The Graphical: Nashville SC 4-0 Hartford Athletic

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine Opta’s data for some insights about Nashville’s (second-) most recent game. Today, a nail-biter-turned-laugher against Hartford Athletic.

Nashville SC scored four times in the second half to beat Hartford. How did it come about?

Halftime adjustments

Certainly Nashville SC didn’t enter the Hartford game with a “we will lose our captain after four minutes to a really bad tackle” contingency plan in place. Ken Tribbett entered essentially as a like-for-like sub to replace Reed, and the results were… iffy.

After the break though, Nashville adjusted its game plan in a big way. Certainly a big part of the four-goal outburst was getting over the emotional hurdle of losing a captain, and then settling in. However, the tactical approach was pretty different, as well. Take a look at the first-half (after Tribbett’s entry) and second-half pass maps (Nashville attacking left-to-right):

Nashville was more dominant in the first half – and even more dominant in the middle of the pitch – in terms of possession than they were after the break: 69.7% in the first had, 63.2% in the second. But where they built up that possession was entirely different.

They were more content to sit deep in their own end and pick-and-choose their spots to get forward. It was, in fairness, a “don’t lose” rather than “let’s go out and grab this thing” gameplan by the time the second goal was scored – and it says something about the individual talents of the players (and a bit of luck that has usually seemed to go against, rather than for Nashville more often than not this season) that it ended up being a 4-nil game.

Beating a bunker

As you can see above, a lot of Nashville SC’s chance generation still came from crosses. The opening goal was a corner kick that Ken Tribbett headed home, the final goal a corner that Ray Lee’s knee put in the back of his own net. In between, you saw a longball turned into a goal by an exceptional talent (Daniel Ríos) and a slightly fortuitous counterattack goal from Alan Winn.

It’s almost harder to generate offense against a team that’s down a man – because they’re going to put a ton of guys behind the ball all the time, with little hope of even trying to create offense for themselves – than full-strength (unless you face a team like Bethlehem, who basically plays like they’re down a man the entire contest). Fortunately for our purposes, a much better tactical writer than I saw his team deal with a similar situation last week, and wrote about it more intelligently than I’m capable of.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 9.36.02 AM.pngAnyway, here’s how Nashville tried to create its offense: a lot of crosses. My position on how effective that gameplan generally works out is well-established (crossing is not a way to effectively generate offense!), but when you’re forced into that by an opponent that puts its entire team deep in its defensive end every time you touch the ball, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do in order to get sights of goal.

Nashville did just that, and it’s hard to complain about a four-goal outing (even if two of the goals came on set pieces, including a forced own-goal). This Hartford team is bad, and Nashville SC won’t be able to replicate the gameplan even against man-down teams every time it happens – we would prefer it not happen at the cost of the team’s captain, thank you very much – but it worked out on the night.

To underscore the whole thing, take a look at the locations of defensive actions for Hartford (defensing the goal on the right, of course):

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 9.37.33 AM.png

They barely ventured over the midfield line, clogged the middle of the defensive third, and kept everybody back (almost all of those actions in Nashville’s end were the strikers, whose defensive responsibility even in a deep bunker is almost as much about keeping a body up there to prevent NSC from pushing its backline into the attack).

Longball Lasso

Here’s a thing that I wasn’t even looking for: Forrest Lasso is extremely ambitious with his passing. Certainly the anecdotal evidence that we have (see: assist to Daniel Ríos) indicated it might be the case. But look at his unsuccessful passes from the contest.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 9.43.23 AM

For starters, that’s a lot of them. More notably, though, 8-10 of them are bombs trying to find his striker in a hold-up position or wingers down the flank to generate one-v-ones. Even if a lot of them were unsuccessful (and that’s a lot of unsuccessful passes for a centerback), it’s a way to play over that bunker a bit, for one thing, and also creates quicker-strike offense when it works out. He also had four successful passes, including the assist, into the offensive third.

Last year’s Nashville team was occasionally too conservative and wouldn’t look for these passes, this year’s has at time been too gunslinger-y and opened itself at the back by being too aggressive. Given that the team is unscored-upon since Lasso’s arrival, and he and Jimmy Ockford have proven to be stout at the back, some risk-taking with the long pass is welcome.

Overloading the right

Nashville SC’s wingers have been very content to switch positions regularly over the course of the past several games (basically ever since true offensive wingers have returned to the gameplan), and that is a good thing.

In this contest, they must have taken note of something that led to a desire to overload the offensive right side of the pitch. You can see it a bit in the passmap in the first section of this post, but it’s even more stark when looking at the heatmap for all three Nashville SC wingers (Kharlton Belmar, Alan Winn, and substitute Ropapa Mensah).

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 9.50.09 AM

Surely the changing shape, especially as Daniel Ríos exited the contest in the 68th minute, skews things a bit. But look where these three guys hung out.

That’s a ton on the right side, quite a lot in the middle of the pitch (despite Hartford’s desire to bunker and take the ball away there, Nashville SC managed to get its players into god positions near the top of the box), and basically nothing on the left.

Taylor Washington was a little more involved in the offense over the course of the game, but his average position wasn’t any higher than Kosuke Kimura’s on the opposite side. Nor were Hartford’s fullbacks much different in their progression up the field on their respective sides of the pitch, either. Maybe Nashville SC’s technical staff wanted to make sure Lee was pinned in his own end (the left back has 15 key passes on the year, compared to Kyle Curinga’s seven on the right, and he’s attempted 49 crosses compared to just 18 for Curinga), or maybe something in Hartford’s shape after the red card made it the better area to attack.

I don’t specifically know what the motivation was there – and it’s just as possible both wingers just felt more comfortable over there, given that they’ve said they’re given the freedom to roam the width of the pitch and switch sides at will – but it’s certainly a notable difference (and one whose positive effects weren’t obvious in the outcome). It wasn’t just Belmar playing right wingback with the halftime formation switch, either: Alan Winn remained tight with him on that side (despite nominally playing on the left at that point).

What did you see from the stats and graphs? Check them out here and share your insights, too. 

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