I also had a technique-oriented film room this morning. “Check it out.”
Nashville SC won on Saturday! The winning play was awesome! Let’s get into the film room to figure out how it came about.
A back-and-forth first half saw Nashville SC emerge with a 1-0 lead. The second half in St. Pete, though, has largely been controlled by the host Tampa Bay Rowdies, especially since drawing level in the 49th minute. With both teams trying to find a winner, Nashville has been a bit more “kick it around the back and try to hit on the counter,” while Tampa is trying to force the action a bit more by combining up the field, and pressing when Nashville is in possession.
A Nashville counter is denied, and Tampa takes possession. However, Bolu Akinyode sneaks in behind Rowdies midfielder Kwadwo Poku to tackle the ball away. When that doesn’t spring any quick offense (Akinyode passed to Alan Winn, but didn’t get the return pass on his run into the box), the Boys in Gold exhibit a bit of patience.
Winn plays it to left wingback Taylor Washington in the corner to re-set the offense.
Nashville builds very patiently on this play. That’s a very purposeful adjustment, in contrast to the dump-and-chase they’d been utilizing earlier in the half. They’ve seen something they like in the way Tampa is defending.
After an interplay on the left side, the ball works to left centerback Ken Tribbett, and he plays it to middle CB Forrest Lasso. Under pressure from center forward Lucky Mkosana, Lasso plays it first-touch, forward to midfielder Matt LaGrassa.
There’s a little bit of heat on Lasso’s pass because of the pressure provided by Mkosana, and LaGrassa needs to take a touch to settle. He still has plenty of time to do so (with Mkosana pulled out of the play) to find right centerback Bradley Bourgeois.
Bourgeois hits a beautiful ball over the top, where forward Kharlton Belmar’s well-timed run gets him in behind. Belmar hits a volley on the run, beating Rowdies keeper John McCarthy far-post. It is ultimately the game-winner.
Why it happens
As mentioned above, Nashville has clearly seen something in the way Tampa Bay is defending. More likely, multiple things. This is very clearly a scripted sequence designed to achieve and exploit a specific look from the Rowdies. Ultimately, NSC wants a chance to get Belmar in behind.
In the early stages of the play, here are the pieces of Tampa design that NSC punishes:
- When Nashville is passing it around the back, Tampa aggressively reacts to the pass that goes central/backward (from Tribbett to Lasso in this instance). Backpasses are a fairly common pressing trigger, so that’s not a surprise. The depth from which Mkosana comes (and therefore the speed he must use to get to Lasso to have a chance of affecting him at all), however, is important here.
- When Mkosana has run himself deep enough that he can get to Lasso, he’s gone right past LaGrassa, who slides to make himself available as a passing outlet. Tampa’s plan is designed to prevent Lasso from getting the ball quickly and accurately to Bourgeois.
- The clean pass from LaGrassa prevents left wingback Leo Fernandes from having any chance to affect Bourgeois’s next kick, coming from too far to block it or clog any passing lanes.
Here’s where things stand when Bourgeois gets the ball.
Of Tampa’s 10 field players, forwards Juan Tejada (1) and Lucky Mkosana (2) have been run out of the play by the structure of the press. Only two players from Tampa are on Bourgeois’s side of the field: Fernandes (9), who I’ve just discussed being caught in no-man’s land and unable to affect the play in any meaningful way, and left centerback Caleb Richards (10), who is being held wide by Nashville’s right wingback Darnell King – both offscreen.
“The whole thing with the formation change was to try and open up some pockets that their centerbacks are going to be uncomfortable stepping out into,” Belmar said. “From the goal, I ran into that space unmarked because guys aren’t willing to kind of step into that space there.”
With the other two centerbacks Tarek Morad (6) and Abdoulaye Diakite (7) man-marking Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah, respectively (Diakite may be playing sweeper here, and just falling asleep on the job), Belmar has a one-on-one battle with a central midfielder. Nashville has successfully overloaded the left side, with some help from Tampa’s misplaced aggression.
Belmar lulls Dominic Oduro (8) to sleep, then runs in behind too quickly for Diakite to get over and help. He has the matchup he wants, and knows that he just has to sneak behind Oduro to get the space he needs for the finish.
It requires a pro-caliber ball from Bourgeois and a pro-caliber finish from Belmar. Nashville gets both. Here’s the whole play.
Why it works
Tampa was trying to be aggressive up top, while remaining conservative on the back-end. That meant Nashville had to work up its play to accomplish a couple things.
First, get the ball to Bourgeois cleanly and in space. NSC brilliantly used Tampa’s press against them: involving LaGrassa meant that Tampa’s plan to prevent Lasso from getting a clean ball to Bourgeois was irrelevant. A quick pass to LaGrassa (in the space opened by Mkosana’s press), provided the window for an easy connection.
Secondly, Nashville needed to bypass the midfield to a certain extent. King held Richards wide, forcing Fernandes to be the player to step up to Bourgeois. Since Sebastian Guenzatti loafed on the play, this part was probably made even easier than NSC was expecting. Oduro is the other relevant midfielder on the play, and Nashville bypassed him by going directly over his head.
In the end, the play revolved around getting a 1-v-1 for Belmar with Oduro, then hoping he would be asleep on the job. This is something Bourgeois and Belmar were looking for after noticing Oduro had tipped it earlier in the match. You can see that Belmar recognized the play was available early as it unfolded. Here – before Lasso has even received it from Tribbett – he’s calling for Nashville to swing it to Bourgeois.
“As they were pushing forward, we kind of saw that their midfielders liked to come forward, but defensively trying to track from that midfield space in behind,” Bourgeois said. “We kind of knew we could take advantage of that. I kind of saw a gap about five-ish minutes before that, and I knew with Belmar’s fresh legs, we could try and get behind.”
It’s a perfectly scripted play to achieve exactly that.
Nashville has unfairly been labeled as offensively primitive over the existence of the franchise. There have certainly been moments where the offensive structure was behind an inability to score goals, but I have long contended that last year’s struggles were more about lacking finishing talent than a solid offensive plan. That’s generally been borne out by this season – with Daniel Ríos available – but even without him in this game, the adjustments to create a goal were impressive.
This is the sort of play that demonstrates how a squad that now has the offensive talent it lacked last year can manufacture offense by exploiting the weaknesses of the opponent’s structure. I would expect more of these small tweaks, more plays designed to draw out the opponent in ways that they’d prefer not to be stretched, and more goals, not just this year to close out the USL season, but into the MLS years, as well.