Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine Opta’s game data for some insights about Nashville SC’s recent games. Today, a major road win on Florida’s West Coast.
Absorb pressure and pick your spots
Nashville SC’s road strategy – particularly against top teams – often involves playing quite a bit more defensively, drawing the opponent out of their defensive structure, and hitting on the counter.
You’ll see NSC go to the 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3, whatever variation on a three-man backline suits the day) formation when that makes sense. It did against Tampa Bay Rowdies Saturday. Here’s a look at both teams’ heatmaps, with plenty of action in Nashville’s defensive end, and quite a bit less on offense.
The 3-5-2 isn’t necessarily a pure defensive tactic, but it definitely revolves around starting with structure at the back (an extra centerback makes life tougher on the opponent’s offensive players), and has a bit more counter-attack tilt to how the offense builds. Either the attacking midfielder and the two strikers look to hit quickly, or you fall into a bit of a trap where the only settled offense you can generate tends to come from crosses, which inherently lead to low-percentage chances.
With both teams playing a 3-5-2, things were a little bit more even until Tampa scored shortly after the second half begun, giving them a bit more confidence.
That’s a reasonably even first half, with Nashville making some inroads up the right side (attacking right-to-left at the top of the image), but the second half saw Tampa take a bit of control. Of course, some of that lopsidedness arrived after Nashville took the lead, and wanted to only absorb pressure, without worrying about generating scoring scoring chances on the counter:
You don’t have to win the time of possession – and Nashville didn’t, with a 58.4-41.5% disadvantage – to win the game, and NSC was able to execute their gameplan masterfully.
This space always focuses on what Nashville does, perhaps not frequently enough with a look to how the opponent reacts (or what Nashville’s gameplan does or does not succeed in forcing the opponent to do). To wit: I’ve talked extensively about how Nashville is forced into crossing the ball – often with limited success – when they face an opponent’s three-man backline.
There’s space in the outside pockets as you enter the offensive third (with wingbacks often involved in the forward play, and thus tracking back), while it’s tough to find room through the middle against three defense-only players. Lobbing the ball hopefully into the middle inevitably results.
So, it stands to reason that opponents get stuck in the same trap when Nashville goes three at the back, yeah? Yeah.
That’s not only crosses (it’s also Tampa’s traditional passes into the offensive zones), but, uh, it’s a lot of unsuccessful play from out wide. That’s what the defense is designed to force, and you’d have a hard time expecting it to be any more successful than that.
It’s worth noting that Nashville let its defense sit quite deep, with the majority of the defensive actions (especially those by the back three and the wingbacks) coming within a few yards of the penalty area:
Most of the actions on the far side of midfield happened as NSC was slowing down Tampa’s transition play (i.e. during the transition from offense to defense), and when there wasn’t a transition opportunity available, NSC was very comfortable getting into a lower block.
Defenders with some ambition
With the backline (and often the wingbacks and defensive midfielders) sitting deep, and Nashville hoping to spring the counter, it makes sense that the back-three saw a lot of long passes, trying to bypass the Tampa midfield to get the ball into dangerous spots in transition.
A lot of noise with the passing among themselves shown here, too, but… uh, yeah:
Bourgeois showed a tendency to sort of boot the ball aimlessly upfield at times last year when there was a little bit of pressure, but there was a bit more purpose in this game, even if there wasn’t as much success as you’d hope. Lasso, meanwhile, has been a pinpoint long-diagonal-hitter in his month with Nashville. Tribbett has been a little less likely to hit it long, but he definitely did in this one.
It’s worth noting that, even if the passes are unsuccessful (as at least five longballs from NSC centerbacks across the midline were), there’s value in attempting them. Forcing the opponent to respect that you’ll try that pass – and eventually hit it – means that they’ll either give up a great transition opportunity by choosing to ignore it anyway or have to back up their defense and midfield on your end of the field, easing the load on your own team defensively.
Of course, by the time Justin Davis entered the game and Nashville went with a hyper-conservative 5-4-1 (Taylor Washington bumped to LM, with the wide midfielders basically still playing hyper-defensive, though Alan Winn also sunk to the middle of the pitch as Tampa tried to work up their offensive right side), the focus was just getting the ball the heck out of Nashville’s defensive zone to preserve the 2-1 win:
All of Nashville SC’s defensive players had a fairly solid outing Saturday evening. Even Tampa’s lone goal was sort of a fluke occurrence with Matt Pickens over-protecting his near post and reacting slowly to a shot (forcing him to spill it, rather than catch his save). The ensuing rebound was hit home, and that’s a type of goal that 1) we really don’t see much of (except on set pieces) with this team 2) is mostly attributable to things outside of the defenders’ performances, including simple bad luck.
Anyway, the rest of the defensive performance was basically great. I did notice a specific area that Tampa had trouble with, though. Check out their front three’s passing success through the course of the game:
Their attacking right side (the defense’s left) was a dead zone. Left centerback Forrest Lasso (and to an extent Ken Tribbett, who mostly played int he middle but also switched with Lasso a few times) prevented anything from being generated over there.
That can also be attributed to the defenders marking the intended recipients, for sure, but it’s clear that the most consistent trouble came from trying to get into a good feeding position, and then hitting an accurate pass from the left.