Hey, it’s been all Hany Mukhtar for the better part of 48 hours. There is still plenty of soccer to talk about! More Mukhtar in the coming days, but now, back to the main show.
Nashville SC got on the board early against Charlotte Independence. A short corner led to the game-opening goal. How did it come about? We go to the film.
It’s early in the contest, and Nashville has controlled the run of play so far. While Charlotte has had more possession, it’s been almost exclusively in their own half, while the Boys in Gold have had plenty of the ball across the midway stripe.
A shot at the end of a long run solo for winger Kharlton Belmar is saved by Charlotte keeper Brandon Miller, leading to a Nashville SC corner. Unlike their typical corner-kick setup, the Boys in Gold prepare for a short corner.
Taker Taylor Washington and recipient Lebo Moloto pass back and forth a few times on the wing, and then the top of the box. Ultimately, Washington is able to find striker Daniel Ríos all alone in space in the middle of the Charlotte penalty area.
Ríos is so wide open that he has time to trap the ball and collect himself before hammering home directly over Miller’s head to give NSC a 1-0 lead. They’d go on to win 3-1 with a second goal by Ríos (from the penalty spot) and one from Belmar providing the winning margin.
To me, that is good.
Why it happens
This all starts with the short corner. In fact, while Nashville (obviously) intended to play it short, the way the rest of the goal came about was actually not in the plan.
“You know what, it was really strange,” Gary Smith said. “For the first time, we spoke yesterday during our set-piece practice about maybe asking some questions with a short corner. The way that it unfolded wasn’t quite scripted that way, but the choices that were made in between were very good. And then of course at the end, Daniel’s finish was vintage.”
A couple pieces to unpack there: Nashville SC didn’t do what it had intended to, but still scored (speaks to the good decision-making Smith alludes to), and also that they didn’t need to do what they’d intended (probably because Charlotte’s set-piece defense was… it was something).
Here’s the initial setup of the play, along with what Nashville’s initial design is:
The Independence is man-marked inside the box, with two zonal defenders, too: Jorge Herrera (10) on the front post, and Hugh Roberts (3, sorry I covered up their names with my beautiful graphics) at the top of the six-yard box. They’re also giving up a two-for-one with the short corner. Isaac Angking is but one man, and Nashville has two guys out there.
NSC’s gameplan is to execute a quick give-and-go between Moloto and Washington, and force Angking to make a decision between the two. My assumption is that the initial design was for one of that duo to cross it after Angking has to make a decision between them, opening up space for the other to get the ball into the box cleanly.
Angking overreacts to… well, everything (not necessarily his fault: as noted above, he’s put on an island with two guys to defend, and he tries to get on his motor to defend both of them). Importantly, when Washington passes back to Moloto – as per the design of the play – both Angking and Herrera (who leaves the front post and therefore abandons the box to match up numbers) go for Moloto.
They really, really needed better communication, because not only does Nashville have the same wide-open player on the edge of the box that they were designing the play to spring free, but they still have it, and now there is one less defender in the box as a zonal marker.
As you can see, Washington is receiving the ball again, and he’s wide open. He hass (correctly) drifted to the center of the field, which is a dangerous enough position for passing or shooting that Charlotte has no choice but to react to him. With Angking and Herrera removed from the play by their lack of communication, Charlotte has fewer players than expected available. They’re left with man defense plus one free player (Roberts, who is still in a zone, or at least supposed to be), while Nashville has an unmarked man.
Either the zonal defender has to fire on the play, or somebody has to leave their man to cover Washington, while Roberts rotates to the now-open man.
Abdoulie Mansally, manned up on Daniel Ríos, sees that help isn’t coming (except from Angking, who is way too far away to prevent Washington from doing anything), and leaves his mark to try to close down the space at the top of the box. You can see that the other three Nashville cross targets are still manned up, and Roberts is… I don’t know. Maybe thinking he has to cover Forrest Lasso and it’s Joel Johnson’s responsibility to rotate to Washington?
Roberts certainly shouldn’t be doing absolutely nothing, and he also shouldn’t be lackadaisically jogging to keep Ríos onside, either. He could have played defense by simply stepping forward for an ad hoc offside trap. Instead, Ríos is left all alone, and finishes easily.
A recovery run from Roberts is way, way too late, while Herrera stands there and watches Ríos score one of his easiest goals of the year.
A lot of this is on the lack of defensive organization and poor communication from the Independence, so it won’t be replicable for Nashville SC unless they run up against an opponent with similar deficiencies in those two areas. That’s possible: Atlanta United 2 is awful in a lot of different ways, and there are still games remaining against poor defenses from Loudoun United and Birmingham Legion (though both are much-improved from the really bad sides they were at the beginning of the year). That the play didn’t unfold the way Nashville had planned and still resulted in a goal means that there’s a good chance opponents over-prepare for this outcome, and the original design of the plan is good for a goal, as well.
Most importantly, though, this shows the adaptability of Gary Smith (as have other editions of the Film Room in the 18-plus months I’ve been analyzing NSC’s tactics and individual plays). The short corner hasn’t been in Nashville’s playbook, they saw something in the opponent’s film that indicated it’d be a smart choice – probably the Independences’ starting positions, with only Angking on two players wide – and they drew up a play to take advantage of that. There’s more to come in the long run there.
Other teams will be better in initial design and live-ball communication than were the Independence. (I haven’t even found time to mention yet that they left Matt LaGrassa literally unmarked inside the box for the duration of this play, and there were still several options better than sliding it to him for a wide-open shot). But Nashville is willing and able to figure out the weaknesses and punish them nonetheless.