Nashville SC played against a Bethlehem Steel team that had little interest in winning the game just over a week ago. They played for the draw, and ultimately got it. How did Nashville try to get the job done?
Since this is more an over-arching thematic tactical decision, the game-long trends are more important then any specific situation. Of course, Nashville was on the front foot for pretty much the entire game, which remained scoreless wire-to-wire, so that’s the general picture.
More importantly, Bethlehem Steel played five at the back (if not for the first time this year, one of just a couple), with a single true defensive midfielder in front of them with veteran James Chambers, and two defense-first attacking midfielders in front of him. The lineups looked like this:
And when Nashville was in an attacking posture the front eight of Nashville against the back eight (plus the keeper) for Bethlehem aligned like so:
The wide defenders for Bethlehem mostly man-marked Nashville’s wingers, while middle CB Steve Kingue man-marked striker Daniel Ríos. The other two centerbacks provided help to the ball-side, while the weak-side defender provided a double-team on Ríos.
As you can see, that’s a ton of bodies to defender Nashville’s front four, and in particular Bethlehem was determined to not let Ríos beat them.
How to handle it
The first option that Nashville usually uses is having the wingers win one-on-one dribbles on the ball, beating a defender. Mensah isn’t that type of player (though it’s a skillset he’s developing out wide), and Belmar didn’t have it on the night. He has played a ton of minutes in the past few weeks, and the dynamic dribbling he’s provided over the course of the year just wasn’t there.
So, as you can see, Nashville has four potential offensive players (though their responsibilities are more heavily tilted to defense on a broad basis) to send into the attack to disrupt Bethlehem’s structure. Typically, you’d see one of those defensive midfielders get into the attack – and that did happen on a few occasions in this one – but the absence of both Michael Reed and Matt LaGrassa due to injury meant that NSC didn’t have the personnel for that. LaGrassa did return for the final few minutes (in preparation for a start against Charlotte the following week), but largely this game had Akinyode and Tribbett available, and they aren’t natural runners off-ball to provide the disruption to Bethlehem’s structure.
So, in the first half, Nashville took advantage of Bethlehem’s shifting (here’s a look at one of Bethlehem’s adjustments when the fullback carried the ball into the attacking third):
What Nashville tried to do came in two parts. First, they’d bring both wingers onto the same side of the field to overload that side, and force Bethlehem to shift its defense to that side as well, hoping to bring both free defenders (including the one who’s man-marking Ríos but should pass himself to the overload winger) out of position. Then, the fullback would get sent in behind, to get into a crossing position:
Here you can see Mensah coming across, bringing both defenders with him (or in the case of Real, at least catching him ball-watching to at least get a step for King in behind), and Nashville would either try to get that cross in, or let that player win a one-on-one against recovering defenders to get the ball into dangerous positions in the box, likely freeing up Ríos for a less-troubled finish along the way.
The players were put into good positions by scheme, but the execution was at times a step off (and actually, I’d say there were more decent-enough scoring chances than it initially seemed. As noted in The Graphical, the result of this game was a combination of a good gameplan and goalkeeper for Bethlehem and a bit of poor luck for Nashville).
Here’s a pass juuuust out of reach for Darnell King (he also gets wrong-footed and can’t get his hips wrapped around the ball to cross it – which happened a couple times).
While Ropapa Mensah does initially create the overload there, it seems like his off-ball movement leaves room to be desired: he should be sinking a bit to pull those defenders away from King (he’s definitely still learning the spacing things a bit).
On this one, Kharlton Belmar makes his run to the inside to open space wide as the ball gets switched to his side of the field, but the run from fullback Taylor Washington to overlap never comes:
Ríos’s off-ball movement is awesome here too, but the way. Part of that is the nature of the play (a quick-change opportunity with Jimmy Ockford and King combining to win a 50/50 ball), but you can see him sink, occupying the centerback and outside back, so when Belmar makes his run, the outside back has no choice to follow (and Bethlehem has a lot of defenders doing absolutely nothing after Moloto switches the point of attack).
That interplay between Moloto and Ríos deserves a better outcome for this play – not that Washington’s necessarily to play, it was just the team not being 100% sharp as a whole.
Winn enters and changes things
Even though he had tired legs (which was probably behind his not starting the game), Alan Winn provided a spark of athleticism when he came on at the half – and you saw a week later that the rest Belmar got in the second half helped him get back to his old ways against Charlotte.
The second-half gameplan involved Winn playing 1-2 passes with Moloto, Ríos, and King on the right side to get into dangerous positions. Again, even though none of them ultimately paid off in a goal, the gameplan was solid, and the execution was improved over the first half.
He also one a ton of one-on-one dribbles, with good success at a 4/5 completion rate – the above is the failed dribble. (For context, the rest of the team was 7/17, and that includes a perfect 3/3 for Lebo Moloto).
Nashville SC had reasonably good ideas for beating a bunker – even though it likely came as a surprise when Bethlehem’s mandate is to prepare players for the Union’s tactical approach, not to bunker for road points. The problem was that it took a little while to get both the scheme and execution on the right page.
Nonetheless, Nashville had plenty of opportunities, particularly in the second half, to find a winner. When you tie a game because the opponent had two goal line clearances – one a bicycle kick and one initially looking like a handball (though it wasn’t one) – you can be frustrated with the outcome on the night, but it probably doesn’t portend bad things going forward.
I wouldn’t have minded seeing Mensah sink inside to become a second true striker with Moloto going out to the wing with either Belmar (which wouldn’t have required the substitution) or Winn on the other side. That could have taken a bit of the extra attention off Ríos at times. Still, it would have required just as much of a cross-centric gameplan (if not more, with Tribbett and Akinyode likely to remain sitting deep), so the outcome could have been about the same.
The biggest issue is making sure the dynamic wingers don’t tire out with the current run of fixture congestion (three games in eight days this week, with the second tomorrow evening against New York Red Bulls II). Ropapa Mensah is adding to his game as a creative winger, but he’s not beating guys one-on-one a ton, and getting – and winning – those battles can be important when the opponent is devoting numbers to the back.
I apologize if this post seems un-edited: it is! Got more content to crank out this morning.