From the film room: Numbers forward, Nashville creates a chance

Nashville SC had a big offensive day – and it could have been bigger with better finishing – against Hartford Athletic Sunday. Let’s go to the film to see how one of their chances was created.

The situation

Neither team has generated much offense, though Nashville has controlled possession and been closer to that moment on a couple occasions. Still, having the majority of the ball (especially against a bunker-counter team like Hartford) does not mean winning games unless you can score.

Nashville has built solid forays into opposing territory by working the ball up the wings and crossing. On this particular occasion, the cross doesn’t create a chance, and instead rattles around the box before Kosuke Kimura runs onto it.

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In other situations, Nashville may get its defenders back and settled before cycling the ball around and beginning a new offensive push. Here, though, they decide to go straight back into chance generation.

What happens

After Taylor Washington’s cross falls at the feet of Lebo Moloto, the Boys in Gold can’t get much out of it. A Hartford deflection pushes the ball wide where Kosuke Kimura (who had actually been in the center of the Hartford penalty area) outruns Sebastian Dalgaard to it.

Kimura moves the ball to Matt LaGrassa, who then cycles it back to his fellow defensive midfielder Michael Reed. Thanks to Nashville SC keeping numbers forward, rather than focusing on keeping numbers back to be safe in case of a Hartford counter, left centerback Justin Davis is an obvious passing option for Reed.

Once Davis get the ball, he takes a couple touches forward. Midfielders Harry Swartz and Nicky Downs collapse on him, creating an opening for him to pass forward to Lebo Moloto. Moloto plays a 1-2 with striker Ropapa Mensah, and while the return ball’s bounce prevents him from striking the volley cleanly, it’s easy to see how just a tiny bit more precision could have opened the scoring.

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Having the ambition to strike that one first-time is how you end up with 32 shots. Dialing it in (along with some of the other opportunities throughout the game) is how you become one of the USL’s most prolific offenses. Nashville SC is already close to that distinction, and there’s room to grow.

Why it happens

Defenses even at the highest level have a hard time handling a centerback who pushes forward. At the USL level, it can be even more nightmarish. A similar concept also played a role in Kosuke Kimura’s goal last week (though more indirectly). This time, it was indeed a true centerback – LCB Justin Davis – who gets involved in the play and opens things up.

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Winger Harry Swartz and defensive midfielder Nicky Downs step up to stop Davis from penetrating. While they’re successful in that regard, their movement opens a passing lane to Moloto, while the other defensive midfielder, Mads Jørgensen, has to step wide to cover Davis’s run after he releases the ball.

That leaves Mensah, Moloto, and Daniel Ríos three-on-two with RB Kyle Curinga and CB Sem de Wit (Jørgensen does recover, but he’s not in position to stop things), while the other centerback, Logan Gdula, starts too wide to make a serious impact on the play unless Nashville delays or tries to involve Ríos.

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It is worth noting that Davis’s forward ambition isn’t the only thing that disorganizes Hartford here or begins the play: Kimura beginning in the middle of the box… is not something you’d have seen last year, when Nashville’s philosophy was a little more conservative (though not as much more as it seems: the increased scoring output is more about the talent on-hand than major philosophical differences). A wingback would likely have been on his horse to get back into defensive positioning in case of a Hartford break.

In the end, it’s about individuals making individual plays: Kimura on the recovery, Davis with the drive forward and solid pass, and the interplay between Mensah and Moloto. The final piece isn’t far off.

Going forward

Nashville has picked and chosen its spots to be more aggressive. You weren’t going to see something like this (a wingback and a centerback both intimately involved in the same play in the final third) against Indy Eleven. However, when the opportunity arises, there’s going to be aggression in putting numbers forward, and in turning possession in the final third into scoring chances.

Another interesting thing (though it doesn’t relate directly to this play) is just how conservative Hartford was playing, for the most part. Take another look at where the players were when Davis first dribbles forward:

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All but one Hartford player (striker José Angulo) is in the defensive half, and basically all in the defensive third. More interestingly, they’re all within the width of the 18-yard box – despite Taylor Washington and then Davis being in positions deep on the sideline. Hartford wanted to pack the box and force Nashville to beat them (Nashville did just that, with approximately 1,000 shots from within the penalty area, but that’s a different post).

Nashville was a little more direct on this play, but you can see why crosses were such a big part of the gameplan: Hartford was willing to give them up, hoping Nashville couldn’t convert. That mostly held true – none of Nashville’s goals came directly from crossing service into the box in the settled defense – but the Boys in Gold had enough individual quality, and the desire to throw numbers forward, to score three goals nonetheless. It didn’t happen on this play, but proving that there’s a willingness to take a shot from that location will eventually loosen up even a packed-in defense.

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