have a tough time scoring without major Nashville lapses.
That’s a nice mix of an aggressive gameplan, then a tactical adjustment when the game situation called for it.
Atlanta had the ball
This is of course influenced by Nashville’s contentedness with the lead (and their general tendency to be a bit more conservative on the road), but Atlanta United 2 was able to control a ton of the ball, and a lot of the action actually took place in NSC territory.
That’s Atlanta on the left and Nashville on the right You can see that the Baby Five Stripes controlled the majority of possession (548 to 280 passes), but other than corner kicks – which indicate a team that was trying to draw level, for sure – much of the meaningfulness of the possession wasn’t really there. That’s despite the action happening largely on NSC’s side of the field (which I guess you could say makes the early-game pressing results even more impressive for NSC).
Once the ball got into the attacking third, Atlanta was unable to meaningfully penetrate into scoring positions, but look at that huge swatch of red on the cusp of Nashville SC’s penalty area: plenty of the game was played in what could be a dangerous area had Atlanta’s final piece of attack had a bit more bite.
A blessing and a curse of the 3-5-2 system is that it stretches the field to its full width, with the wingbacks (and both Taylor Washington and Kosuke Kimura are traditional fullbacks with end-to-end motor, rather than offense-minded true wingers, in most senses) getting into the attack to compensate for leaving a third centerback deep most of the time.
This can stretch the opposing defense laterally, since they have to get out to cover those players (we saw NSC bitten last week against Pittsburgh in part by failing to cover the wide player). That’s a good thing. It can also be a negative, because so much of the offense then becomes dependent on service from players who are hugging the touchline.
It inherently becomes a cross-heavy gameplan, especially in the specific implementation Gary Smith has used in the past two weekends, with a pure defensive midfielder and two box-to-box players. That differs from last year’s approach, which saw two defensive minded box-to-box guys and a pure creator in front of them.
You can see last year’s FC Cincinnati playoff game, when Nashville SC went back to the 3-5-2 after abandoning it earlier in the year, on the left, with the attacking midfielder, 19 Alan Winn, pushed very high – it’s almost a little exaggerated here – with 30 and 20 (Bolu Akinyode and Matt LaGrassa, respectively) playing behind him. On the right is Saturday’s contest, with Akinyode sitting deep and LaGrassa and Michael Reed only slightly further upfield on average with a defensive midfielder behind them than they were with an offensive midfielder ahead of them. That’s a more conservative midfield, without a midfielder truly being involved in the attack.
The benefit of those box-to-box players is that they can get involved in the offense. You may recall “Matt LaGrassa scored a goal” as an event from Saturday’s game. However, that’s a secondary role in a way, whereas having a No. 10 there can help link the midfield to the attack. Without one, the 3-5-2 is inherently going to be almost completely dependent on that wing service, plus the occasions that the midfielders push forward a bit (and perhaps a little bit of long play from the back).
This formation, for me, has also miscast Kharlton Belmar as a pure striker, mostly as a way to get hi on the field. He’s a creative midfielder, and while he does most of his best work isolated on the wing where he can destroy defenders with 1v1 dribbles, I also think he could work as a No. 10 who makes things happen in the middle of the field an distributes forward. For my fellow USMNT fans, that should sound familiar from The Great Christian Pulisic Debate (and Belmar is a poor man’s Pulisic in a lot of ways).
In a game where Gary Smith doesn’t get the “screw it, we’re playing in a swamp” desire to play fairly defensively (which was the right philosophy to take in the second half of this one), going with the double-pivot defensive midfield and a creator – I just said Belmar, did I not? – could make sense. That requires an opponent against whom Tucker Hume can make an impact, or a healthier Cameron Lancaster/fitter Ropapa Mensah.
(It should come as no surprise that I don’t prefer the 3-5-2 formation for some of the reasons I’ve described above, though certainly it has its purposes, um, also as described above).
In modern soccer, and especially with a reasonably defensive style of play in the USL East, I tend to think that two-striker formations should be more of a changeup, and while it does mean a talented striker is either on the bench or slightly out of position, Nashville’s wing talent calls for a 4-2-3-1, for me.