Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data from Nashville SC’s most recent game for some insight as to how the result came about, and what it can tell us for the future. If you haven’t yet voted in the player ratings, do so here!
The New Guys
As is tradition around these parts, let’s take a look at some of what the two new guys to the lineup did over the course of the game. We’d seen Vinnie Vermeer before (for 29 minutes in the first game against New York Red Bulls II, before he suffered an ankle injury), but it had been quite some time.
His involvement was not particularly high for the central defensive midfield position, but he was reasonably solid:
There’s sort of a range of involvement for central defensive midfielders that goes from Derrick Jones on the high end to… well, about this. There’s nothing wrong with Vermeer’s game, per se, but not a ton of action for the young Dutchman. Given that much of the responsibility is defensive – and the team kept a clean sheet – you don’t get upset about it. But in the 4-2-3-1, there also has to be a connecting responsibility between the backlin and the front four.
Centerback Jimmy Ockford scored the goal, of course (one of just two actions all game in the opposing half of the field for him), but had a very nice game outside of it, as well:
His passing was either conservative (to Kosuke Kimura/Darnell King at right back or Liam Doyle at LCB), or unsuccessful – with two of his three longer forward passes incomplete. A bit more time and chemistry in this team should help there.
Defensively, he was very strong, with 13 defensive actions, five of them inside his own box. It’s plain to see why this is a guy on an MLS contract (loaned to Nashville SC from San Jose Earthquakes) when he can arrive on a USL side and be immediately successful.
Numbers up the pitch
I’ve made it no secret that I’m not a huge fan of the back 3/5 for this team, not because of anything it means defensively, but rather because it’s tended to mean bad things for the offense. The switch back to a 4-2-3-1 saw things run much more smoothly. Here’s the heatmap for the “3” of that formation, the offensive midfielders, along with the passmap for that quartet plus striker Daniel Ríos:
There’s a tendency for No. 3 Ropapa Mensah (right attacking midfield, on the top of the graphic) to float inside a little earlier as the ball advances up the pitch, while No. 19 Alan Winn sticks to the sideline until he’s truly in the attacking third.
Lebo Moloto (No. 10) in the center likes to float side-to-side – with a look at the heatmap, you might think it’d make more sense for him to stay disciplined and remain in the middle of the pitch to create more consistent spacing. However, there are a couple reasons he goes sideline-to-sideline: first off, he does some interchanging with Mensah (who has played mostly striker recently, and is more comfortable in the center of the pitch, even though his skillset translates long-term to a wide role). Secondly, getting width allows him to be part of an overload on one side, opening up one-v-one opportunities and making Nashville SC’s numbers overwhelming to the defense. Thirdly, it allows those wingers to get very deep up the field, working back along the endline to get into the box (which both wingers are comfortable doing, and Winn in particular had success with against Memphis).
Finally, a bit on why I’m not a huge fan of the 3-5-2 for this team, and why the problems it creates for Nashville weren’t as apparent in this one. Crossing isn’t good offense. Certainly teams can score from crosses, particularly if they have talented finishers to get on the end of those, but by and large, it’s merely a good-looking but low-percentage way to generate scoring chances.
The 3-5-2 (with wingbacks providing the width high up the pitch and two strikers basically parked in the box) typically forces Nashville to rely on crosses to make their scoring. With a back-four, their reliance on crossing was greatly diminished (see right, with two short-corner kicks accounting for more than a quarter of the game’s crosses), and they generated more effective offense.
Going back to the passmap, you can see that Nashville had plenty of danger – from dangerous players – in the area just outside Memphis’s penalty area in the center of the pitch (a.k.a. “Zone 14”).
Toothless attack and some bunkerball
Memphis outshot Nashville on the night overall (16 for 901 FC, just nine for Nashville SC), but it’d be fair to say that the stats are a liiiiittle misleading.
Of Memphis’s 16 shots, six of them were blocked by Nashville SC defenders before they ever had a chance to challenge the goal. Two others (including the best attempt on goal) came from well outside the box.
The remaining attempts that came from inside the box consisted of five low-angle attempts (easier to save, with not much net exposed), only two of which forced a save out of Matt Pickens, and three headed attempts from corner kicks.
As discussed above, there’s certainly a possibility that a corner will lead to a header that actually scores, but it’s a low-percentage play (and none of Memphis’s three opportunities was on-frame.
This was a lockdown defensive performance.
That’s in part because Nashville was content to sit on the lead once they extended it to two goals: smart, because of the overall lack of Memphis danger (aside from one attempt correctly flagged for offside) to the net. If you don’t think the other team can break down your defense, it’s smart to protect that multi-goal lead.
Here are the respective shotmaps at the point of Nashville’s second goal (the 14 on the left side):
The three aforementioned headed attempts from corners (again, I wouldn’t say it’s smart to avoid earning corner kicks, but the effectiveness of a header from a cross is very low nonetheless), one of the low-angle shots form inside the box – courtesy of former Boy in Gold Brandon Allen – and some hopeful long bombs as Memphis tried to get anything going.
The primary reason for their difficulty was that Nashville decided to take its lead and go home. Here’s the Nashville-only heat map from the point of Ríos’s goal through the end of the game:
That’s a lot of sitting back and letting Memphis (ineffectively) possess the ball on you. 901 FC passed the ball around a lot – and actually did manage a couple penetrations into the Nashville box – but couldn’t generate meaningful scoring chances:
“Possession without purpose” has been a theme of these posts – for the positive and for the negative – all season, and Nashville forced Memphis into plenty of it from the 48th minute onward Wednesday evening.
What did you see from the stats that may not have been apparent on a live viewing? You can peruse the Opta data for yourself here.