From the film room: Atlanta United 2 scores on itself

Nashville SC didn’t kick the first ball that ended up in the back of Brendan Moore’s net Saturday evening. However, that doesn’t mean the Boys in Gold simply lucked out: they earned it nonetheless.

The situation

In a slightly drizzly Kennesaw, Ga. (before the real downpour began), Nashville SC takes on a talented-but-inexperienced Atlanta United 2 team. The Boys in Gold, for the second straight match, come out in a 3-5-2 formation. Atlanta United is in its typical 4-2-3-1.

It’s early in the match – we haven’t even seen the four-minute mark come across the clock just yet – but Nashville SC’s high press forces ATL UTD 2 into a throw-in deep in its own territory. Thanks to Atlanta’s dedication to playing out of the back (fairly typical for the USL reserve teams of MLS sides), they’re set up to pass around the defense, rather than bombing it deep just to clear danger.

What happens

Left back Luiz Fernando throws the ball in to defensive midfielder Will Vint, who first-touches it immediately back to Fernando. With Matt LaGrassa closing in, Fernando dribbles away from the pressure, and passes it back to Vint.

Kosuke Kimura fires quickly on Vint, who tries to play it back to keeper Brendan Moore. Alas, Moore is outside the frame of goal, and Vint’s curler tucks nicely inside the far post.

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Why it happens

Vint certainly didn’t feel great about this play, but it’s part of the learning experience for a kid who just turned 17 in October. Making mistakes like this is inevitable, and most of the time they won’t result in an own goal. Philosophically, the Atlanta United organization wants 17-year olds to get this experience with their USL side, so the truly damaging errors are worked out of the system by the time they’re ready to make first-team debuts at 18 or 19.

What is atypical in USL is facing this level of high pressure. Some of the fellow MLS2 teams do it (again, to make their mistakes in a high-risk, high-reward system before there are millions of dollars at stake for the MLS team), but fewer independent teams – with experienced, mature athletes – show any sort of press on a regular basis.

LaGrassa’s movement here is so key: he pressures the initial touch by Vint, but does so on a trajectory that also allows him to close down the player to whom Vint is passing. That makes Fernando uncomfortable, and he plays it short again. Kosuke Kimura’s  ability to hustle from the sideline in to the player that LaGrassa was initially marking creates the chaos.

Moore is outside the frame of his goal, where he’s supposed to be for a team playing out of the back. He wants to provide a passing target that isn’t inside the frame of the goal, in case of a slightly inaccurate (or mishandled on his own end) pass. Alas, Vint doesn’t get his head up to make sure he’s aware of Moore’s location. It’s unclear whether he’s expecting his keeper to be outside the opposite post (and slightly mishits his pass), or if he thinks Moore will be in the frame of the goal. Either way, dude is not where Vint was expecting.

Nashville’s structure in the high press – aside from the duo who most obviously affected the play in a direct manner – shouldn’t be ignored, either. There aren’t options other than playing it back to the keeper.

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Unless Vint wants to pass to a player who’s completely covered, or will be closed down immediately, he has extremely limited options: go back to Moore, try to hit the big switch to Wyke – while hoping Belmar and Reed aren’t able to interrupt that passing lane and intercept – play it over the top, or try to dribble away from a non-stop motor-having grizzled veteran.

Given we know Atlanta doesn’t want him to hit it long, A floated ball to Wyke might be his only other option here. Of course, a better pass to Moore would have been preferred to… whatever it was you’d call the ultimate result here… but Nashville’s positioning (and perhaps some spacing that left room to be desired by Atlanta) made him the only option Vint was comfortable with.

Going forward

Nashville SC has gone with pressing tactics intermittently this year, with great success early and less success toward the end of the Pittsburgh game. It’s not going to be the core identity of a team that has been more pragmatic against reasonable opposition since the games have gotten real.

However, this play is an example of how a press can be used to achieve a desired result, even if it doesn’t go down as a defensive action in opposing territory. I talked about those in last night’s Graphical, and this particular play is a canonical example of what a press can do for you, even though its outcome wouldn’t be shown in that particular lens of looking at the stats. You can see why a press-possession style has been the preferred approach of many of the teams dominating European leagues (namely Liverpool and Man City this season).

I do think NSC will continue to be a little more pragmatic (especially if the 3-5-2 is here to stay), rather than forcing the action with the high press. It will nonetheless be a nice tool to have in the kit going forward.

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