From the film room: wingbacks combine for a goal

Nashville SC had something of an offensive breakout game in Philadelphia Sunday. How did it happen?

The situation

Nashville SC leads 2-1. They’ve controlled the run of play – even Bethlehem’s goal came on a set piece sprung by a counter-attack – but when the game is this close, there’s plenty of opportunity for the Steel to jump right back level with another counter. Nashville needs one to seal it.

Steel centerback Ben Ofeimu has just taken a knock to the head, so there’s a stoppage as he comes off the field (he’d return almost immediately – the trainer told the assistant referee that he was cleared as they were still walking to the sideline). Steel keeper Carlos plays the ball long on the restart, giving Nashville the opportunity to play out of the back. They opt to play a ball over the top into midfield from Connor Sparrow.

What happens

The ball is headed back toward Nashville’s goal, where Steel player James Chambers recovers it. He doesn’t feel Nashville midfielder Michael Reed coming, and Reed is able to take the ball away at full speed. Reed moves the ball to attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto, who has plenty of options in the attacking third.

Moloto pushes the ball wide to left wingback Taylor Washington. His low cross finds striker Ropapa Mensah alone in front of goal, but Mensah can’t finish it with two left-footed attempts. The second one sees the ball pop high in the air.

Mensah’s fellow striker Cameron Lancaster tries to head it home, but Carlos punches the ball away (and gets a piece of Lancaster’s head in the process). It only makes it as far as right wingback Kosuke Kimura, whose left-footed volley somehow makes it through traffic unperturbed to give Nashville a two-goal lead.

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With the wind further taken out of Bethlehem’s sails, Nashville would find one more on a late set piece to provide the 4-1 final margin.

Why it happened

This was a goal mostly borne of offensive structure (along with a very good individual play from Reed, and solid individual play elsewhere).

Typically when going with three at the back – Justin Davis, Ken Tribbett, and Bradley Bourgeois in this one, but we’ve also seen typical starter Liam Doyle feature in the formation as well – Nashville plays reasonably conservatively with those wingbacks (Washington and Kimura in this outing). However, thanks to a slightly more aggressive mindset and the narrowness of the field at La Salle University, the wingbacks were able to both be involved in the offense simultaneously, and not just when Nashville was desperate to push for a goal.

IMG_0445So what we have here is a typical five-man backline, with Washington possessing the ball into the offensive third. You can see that there’s plenty of traffic at the  back in defense, but there’s probably something given up in offense, given that five defensive players means only five more left to contribute going forward. Given that Nashville almost always keeps two central midfielders in reasonably conservative positions, that means only strikers Lancaster and Mensah and attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto would get forward.

Of course, that’s not the case, with the wingbacks given an important role: moving the ball into the offensive third (or providing a wide passing option for somebody who has carried it into the offensive third), and more often than not, firing a cross. Of course, the centerbacks and the opposite wingback aren’t exclusively kept in defense, either, but when Nashville goes with 3/5 at the back, there’s a pretty conservative bias against pushing numbers forward: the purpose of the formation is to be sound at the back.

If Washington were to carry the ball forward in Nashville’s typical 3-5-2/5-3-2, the defensive line would move higher, but more importantly, all three centerbacks would shift left (to the ball side), and Kimura, while not sinking all the way to that line, would certainly prioritize the opportunity to recover defensively over pushing forward to join the attack.

IMG_0446
Backline shifting with Washington moving into the offensive third.

Nashville was in more of a pure 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2, though, with those wingbacks operating more like traditional wide midfielders than like guys whose first priority was support of the back three.

“When you play this position, sometimes it’s kind of awkward positioning,” said Kimura. “You can come join late so they don’t see you coming. I told Taylor [Washington] too: Maybe when the cross is coming, try to join as much as possible. Maybe we get something.”

That’s a different emphasis than the usual expectation for Nashville SC: the ball-away wingback was specifically asked to join in the attack.

IMG_0447There are multiple reasons Nashville was comfortable leaving three alone at the back, not least of which was the narrowness of the field. With less lateral ground to cover, the back three didn’t need additional bodies to provide additional manpower if Bethlehem broke in to the counter. Between the three of them, a slight spread to the sideline for Davis and Bourgeois, with Tribbett playing as a slightly withdrawn player to sweep up anything down the middle, and the whole things was covered.

Bethlehem’s midfield alignment (a diamond, with a single defensive midfielder, two narrower players ahead of him, and a central attacker at the top, behind a pair of strikers) also meant that the Steel were going to have a hard time tracking those wingbacks, who stuck wide.

That allowed Kimura to push forward without worrying that he was giving anything up defensively, and while he practically had a cloaking device to Bethlehem’s backline.

With both strikers and Moloto in scoring areas (and both Lancaster and Mensah having chances at the ball), Kimura was unmarked in the box, and was able to bang it home.

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A solid team goal, facilitated by multiple factors, not least of which was the narrowness of the field that Gary Smith had been so concerned about coming into the game.

Going forward

Alas, the combination of factors that led to the goal isn’t likely to be particularly recurrent – the vast majority of NSC’s games will be played on USSF-compliant field dimensions (and very few teams will have that diamond midfield that let the wingbacks run unmarked into the box – though Nashville also thrashed a diamond-midfield team using different tactics already this season).

Still, there are lessons to be taken about picking spots to engage more attackers, and particularly from unexpected areas, than the opponent is prepared to deal with. Situationally, it might not be Kimura, but Nashville – regardless of formation – can push an unexpected body forward to have a free runner in the box. Pep Guardiola’s Man City teams have been known – among many other successful aspects – for Vincent Kompany’s forays into the attacking third (with ball or as a runner), disorganizing the opponent even if he’s not directly involved in the scoring play.

Nashville doesn’t have a Vincent Kompany on the team, of course – and won’t unless one of y’all has an extra $10 mill lying around – but the bigger-picture lessons can be applied nonetheless. It can even apply to a central defensive midfielder: in Nashville’s scheme, those have traditionally stayed in very conservative positions, so their forays forward (which have been more common in 2019 than previously – Michael Reed’s push forward played a role in this play, as well) can catch opponents by surprise, as well.

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