Nashville SC

From the film room: Spill the shot, spoil the defense

Pun-oriented post title: status failure.

Nashville SC earned a lead against Tampa Bay Rowdies shortly before halftime in St. Petersburg Saturday evening, but it didn’t take the Rowdies long to equalize. How’d it happen?

The situation

Nashville SC earned a go-ahead goal in the 44th minute after Lebo Moloto banged home the rebound on a Cameron Lancaster free kick. Their hosts came out of the locker room with a renewed vigor, and it’d be fair to say the Rowdies controlled play in the early stages of the second half.

Tampa has had most of the possession in this short stretch, and the Rowdies’ high press has kept Nashville pinned into their own half (or turning it over while attempting to get out). After a corner kick and an attempted cross in its immediate aftermath, Lebo Moloto has the ball tackled away while attempting to break into the open field, allowing Tampa to retain possession.

What happens

Although offense created shortly after a turnover often gives teams transition opportunities, that doesn’t really happen here: Nashville still had plenty of personnel back from defending the corner kick, and only Moloto and strikers Ropapa Mensah and Cameron Lancaster are outside of solid defensive positions (and quite frankly, only Lancaster, with Mensah and Moloto within 15 yards of the top of their own box, deeper than all but two Rowdies players).

After the turnover, defensive midfielder Matt LaGrassa recognizes the importance of getting pressure to the ball, and sprints forward. Tarek Morad is able to get the ball out quickly, though, pushing it wide to midfielder Kwadwo Poku.

Poku pushes forward, then cuts onto his right foot to get a shot past Nashville’s right wingback, Darnell King. Matt Pickens saves the shot, but is only able to parry it away in the process. Tampa striker Sebastian Guenzatti is at the back post to get enough onto it to slide it in for the equalizer.


The score is leveled up, but Nashville would ultimately find a winner later in the game (and a film room piece later in the day today).

Why it happens

Let’s start from the end: Guenzatti is crashing the back post because he reads that his teammate, Poku will try to go across the face of goal, and – with a true striker’s mentality – he wants to be available for a throughball, rebound, or secondary play if Tampa comes away with it at the end. Ken Tribbett is man-marking him, and sort of loses his man on the back post, and sort of just gets unlucky about where the rebound ended up (wider than expected, and staying within the six-yard box in terms of depth). On a similar play later in the game, Tribbett wasn’t struck with that bad luck, and cleared the ball from a dangerous position.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s to go the point where Poku gets the ball. As noted above, Nashville doesn’t have poor defensive positioning:

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 10.28.36 AM.png

Darnell King is manned up on Poku, Nashville’s three centerbacks are man-marking Tampa’s three attacking players (Lasso and Tribbett are forming a Venn Diagram there with Tribbett taking whoever makes the wide run – ultimately Guenzatti – and Lasso marking whichever stays inside. My football-heads will recognize this as a soccer version of “banjo technique” man-zone hybrid), while the Boys in Gold have three free defenders.

Taylor Washington will stay higher and wider with Tampa’s Joel Johnson a potential offensive threat out there (Washington also stays in position to clear a ball that rebounds hard off Pickens or the post, or is blocked and ricochets outside the six-yard box), Lebo Moloto will hustle to stay in front of a potential late runner (he’s actually just passed Andrew Tinari in his attempt to stay goalside of him), and Bolu Akinyode is a true free defender, maintaining position right in front of the centerbacks to provide help defense or clear the ball.

This is pretty good defense!

The situation hasn’t changed a whole lot by the time Poku cuts to his right to find a shooting window: Moloto is getting over to provide help on-ball with Tinari staying in a defensive position for Tampa, while Matt LaGrassa has recovered from his initial defensive run to be in position to prevent Tinari from getting onto the ball (replacing Moloto’s defensive responsibility there, allowing Moloto to be a help defender).

Poku doesn’t even get that much space on King. His shot can really be little more than speculative.

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 10.36.12 AM.png

However, even though Matt Pickens makes the save, I think it’s his error on this play that allows Tampa to ultimately clean up at the back post (obviously Tribbett is culpable in that particular respect) by providing a juicy rebound. You can see it a bit in the image above, but the replays show it even more clearly…


He’s too close to his near post, over-protecting it instead of being in position to make a clean save wherever the shot is intended.

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 10.40.58 AM.pngKing has taken away the near post, and Pickens’s positioning makes the window Poku would have to hit an absolutely minuscule one. Likewise, a rebound to that side won’t have any Rowdies players there to tap home: all three of Nashville’s centerbacks are in a technique between their man and the goal, and given that a rebound to the audience’s left here is coming back toward the position of the ball, they’ll still be in a great spot to prevent the rebound from getting poked home.

The only dangerous rebound position comes from a shot to the back post (or some sort of weird ricochet).

Meanwhile, look how much of the far post is given up here:

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 10.45.42 AM.png

Pickens is over-protecting the near post (which, as we’ve established, is the less-dangerous position for a Poku shot to go, and therefore doesn’t require quite as much attention), and giving up a lot of the face of goal, considering the shooter isn’t situated at an angle that opens up a lot of it naturally. (For what it’s worth, it does seem like that’s a tendency of Pickens’s, at least in this game – I can’t speak to whether a film scout of Tampa indicated they like to try the far post – though the save was obviously much cleaner on the later attempt). He also takes an extra shuffle-step before he leaves his feet to make the stop.

That forces Pickens’s save to be a diving one where he can only spill it, and we’ve already covered what happened in the aftermath. Slightly better positioning makes the save a little more comfortable, and that increases the likelihood that he catches it clean, or at least provides a rebound that’s slightly less juicy for Tampa to knock home.

Going forward

I wouldn’t sweat goals that seem to be partially (or even mostly) on Pickens: we have a long track record to evaluate, and while there are certainly mistakes on his résumé, that’s true of any professional soccer player. We’ve also seen the spectacular save time and again, and the magnitude to which that’s a game-changer is certainly far greater than the magnitude to which any sort of mistake becomes a liability in his game.

As noted above, this over-protection of the front post did seem to be common to this game (and I haven’t evaluated every shot taken by opponents, but anecdotally I can remember a few other goals – as recently as the previous game – that are within the theme, almost always as Pickens is moving to his right), and it’s something the veteran can tweak. Similarly, Tribbett could body-up Guenzatti, for sure, or at least feel his run.

Lastly, well, Tampa is a talented attacking team, even if their scoring output is good-not-great. That’s more based around their insistence on being sound at the back first than not having talent up front. Basically every team in the East aside from Nashville and NYRBII would trade its forwards for Guenzatti and Juan Tejada. They’re going to score some goals – and the nature of the game is that every goal can be prevented in some way: Nashville’s sins here are hardly the greatest.

This goal was a combination of extremely minor technical mistakes by a couple NSC players, the talent of the opponent, and (as always) a bit of simple bad luck. The Boys in Gold have been punished once, and it’s extremely unlikely the same situation arises again.


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