Nashville SC didn’t experience a lot of joy against Birmingham Legion, but managed to come away with a win. That was largely thanks to one play (in two parts) by winger Alan Winn.
It’s the 62nd minute, and the teams are scoreless. Both Birmingham Legion and Nashville SC have had a couple chances (the former on counters, the latter by building up through midfield), but all have gone for naught. Nashville’s three shots have seen just one on target – and the best chance didn’t even register a shot with Winn unable to get on the end of a Kharlton Belmar cross – and Birmingham has gotten off four attempts, with only one of theirs on the frame.
Birmingham possesses the ball deep in its own end, looking to build forward. Nashville looks to be sitting back, with a token high press from just striker Daniel Ríos.
Midfielder Razak Cromwell passes the ball to centerback Mathieu Laurent. As mentioned above, there’s token pressure from lone Nashville SC striker Daniel Ríos on the ball. As Laurent tries to cycle around the back to fellow CB Femi Hollinger-Janzen, Nashville winger Alan Winn sees a pressing key*.
*More about what this means in a moment
Winn fires forward, putting some pressure on Femi. While he doesn’t beat the CB to the ball, he does worry him enough that Femi… does something?… and doesn’t end up receiving the pass. As he lets it go past, Winn seizes the opportunity, taking it away.
Winn dribbles upfield, isolated one-v-one with Femi thanks to the nature of the turnover and transition play. He easily beats the centerback inside the box, and Hollinger-Janzen has no choice but to make a last-ditch tackle attempt. It doesn’t even come close to getting ball, and Winn provides Nashville a well-earned penalty.
Daniel Ríos would slot it home after the referee settled play.
Why it happened
This is largely about an individual effort from Winn. Look where he starts the play:
He’s almost exactly 20 yards (across the center circle as both players are standing on it) away from Hollinger-Janzen when the ball is played to Laurent. Right back Eric Avila never comes into the picture, and one must assume bad positioning by him is part of what makes Femi lose his damn mind.
For teams that aren’t all-press all-the-time, there are certain specific things that individual players are trained to look for from the opponent, and when they see one, they immediately spring into action. Those are called pressing keys or pressing triggers. Teams that completely bunker, and choose to never press don’t have them either. Gegenpressing teams like Liverpool or Man City won’t have a ton of pressing triggers, they’re just always going to be pressing. Conversely, Colorado Rapids wouldn’t have them either, because they’ve tended to just park the bus and counter-attack (though who knows what they’ll be like going forward).
Most teams are somewhere in the middle. In preseason and very early in the year, Nashville SC was a press-heavy team, and while they weren’t going to be confused for New York Red Bulls, they put plenty of pressure on opponents in their own end, making life difficult for them. They’ve since backed off, and to some extent, only breaking the press out situationally can lull opponents to sleep, so that when you use it, Femi Hollinger-Janzen will lose his damn mind.
In that respect, it appears to me that Winn is on alert when the ball goes to Laurent, ready to spring into action. The trigger itself seems to be the ball getting to Hollinger-Janzen (which makes sense to me, because his reaction was fairly predictable, if a little more extreme version than could have been reasonably expected). Since Nashville SC has the right side of the field covered (see the graphic above), and Avila is off god-knows-where, Hollinger-Janzen has no clue what he’s going to do, and his brain reboots mid-play.
From there, Winn has the transition opportunity, and given a one-on-one with Femi, he shows that the Legion defender is not only horrible with the ball at his feet, but horrible in one-v-one defense, as well.
A 140-pound dude (OK, I’m being a little hyperbolic there, but Winn is not a big guy, and even NSC’s likely over-listing is just 162 pounds) bodies him(!), and he sweeps the leg from behind. The cleat rising to the thigh after Femi is on the ground makes that a no-question red card, but given that a penalty resulted, the dumb ref psychology of “don’t double-punish an infraction” comes into play and Femi avoided a booking.
The big picture, though, is that Nashville put a good player in a one-v-one situation with a bad one, and he won the battle twice in one play.
As I mentioned above, the fact that Nashville doesn’t regularly press played some role in the success of this play: Hollinger-Janzen was not mentally prepared to deal with it, and completely lost his marbles when the situation arose. My assumption that the ball going to him was the trigger is partially based around a guess that Nashville had identified this as a possibility.
Still, situational pressing is going to be important to Nashville, and simply requires proper execution – and maybe a mistake from the opponent – to succeed. The expectation that your execution will lead to said mistake is the concept here, in a lot of ways.
So why has Nashville gone away from the press? For one thing, it’s physically taxing, and they don’t have a deep roster. We’ve seen the tired legs leading to missed chances over the past month. Think how much worse it could be if Nashville had been running itself more ragged (and as a side note, I also think this week and a half of rest is going to be better for Nashville than many think – a good finishing team has turned into a bad one despite plenty of chances created because of the fatigue. If the chances remain consistent, a more-rested team will put more of them away; that’s going to be the silver lining of elimination from the US Open Cup).
In addition, Nashville had a run of games where they were playing more-experienced, and perhaps better-coached opposition. Charleston Battery, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Indy Eleven… these are veteran teams with veteran coaches. We saw glimpses of going back to the press when the opposition warranted it (primarily in the games against ATL UTD 2 and Swope Park Rangers).
The next three games? A rested Nashville team takes on Bethlehem Steel and and Hartford Athletic, which are a young MLS2 side and a generally bad team, respectively. Then they host New York Red Bulls II, a good team but a young one (by design of the Red Bulls organization), and the last one against whom they used heavy pressing to any great degree.
It will likely remain situational rather than the identity of the program, but the press should make appearances in the coming weeks.