Let’s take a look at Memphis’s high press – which was actually fairly successful – in last week’s game against Nashville SC. 901 FC almost certainly saw how successful Louisville was pressuring the ball high earlier in the month, and wanted to replicate that success.
There were multiple instances of this happening, primarily revolving around Nashville SC attempting to play out of the back. When Memphis had time to set its defensive structure, they wanted to prevent Nashville SC from moving methodically up the field.
They set up in a 4-4-1-1 press, with Brandon Allen chasing the ball around the back, with the other players’ responsibilities changing depending on where the ball went.
Allen’s motor (which he showed last year in the opposite uniform when the Boys in Gold pressed opponents – he took flak for not showing effort in that phase of the game, but I believed it then and now to be unfair. He’s not a great athlete, and wasn’t quite good enough a finisher for what NSC needed, but “his eyes are shaped like he’s always tired” is different from “he doesn’t put in effort in the press) allowed him to chase the ball around the back, preventing Nashville’s centerbacks from having time on the ball.
Here’s a GIF of a long sequence of Nashville trying to pass around the back unsuccessfully (sped up to 1.5x to emphasize the movement):
Adam Najem played between Nashville’s central midfielders, shading to the one who came back furthest for the ball, while Memphis’s central midfielders played a bit of a double-pivot, with one firing forward to cover the other of Nashville’s central midfielders, while the other would hang back to keep passing lanes to either Lebo Moloto or Daniel Ríos clogged, with the ability to move side-to-side and help on the wingers (who were technically unmarked, but in the “coverage shadow” of the Memphis wide midfielders, with no lane open).
Here’s what the scheme basically broke down into:
Nashville tried its typical progressions – centerbacks to central midfielders to fullbacks, and then forward – but never had enough time on the ball and big enough passing lanes to be confident in advancing on the ground. Ultimately, Pickens played the ball over the top, which resulted in Memphis winning a 50-50 ball.
Why it happened
Sometimes, the other guys’ effort just beats you. That played a role here, but Nashville didn’t help itself out.
Nobody is blameless here (composure on the ball wasn’t great), but there were a few areas that really could have made a difference. First, the central midfielders did a really poor job moving to put themselves into enough space to receive the ball and turn, so the centerbacks didn’t have the confidence to get it to them. Some of that is inexperience – Bolu Akinyode and Vinnie Vermeer hadn’t even played together in live action (Vermeer’s only previous experience was at New York Red Bulls in place of Akinyode, and Bolu replaced him after injury). Vermeer’s experience at this level is limited generally, with mostly U23 appearances at his previous club in the Netherlands.
You would like to see Akinyode do better. He has experience at this level, but didn’t move into the pockets of space to allow the ball to be played from the back. He has to know his more limited athleticism needs him to be smart about his positioning (particularly when he’s the more experienced of the duo). He’s too content to float with the player marking him – doing that player’s job for him – and not sinking into the gaps between the pressing players.
Nashville’s offensive midfielders also needed to do a better job checking back to the ball. They needed to read the game, see that the central midfield was struggling (or at least that the centerbacks were struggling to play through them), and come back. On the couple occasions they did in the above clip, poor touches meant that they didn’t provide an outlet: instead they couldn’t do more than provide a backpass, and the cycle would start anew.
Largely, you can tell from this clip why Gary Smith likes to have his more experienced players in central midfield: Michael Reed isn’t more athletic than Akinyode, and his technical skill is a notch below Akinyode’s, but he understands the spacing and works his butt off on the field.
This is probably more of a limited-time only engagement anyway, since Nashville doesn’t play a ton of teams that press high, and certainly doesn’t have to do it often without all of its personnel available.
They also showed that, if they didn’t let Memphis set up the press (which they allowed by knocking it around the back without urgency at times, including in the above clip), they’d have chances to get out ahead of them. Playing a counter-attacking style as the more talented team may not put the “beautiful” in “beautiful game,” but it can be very effective. Ask Atlanta United from last season. Ask Daniel Ríos from last week:
Largely, Nashville has the talent to not succumb to all but the best high presses. A one-game outlier – wherein they still didn’t give up a goal, and scored a pair themselves, including one on the counter – isn’t something to lose a ton of sleep over.
But it does show that there’s more Nashville can do to become the team that’s holding the trophy at season’s end.