Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for some insights on Nashville SC’s most recent game. A 1-0 road win in the Magic City is today’s source material.
Defensive gameplan for the Legion
I predicted that this was going to be something of a defensive battle, though I’d certainly expected that Nashville SC would have more success unlocking the Birmingham defense (and would have been even stronger in that opinion had the preview come after I’d seen the diminished lineup they put out). How they played, though, was about as conservatively as they have all year.
Check out their average positions in the midfield:
Those guys are pinched in so tight (and it’s not a trick of flipping sides or anything, other than 30 Razak Cromwell playing as little wider, this is just where they tended to be), and 10 Prosper Kasim, typically a pure offensive midfielder, sunk to play a defensive role, rather than seek goal. The strikers were isolated waaaaay up front, disconnected from any service.
Birmingham’s fullbacks typically get high up the pitch to play an offensive role. They did no such thing in this one, instead taking conservative positionings.
The Legion played for the draw, and showed very little interest in scoring (other than on balls over the top or crosses) until Nashville SC had already taken the lead. It’s frustrating that Nashville’s talent couldn’t find scoring opportunities despite that – like it had been against Charlotte – but when you still win the game… I have a tough time getting worked up about it.
Birmingham played a different, more defensive style than they’ve done the majority of the year. They wanted to get a result against a team that they see as a rival. If Nashville still manages to score and win in those circumstances, you take the three points and move along.
Take the lead and bunkerrrrrr
What I especially wouldn’t sweat, though, is Nashville’s not finding a second goal after they broke the deadlock. It may not be fun for the fan, but it’s effective in USL to simply bunker for a result (we saw Charlotte do it over the weekend). Once Daniel Ríos’s penalty kick hit the back of the net, it was all bunker for Nashville:
That’s two different lengths of time, of course, so the pure volume of positions on the map is going to mean less overall red. But you can basically see the entire formation shift backwards, aside from a couple corner kicks in the top left and what seems to be a mostly-coincidental grouping just past midfield on Nashville’s attacking left.
When the opposition really doesn’t have any offense to speak of, the less-sexy but results-producing tactical shift is fine. Birmingham tried it for the first portion of the game and it backfired because Nashville has too much talent.
So should I worry about the offense or what
While we’d all like to see the team score more (and in my opinion, it’s more about when those goals come at times – getting five against Swope Park and zero against Tampa Bay is 2.5 goals/game, but obviously not the ideal outcomes from that duo), I’m not particularly concerned about the output to date.
Certainly being shut out in First Tennessee Park twice stinks, but Nashville has also played 12 games, not just those two. Over the course of the season, the scoring output has been pretty close to elite.
Despite not having Cameron Lancaster healthy basically at all in USL play, and despite a silly miss here (“here” being the Loudoun game) or squandered header there (Saint Louis and Charlotte games come to mind), Nashville SC has the fourth-best offense in the entire USL and tops in the Eastern Conference:
You can see the full chart in the week’s Power Ratings (though Nashville’s offense has dipped since their release, thanks to this game, the change isn’t super-significant). Certainly things can still go downhill – we saw a significant mid-season swoon last year that saw inexplicable losses to the Torontos and Ottawas of the world – but until they actually do, things are still on solid ground.
First league action for Jones
Recent signing Derrick Jones made his debut for the club in the US Open Cup win against South Georgia Tormenta FC 2, but when he entered in the 64th minute against the Legion, it was his USL Championship debut for Nashville SC. He had a solid performance, with all his actions – and his heatmap – here:
A couple aspects that I found particularly interesting: first off, look at the width of the field he covered from the defensive midfield spot. He was shaded slightly to the right on the ball in the defensive half, but was a sideline-to-sideline player. We don’t always/often see that, and it’s one thing to keep an eye on as we evaluate how his addition changes what the club can do or wants to do.
Secondly, the variety of passes he hit (long, short, forward, backward) was solid, and he completed them with a consistency that we don’t always see from that position otherwise. Typically, there’s a choice between short-passing but consistent Bolu Akinyode or a more-adventurous but less-accurate Michael Reed. Jones was able to walk the line between those two styles, and also added an element with the ball at his feet (downward-pointing green triangles are successful dribbles of an opponent) that neither of them provides.
Speaking of Reed, he was far, far less involved once Jones came onto the field. This GIF compares his heatmap for the first 64 minutes of the game, and then the final 32:
Is it because Jones dominated the ball, because Nashville didn’t need Reed to be as involved after taking the lead (though he should still have been used as a safe passing outlet at times, so that’s probably not it) or something else? Either way, it probably speaks to the long-term potential of having Jones in the lineup, even if this small sample size makes for an extreme example, and the confounding factor of the sub coming concurrently with the goal is certainly something to keep in mind.