Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for insights into recent Nashville SC games. In this edition, a disappointing loss against New York Red Bulls II.
Keeping it discrete
I was definitely not looking for this particular information about the game – which is sometimes the best insight to find, because it reveals something, rather than serves as confirmation bias for a hypothesis you’re looking for evidence to prove.
Anyway. Take a look at the combined heatmap for both teams, from the beginning of the contest to the time that Nashville SC’s Forrest Lasso was ejected for a wack second yellow card.
First (and not the part I found most interesting) is the tilt of the field: it played out either just on Nashville’s defensive side of midfield, or in very dangerous areas in New York’s half. That makes sense: The Red Bulls pressure high, forcing teams to kick it around the back until they bang one long, trying to hit on the counter. There’s not going to be indication of a patient build for either team.
The part that was interesting to me (and I guess follows logically from the end of the above paragraph) is how disjointed the areas of heavy action are. The typical game sees those red blobs connected all over the field – generally with the darkest part concentrated in the center of the pitch, not too far from the center circle.
The style Red Bulls play – both their tendency to press high to generate their offense and the way that forces teams to bypass a lot of passing through the middle – leads to a heatmap that has some distinct areas with heavy action, without those areas being directly connected with actions consistently happening in between them.
Surprisingly, though, the Red Bulls didn’t focus on pressing immediately all over the field, as they’re typically expected to. Certainly some of that is the style Nashville plays – and the proficiency the MLS-loanee centerbacks Lasso and Jimmy Ockford have with their feet – but their line of confrontation (the point at which they engage defensively when they’re out of possession of the ball) was only about 12 yards into Nashville’s defensive half of the field:
Those defensive actions (tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, and recoveries) don’t really live up to the 40 minutes of hell-type reputation Red Bull teams have. And it appears to have been a one-game thing, too. Take a look at the two contests that bookended the NSC game:
Against both Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Swope Park Rangers – very different teams from both each other and from Nashville SC – the Baby Bulls extended the press basically all the way to the penalty area. Perhaps coincidentally, it seemed to be tilted slightly to the right the further into NYRBII’s offensive end it went, which wasn’t the case with the Nashville game.
Daniel Ríos is a very good target striker, despite lacking a huge frame. He makes up for a lack of height (he’s 6-1, but certainly he’s no Zlatan or Andy Carroll… or Tucker Hume) with strength, timing, and of course technical ability.
The Boys in Gold tried to use that to lob balls to him over the top, at which point he could play it to the wingers or an on-rushing Lebo Moloto, or in more instances than maybe they’d expected, carry upfield and get a shot himself.
You can see this was not a game where he was dropping into his own defensive half to go get the ball, which he often does:
The limitations of the way the data are presented on the USL website makes this a little hard to show with one picture, but look at the number of long passes (both successful in green and unsuccessful in red) the centerbacks attempted to central portions of the field. Almost all of those were intended for Ríos:
Popping it over a press is one way to deal with it, and when you have a multi-talented hold-up striker who can win balls in the air to take it for himself or play to teammates, it’s often a pretty good strategy. Didn’t work out in this one, of course (the lone goal was a corner kick header by Ken Tribbett), but the gameplan wasn’t bad.
It’s also worth noting that Nashville emphasized hitting the big diagonal pass – look at that stream of green arrows from the left centerback to the right offensive wing, and the less consistently-successful but still frequent from the right centerback to the left offensive wing. Getting Kharlton Belmar and Alan Winn in behind was a goal for Nashville SC.
No chance to go 4-4-2
Gary Smith mentioned after the game that he’d wanted to switch to a 4-4-2 formation to find a game-winning goal.
“The second period, there was always a thought in my mind that we’d go 4-4-2,” he said. “I did feel as though Daniel was a bit isolated. Probably the biggest disappointment of the game was not being able to take advantage of the changes that were made before Forrest was ejected.”
He’s not wrong. By the time Ropapa Mensah officially entered the game (replacing Kharlton Belmar, which pushed Lebo Moloto to the right wing and Alan Winn to the left), there was all of 2:24 to try to implement a new gameplan before Lasso’s second yellow card. As you can see, the strikers… didn’t have a chance to play side-by-side there.
That’s vaguely Ropapa on the right and Ríos on the left. More importantly, it’s neither of them having enough of the ball to do anything, because NSC had to scramble to try to hold onto the game, and then within a couple minutes, having to try to get in behind when the Red Bulls no longer had any interest in giving up the space they had been earlier in the game.
All told, the big story of this game is that a red card essentially decided it. That’s especially frustrating for a Nashville team that led 2-1 at halftime previously in this very game, and had to re-start it from minute one. Your mileage may vary as to how fair said red card was (the position of this site: not very!), but even if being a man down didn’t lead directly to New York’s second goal, it certainly facilitated their easy task in squeezing the final 20-plus minutes out of the clock.