From the Film Room: Falling into a draw

Nashville SC gave up a late equalizer to come away with only one point against Ottawa Fury Saturday evening. How did the game-tying goal happen?

The situation

Nashville is nursing a 3-2 lead in the 80th minute. The Boys in Gold are content to sit on the lead, trying to possess to run out clock (rather than score), or worst-case scenario just keep it out of their own end.

After an Ottawa corner kick fizzles into nothing, Matt LaGrassa clears the ball long from near his own endline. It goes out of bounds for an Ottawa throw along the right (defensive) side. Ottawa plays it around the back, with right fullback Carl Haworth eventually sending in a long ball to right winger Christiano François.

What happens

Nashville’s defense collapses on François, especially as he’s joined by center forward Mour Samb and the other winger, Kévin Oliveira, along that left (defensive) side. The ball moves to Samb, who is a little bit more space and therefore passing options as both wingers make runs into the box.

Instead, he moves it across to Charlie Ward, the lone pivot, who has plenty of space. Ward completes the switch of field (right-to-left) by passing first-touch to attacking midfielder Wal Fall.

Fall doesn’t find much resistance upon receiving the pass. That allows him to set up a fake with his left (whether that’s a through-ball to charging left fullback Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé or a shot from a poor angle). Nashville defensive midfielder Matt LaGrassa bites hard on the fake, leaping as Fall cuts back to his right.

Fall’s bouncing shot makes it past keeper Matt Pickens, leveling the score.

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Why it happened

This is pretty disappointing defending against what had been a pretty pedestrian buildup: Ottawa played across its defensive lines, then banged a longball to a winger. That should allow the team to be pretty settled defensively, with no transition play to speak of.

However, by bringing both wingers and Samb to the defense’s left, Ottawa manages to get the Nashville defense to commit a ton of numbers to that side:

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That’s six defenders for three attacking players. Washington is nominally man-marking Dixon (sort of? He’s kind of just dropping back into the defensive shape slowly while Dixon moves back centrally). Davis is on François, Bourgeois on Samb, and King on Oliveira. Moloto and Reed are providing support, while checking over their shoulders for Dixon and Ward.

That actually leaves the eventual goal-scorer, Fall, double-covered by a defensive midfielder (LaGrassa) and wingback (Kimura). However, Ottawa is able to increase the numbers advantage of its overload:

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After François drops it to Samb, both he and Oliveira make runs into the box. Even though they don’t receive the ball, this drags Bourgeois, King, and Davis deeper, meaning Reed has to step over to mark the center forward. It also means the central defenders are going to be effectively eliminated from recovering to any of the midfield trio.

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Ward’s first-touch pass to Fall puts him one-on-one with Kimura, with LaGrassa the only other Nashville player on that side of the field (aside from Darnell King, who is marking Oliveira near the top of the box). Bourgeois has dropped back into a sweep role following the runs of the Ottawa wingers.

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Oh no! Left back Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé makes a run into the box, occupying Kimura. This means LaGrassa has to slide quickly to cover Fall, who is on the ball. A nice individual effort from Fall uses LaGrassa’s momentum against him, and the ball is in the back of the net.

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The shot is nice, but from that distance and angle, a keeper really should have a shot at it. Unlike much of his defense (which didn’t react to the switch of play basically at all), Matt Pickens seemed to overreact to it – potentially because he, like Kimura, was concerned about Gagnon-Laparé – and doesn’t manage to get a hand on it.

Overall, this play was about Nashville poorly handling that switch of play in various ways. In the structure of the defense, a reasonably simple buildup shouldn’t create such a significant confusion for Nashville’s defense that they’re opening up acres of space for Ottawa to get one-v-ones in the open field. A nice chop and finish from a very good player finishes it all off.

Going forward

Without knowing exactly how the defense’s responsibilities, it’s easy to say that the right rotation was not made – but difficult to say exactly what that would have been.

It seems like, reasonably early in the play, Taylor Washington and Lebo Moloto could have dropped into stronger defensive positions (they seemed to both be hanging back a bit for the counter, which certainly was open given the way Ottawa wanted to push numbers forward, but unnecessary given the score). Moloto’s spot at the top of a midfield triangle… never materializes here, and it’s possible – even likely – that it’s his responsibility to have the token pressure on Ward that would free up defensive counterparts Reed and LaGrassa to take more central positions that don’t see them scrambling as much.

In addition, it’s possible (this is the part that’s least clear without knowing the specifics of how the scheme is coached up) that King is supposed to slide over for Fall, rather than stick to Oliveira – passing the latter off to Bourgeois, who shifts from a sweeper role to man-marking. That seems reasonable, with King hesitant to revert to his fullback instincts in his second game at centerback, even though the specific assignment on that play for the centerback is what he instinctually wants to do.

Overall, it’s a nice buildup by Ottawa (though a simple one), a nice individual play by Fall, and poor shifting to the switch, and poor defensive recovery by Washington and Moloto (contributing to the defense’s over-coverage of the left side, with too much space after the switch). In the end, the goalkeeper should still make the play, but it was a goal credited to the team, not just one player.

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