From the film room: Sleeping defense allows a chance

The situation

We’re getting late in the first half, and Nashville SC has a 1-0 lead on Louisville City FC. However, the Boys in Purple are certainly getting the better of the run of play (they’d earn – and miss – a penalty in just a few minutes).

LCFC is working the ball down the right side of the field, when left wingback Taylor Washington makes a slide tackle to force Louisville to restart with a throw-in.

What happens

RCB Alexis Souahy (in Louisville’s three-man backline), who had been able to push very high up the field thanks to Nashville’s inability to muster much of a counter-attack, is interplaying with Niall McCabe, so he’s able to hustle to the sideline to make the throw.

Souahy does so very quickly, tossing the ball to McCabe, the right midfielder in a 3-4-3 for Louisville. Washington is caught in no-man’s land between the two Louisville players because he’s not expecting the throw to come that quickly.

Left centerback Justin Davis rushes over to close down McCabe. He’s able to take one touch, then hammer the ball to the top of the box, where Brian Ownby has acres of space. Ownby traps and fires without a single Nashville defender getting within four yards of him, but fortunately Connor Sparrow is there to make the save.

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Why it happens

This begins with Nashville being very overloaded defensively on the near side of the pitch. The spacing along the backline doesn’t start out poorly, but Davis’s reaction to close down Spencer stretches things a bit.

IMG_3A2B55F228F9-1.jpegMeanwhile, all three central midfielders are on the near side, and none are in position to provide cover for the backline. Matt LaGrassa and Bolu Akinyode are marking zero (0) players, while Michael Reed rushes over to cover center forward Luke Spencer (though he overruns him and if the pass had been intended for Spencer, he’d have had a chance to trap and shoot from just outside the six-yard box himself).

Nashville SC actually has a nine-on-six advantage in the defensive end (eight-on-six if you don’t count Sparrow), but somehow manages to leave a runner totally free here. The defensive line is only marginally stretched (Davis will sprint to McCabe as soon as the ball is thrown in, which stretches it more). They’re also maintaining strong defensive positions in their own area, instead of opening up huge gaps.

The geometric depth of the formation front-to-back is poor though: central midfielders have to be in position to shut down a player receiving the ball at the top of the box. Thanks to a miscommunication (or multiple miscommunications, more likely), and a general lack of disciplined play, that doesn’t happen.

This is largely because Souahy and McCabe recognize an opportunity with the quick throw: Nashville tends to take its own time when throwing the ball in, and largely expects opponents to do the same. Among the many insights American Soccer Analysis’s Eliot McKinley unveiled about throw-ins, one of the more salient points is that taking them quickly can provide a massive advantage:

The time between the ball goes out of touch and a throw-in is taken has a surprisingly large effect on the probability of success and possession retention. Most throw-ins are taken within 7-15 seconds after the ball goes out of touch. The optimal time to take a throw-in is about five seconds after the ball goes out of bounds to retain possession.

Quicker is better, and while that’s more about retaining possession of the ball than creating quick-strike offense, the mechanisms through which retention occurs also aid the offense: you can choose to be ready immediately, particularly if your opponent is not.

This is primarily about the quickness of that throw, and Nashville’s poor positioning and ball-watching are downstream from it.

Going forward

This was the only time it really seemed to impact Nashville by creating a tangible chance for Louisville (and indeed, it was one of vanishingly few quality chances Louisville had in the first half, despite their possession dominance), but I did notice that Louisville prioritized re-starting play from throw-ins or free kicks as quickly ass possible. Meanwhile, Nashville tends to take its time and get things set up instead of trying to catch the opponent by surprise. There are advantages to this – you, uh, get things set up, as mentioned – but also the disadvantage of losing that element of surprise.

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It doesn’t need to be an every-play occurrence, but adding the quick-strike element to Nashville’s offense is probably the more important piece to me than being ready defensively (the latter is something you just make a decision to do, and while everything isn’t always going to be perfect, recognizing that the opponent is going to try to hit you quickly and knowing that you have to be set doesn’t really change much that you do). Fortunately, if there’s one thing that we’ve seen consistently from Nashville SC in the brief history of USL play, it’s that when the staff sees something they like from an opponent, they immediately assimilate and integrate it into their game. We’ve seen it with certain set piece designs (the easiest spot to recognize it) along with some specific techniques or passing patterns over the past year-plus.

Getting pulled out of shape isn’t something that’s ben a long-term issue for NSC defensively (though in the more immediate past, it’s become one – that’s more about the backline than the central defensive midfielders, though), and recognizing that Louisville had a strategic choice that made it happen will allow Nashville to 1) prevent that advantage from existing for opponents going forward, and 2) use a similar tactic to their own advantage.

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