Quick audible from publishing The Wrap this evening, because I saw another interesting play to break down while cutting GIFs. Let’s take a look at Nashville’s opener.
Nashville has tilted the field in Hartford’s direction through the first half hour of play on Rentschler Field. The Boys in Gold have comfortably controlled possession, and what little Hartford has created has come on the counter. Nashville SC has been employing a high press against Hartford’s defensively-sound but… questionable-in-possession… backline and keeper. Gary Smith has broken this out situationally throughout the year, primarily against teams that he thinks his side can really exploit with it – and those that are less likely to repay them by countering over the top, though we’d find out not too much later that Hartford has that ability.
A Nashville attack has just fizzled out, resulting in a goal kick for Athletic keeper Frederik Due. NSC pops into a high press, hoping to turn defense high up the field into quick offense. Due passes to Sem de Wit, who returns the favor to his man between the pipes. Due will continue Hartford’s attempt to play it out of the back rather than giving in and playing long.
Nashville’s putting immediate ball pressure on de Wit, with left striker Daniel Ríos spreading all the way to the sideline to force him back. Defenders going backward is often a pressing trigger for teams that want to get up the pitch, but Nashville doesn’t fire on Due, instead taking away all of his short options – or at least making it obvious that they’ll be less effective. Due tries to play to the other centerback, Logan Gdula, but his pass doesn’t have much mustard on it. Ropapa Mensah springs into action.
Mensah’s burst allows him to beat Gdula to the ball, and Gdula’s momentum as he tries to make that not happen completely removes him from the play.
Instead, it becomes Mensah v. Due, but Mensah’s angle is a tough one to shoot from – especially for a player who doesn’t have much of a left to speak for. Instead, the young Ghanaiann sees that Ríos read the play well, and is charging into the box himself.
An easy square pass, a finish to the far post, and Nashville has the lead.
Why it happens
Nashville’s pressing scheme was very sound here, and I’ll get into it in a moment. It’s important to note, though, that this play happens only because of an individual error from the goalkeeper. If he weights the pass properly to actually get it to Gdula, the FC Cincinnati loanee can look upfield, where left back Ray Less isn’t exactly wide open – but has space to receive the pass – with the option to give it to him or simply boot upfield. Due’s execution is poor, and Mensah takes advantage.
With that said, NSC’s high press from the 3-4-1-2 (not necessarily a formation out of which to press, but it matched up with Hartford’s tactics well) was well-designed to make this play happen.
The Hartford strikers and wingers are high upfield, while Nashville’s wingbacks can man-mark Hartford’s fullbacks. That leaves two central defensive midfielders and two centerbacks for Athletic if Due wants to play out of the back, while Nashville has the two strikers and attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto providing the resistance.
Nashville is using the strikers for what is essentially a triple purpose: to provide an extremely high line of confrontation upon which both of them can move laterally, man-marking the fullbacks if Due tries to move to find an angle to get past that line, and using their “cover shadows” (the areas behind them that can’t really be passed into because they’d be in position to intercept) to make a pass in to either of the CDMs, Nicky Downs and Mad Jørgensen, very difficult.
That last one is important because it gives Moloto the opportunity to stand in position to prevent a pass to either if those central midfielders. Reducing the angles Due can get it to them with the strikers, Moloto there to fire on any attempted pass to either one… all told, Nashville is set up to easily defend four players with only three pressing. Kimura is man-marking Lee and Washington the same on Curinga, and really, the only option is to play over the top – which creates a 50/50 ball that Nashville may win into that red area, the give-up tactic Hartford wants to avoid – or to find a way to prevent Nashville from cutting off the angles to the closer players.
The lateral movement is an attempt to do that: Due is on the right edge of his box, takes a couple touches to change the point of attack, and moves it to Gdula. The problem is that Nashville has the athleticism up top to shift across the width of the field, and of course Due’s pass is bad. Interception, goal.
As I’ve said in other film room pieces that involve the high press, it’s probably not an every-game feature for a USL team, but it’s a very nice changeup to have available when the opponent doesn’t have the individual quality to break the press, nor the “we’ll give in and bomb it over the top” attitude that is common in USL. (Plenty of teams don’t even try to play out of the back, in fact).
That typically applies to MLS2 sides, which want to work on playing a beautiful style of game to develop players (through their growing pains before they’re signed to the senior side), and value that over playing a pragmatic, “get it out of our end,” perhaps more results-based game. Hartford has more experienced players than the teen-heavy Swopes or Loudouns od the world – de Wit, Due, and Gdula are all over 22 – but still wants to work on playing out of the back. This despite the fact that they can’t quite pull it off.
Other teams will either solve Nashville’s press with better spacing and more accurate passing – neither of those was covered in glory for Hartford in this one – and if all else fails, be more willing to bang one over the top and live to fight another day. That means using the press situationally (and tweaking what is and isn’t a pressing trigger), and adjusting and fine-tuning the specifics of how it’s implemented will be a key. As a changeup and source of quick offense, though, it’s a nice surprise to spring on the opponent at times.