Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for insights about Nashville SC’s most recent game. Today, a setback in the suburbs of Raleigh.
Gary Smith seemed to design his starting lineup – Justin Davis as a wingback, Bradley Bourgeois in the center of a back-three – with the idea in mind that he might need to shift to a four-man backline. That indeed happened late in the first half. Smith actually said in the postgame that he switched from the 3-4-1-2 (about which more in a moment) to the 4-4-2 prior to changing out his personnel, but as it played out on the field, the replacement of Kosuke Kimura with Alan Winn is when the difference truly manifested itself.
That’s made most apparent by the positioning of Darnell King, who shifted from right centerback to an outside back with the change – attacking right-to-left:
King pushes out and up the field with the change. For what it’s worth, Here’s what Kimura had done before exiting, displayed with Justin Davis’s time during the same span in the opening 39 minutes before he shifted from wingback to fullback (a less significant switch than King executed):
Those guys stayed deep in their own end. It’s tough to give definitive cause/effect responsibilities here, but in past games, the wingbacks have been very high in a 3-4-1-2 formation; this was more like a true 5-3-2. Is that because Nashville couldn’t possess the ball through the midfield, or is it the reason Nashville couldn’t possess the ball through the midfield?
I don’t know the answer for sure, but North Carolina was dominant in possession in those first 39 minutes, and Nashville SC’s outside backs stayed deep in their own end. With just three central midfielders to cover the width of the pitch – and no outlets closer to the touchlines, unlike in previous games – you can certainly see what happened, if not which part caused which.
That opening stretch
Nashville SSC was dominated until the substitution. The pass map is not kind:
It underscores plenty of what I talked about above, wherein the players in midfield were overrun by North Carolina FC’s numbers. Look how little is going on past the backline, whether in the center of the pitch or toward either touchline (with the right side more problematic than the left in creating spacing, though the pass success from the left was particularly poor, too).
The central defensive midfielders couldn’t really play forward with the numbers in the middle (and little help by going wide)
…and the 84.8% pass completion rate in those opening salvos were propped up by that conservatism and a lot of the centerbacks playing between each other. Bradley Bourgeois’s passmap is not an indictment on him by any stretch, but rather a visual demonstration of how Nashville was closer in possession than you’d otherwise think because they had no ability to get out of their own end:
There’s no way to break out the official stats by time, but unofficially, I have Nashville with 198 passes by the time that the sub was made (168 completed). Only 45 of those were kicked from North Carolina FC territory.
Meanwhile, NCFC had 259 passes in that same timeframe. that unofficially gives them a 56.7-43.3% possession advantage. Even worse, a comfortable majority of their passes came in Nashville SC territory, with 145 of them on the offensive end for NCFC.
“Attacking half possession” is not any sort of official stat that I’m aware of – and to try to generalize it would get hairy pretty quickly – but for this specific purpose and point to illustrate, that’s 76.3% of attacking half possession went to NCFC in the first 39 minutes of the game.
After the switch – which unfortunately came after North Carolina FC had taken a 1-0 lead – Nashville was dominant in the game. Here is the teams’ combined heatmap after the sub was made:
That is a game played almost entirely in NCFC’s end. Their only offensive forays were a couple corner kicks (bottom right), and getting just over the halfway line close to the touchline, but no further.
The shot disparity after the switch was massive:
…but this brings us to another problem, which was NSC’s shooting accuracy. Getting shots is better than not getting shots. But if the ones you do manage to launch have no chance of scoring (only four of 14 on-target, and two of those were long free kicks that troubled Tambakis, but are both low-percentage in terms of conversion).
Nashville controlled the run of play, but North Carolina was mostly content to pack it in and protect a 1-0 win. That’d have been a successful strategy against last year’s Nashville SC team, which wouldn’t have been able to create many shots with the deficit. It played out a little lucky for North Carolina FC that none of Nashville’s dangerous shots – which they did create several of, in terms of shooting location at least – leveled the score.
All told, NCFC deserved to win the game… but several of them that play out on similar terms are probably won by the visitor at a better than 50% rate. To a certain extent, they were lucky to hold on for the win.
The central midfield
So, we’ve established that (at least until the formation shift), Nashville’s midfield was problematic. Other than losing the numbers game in the middle of the pitch, why did that happen? One of my working theories is that Bolu Akinyode and Michael Reed are very similar in style (albeit with Reed a little more willing to get involved offensively).
Neither is the fleetest of foot, and their passing often plays out similarly (though for different reasons: Akinyode tends to take his time settling the ball, so the opponent can close down passing options, whereas Reed’s simple accuracy off the foot is a little lower). The dual passmap over the course of the game for them bears this out to an extent:
A couple loooong passes (one of them successful) separate Reed from Akinyode, but largely they stay out of the center of the pitch, they tend to hit it a little shorter and often laterally or backward rather than forward (aside from those speculative attempts by Reed), and don’t cover a ton of ground.
I suspect Matt LaGrassa’s nursing a minor injury from the Ottawa Fury game (he wasn’t in the starting lineup for the rain-abandoned Red Bulls II game, either) that isn’t enough to keep him completely off the field, but the preference was to give him whatever rest was possible. Adding a player with forward-thinking dribbling and passing ability alongside one or the other of Reed and Akinyode is probably a better overall fit (and more versatile schematically).
That’s part of why I was a little surprised to see Vinnie Vermeer leave: the options in the midfield are a little light right now, and he can provide a bit of stylistic variety in there. Even if he’s not rated by the staff as highly, having a different type of guy until Derrick Jones’s late-season return from injury could have a bit of value. (Of course, if Vermeer can’t hack it defensively, which may be a possibility, he wouldn’t be able to make an impact no matter what).