Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for insights about Nashville SC’s most recent result. Things did not go great against Charlotte Independence Saturday! Why?
Nashville SC and Charlotte Independence may have ended up tied in the only stat that matters – the number of goals scored – but it’d be fair to say that NSC dominated this game in a number of other ways. Alas, that doesn’t mean you get to go back and claim a win, but some of them are more strongly correlated with future success than is a simple look at the scoreline.
I will start, however, with possession:
There are many great debates (including in Gary Smith press conferences) about the uselessness of possession if you can’t do anything with it. That’s true, and it’s probably one of the ancillary stats that is less strongly correlated with victory (I smell an offseason project coming up!). However, there’s also value in it, as long as you don’t read too much into it.
What’s more important than possession, at least when it comes to scoring goals, is where you have that possession. Nashville SC (and the Independence for that matter) lived in the Charlotte half all game.
You can see that the vast majority of the game – as usual – came in the neutral third of the field. Most of what didn’t take place there, though, was nearly all in Charlotte’s end. The dominance is also borne out in shots taken (and positions from which those shots are taken):
Nashville took 20 shots, 13 of them from inside the penalty area (one inside the six-yard box, which was Lebo Moloto’s goal). Charlotte took nine – for whatever reason an attempt by Niki Jackson that was blocked doesn’t up on the shotmap – with six of them inside the box.
Conceptually, there’s a level of professional player at which point the number and position of shots taken is more indicative of the likelihood of success of those shots than player skill (that’s the idea behind xG), and certainly with the number of shots in dangerous positions Nashville took, you’d expect better scoring output on the night. It absolutely stinks that it didn’t happen for the team, of course, and (like with possession) you don’t get to go back and claim a victory. But having a bad night – four shots blocked, 12 shots off-target – isn’t always indicative of a future lack of success, either. Even with that bad night, Nashville SC is top ten in conversion rate (hitting 17% of shots), and Daniel Ríos (28% on the year, 0/3 on the night with none on-target) is among the league’s best.
Certainly last year’s offensive performance has fans fearing the worst, but we’re a little ways away from statistical evidence that NSC has anything other than an elite offense. There may be something to be said for piling it on in some games and not being able to get it done at all in others (I wrote an entire column about it), but for the time being, this looks like one bad game of a variety different from previous bad games. NSC has honed other specific types of struggle out after past offensive failures, hopefully this one is prone to some fine-tuning as well.
The Winn-Davis overlap
This was something I noticed a lot of live, but didn’t seem to be quite as apparent from the postgame data: Alan Winn and Justin Davis’s relationship up the left side was fairly interesting.
In the 4-2-3-1, you have two options for your offensive wingers: either they play on their “natural” side (strong foot on the outside for crosses), or they play “inverted” (strong foot on the inside, to cut toward the middle to find shots). Typically you see a more stay-at-home fullback on the side of the former, and a fullback who likes to get upfield involved in the offense in the case of the latter.
Winn is right-footed, playing on the left (an inverted winger), and Davis has traditionally been a fullback who likes to get up the pitch. That was somewhat borne out Saturday:
That big spot on the touchline in Winn’s map, however, did sometimes seem to see the players essentially standing next to each other with neither going on a run to receive the ball in crossing or shooting position, or at least to pull the defense out of shape to open up other options.
Here are the passes for just those two players from approximately that area (the rectangle encompassed by the the intersection of the half-way line and the touchline, and the corner of the penalty area in the opposite corner):
There’s little use of the overlap there, with essentially no passes from the spot where the players would cross paths into that feeding channel. Less worrisome (though still slightly concerning) is that Davis’s service from that intermediate position was poor on the night. He referred to it in the postgame press conference.
“I’m pretty upset with the quality of my service. Even though it created some chances, I think I’ve got to be better and give Danny [Ríos] some better service in there because he’ll put ’em away if he gets a sniff at it. I don’t know what the percentage was, but I’ve got to be 75 percent accuracy on those, and I wasn’t there tonight.”
Those deep crosses/passes are good ideas, and I’ll take good ideas with poor execution much more tranquilly than I would a team that can execute well but has no offensive ideas. Like the top section above, a bad night that you wouldn’t expect to be replicated regularly. When Winn and Davis have more on-field chemistry together (here’s where Winn’s missed time due to a preseason concussion and the malleable tactical approach prevent that relationship being built up), I’d expect their interplay to be more fluid.
Limited penetration for Belmar
One of the bright spots even in Nashville’s more-frustrating games this year has been the ability to count on Kharlton Belmar getting the ball into dangerous spots, even if the final product (his service or shot, or the shot from his key pass) hasn’t always been there. Saturday evening, he had a tough time getting into the areas where he’s lived all year. Take a look at his touchmap:
He got right to the edge of the penalty area, but couldn’t get into that next spot on more than just one or two occasions. That’s particularly surprising to me because I felt coming into the game that Charlotte’s left back (Andrew Gutman in more of a wingback role) was particularly vulnerable to one-v-one dribbles. Instead, Belmar attempted only three and was successful on only one of those all evening.
Some of that was thanks to the formation shift implemented by Charlotte to a 3-4-1-2 – this was their third game in it, including the midweek Open Cup contest, and I feel it is much better for taking advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of their individuals. That put left centerback Aaron Maund on Belmar, and his very position-safe defending was able to minimize Belmar’s impact on the game (while getting the occasional help from Gutman in a defensive posture). Much of what he did was simply stay home and recover the ball when it availed itself to him, but that was what was needed from his game.
It’s also a shame that Belmar needed to go 20 minutes in the midweek Open Cup game, because fresher legs probably would have seen him more able to work his typical magic.
Sloppy in the middle third
Nashville SC completed 84.0% of its passes Saturday evening, which isn’t bad at all. However, too many of the unsuccessful passes came in the buildup.
I’d forgive the long attempts into the box (they’re very much a “make things happen” move, and like unsuccessful passes from within the offensive third, I’ll take an attempt to make things happen not working out much more than I will other type of unsuccessful pass), but there were too many misplaced passes from within the middle third to intended recipients who are also in the middle third.
Uncharacteristic on the night? Perhaps. Tired legs, particularly for Belmar and Moloto? Probably.
But when the team doesn’t generate enough goals, cleanly advancing the ball into the attacking third is typically going to be a culprit. Even if (as noted in the top bullet point above) they generate chances, they’ll regret the chances they were never able to generate by turning it over in what should be relatively safe areas to pass the rock.
What did you see from the game?