The Graphical: Saint Louis FC 1-0 Nashville SC

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for some insight about Nashville SC’s most recent game. Today, a disappointing loss to Saint Louis FC.

The big switch?

Darnell King mentioned a specific gameplan item in the postgame press conference. We get precious few morsels of that thought process (though many more this year than we did in 2018), so I always like to explore them. Did Nashville SC execute what it wanted to?

“They kind of pressured one side of the field, left the other side exposed,” King said. “I think we were able to switch the ball quick and get it out there. So I think it left opportunities for us to get forward with some balls in.”

Switching the field of play (passing from one wide area across the field to the other wide area, for the novices)… is something I had a hard time finding evidence for. Here is the pass maps for the two wingbacks:

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.09.16 PM
Attacking right to left

Aside from two long diagonal balls (both from #23 Washington, both unsuccessful), not a lot of evidence for switching the field of play. There are some crosses into the box, yes, but that’s a different category of pass.

There’s perhaps a little bit more evidence of it when you look at the two outside centerbacks (Ken Tribbett and Bradley Bourgeois):

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.18.40 PM.png
Not the stuff around the back, but the more forward-facing cross=field stuff

…and a bit more from middle centerback Forrest Lasso and central midfielder Matt LaGrassa, who obviously have less opportunity to go from one side to the other based on position, but certainly can change the point of attack at times nonetheless:

Of course, a switch of play doesn’t need to happen in a single pass (though the more passes it takes, the less quickly it happens, and the less effectively you unbalance the opposition). Taking the LaGrassa map, specifically, in tandem with the wingback passmaps begin to show that Nashville was indeed focused on switching the point of attack.

How effective was it? Well, certainly we can evaluate the amount of open space it provided to the team. In terms of generating offense, this is a results-based charting service, and the scoreboard showed a zero at the end of the evening. That’s in part because…

Crossing: we simply can’t get enough

I alluded to this in the game column, but one of the things that I don’t like about the 3-5-2 formation is that it leaves only a couple specific routes for creating offense in open play (at least if you want to stay defensively sound… and if you don’t want to do that, might as well not roll with a 3-5-2 anyway, right?): Either great hold-up play from one of the strikers or great individual creation from the central attacking midfielder is needed, or you’re stuck hoping to hit on the counter (or in settled offense, scripting ways to hit them over the top for a counter-type goal), or lumping a lot of crosses from the wingbacks into the strike duo.

Regular readers here – or those who read analytical work, which says it more empirically than I ever could – know that crossing is typically a high-volume but low-conversion avenue to generate offense*.

Anyway: spoiler alert! Nashville was stuck crossing the ball a lot:

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.34.48 PM.png
Ignore the yellow Nos. 10, 11, 20, and 21, which are not crosses, but key passes that I had to include to get the key-pass crosses in there.

That’s 17 open-play crosses in the game (four more from set plays). Nashville had one (1) key pass into the box that wasn’t from a cross (the No. 20 in the middle of the image there). There were either two or three open play passes other than LaGrassa’s key pass there that ended up inside the box – there’s an arrow that ends riiiight on the line, but even if we count that one and grant the total as three… that ain’t good.

Nashville’s only route to the penalty area was lumping in crosses. That’s a major credit to Saint Louis’s defensive compactness and sound positional play. STLFC has been fairly good defensively even as they’ve struggled in the past couple months (until last week, which saw them potentially turn a corner with three wins in eight days).

Having to send in a ton of crosses is also a weakness in the tactical approach Nashville took. If the attacking midfielder isn’t creating individual brilliance on the day and the defense-first midfielders aren’t providing dangerous moments, service from the wingbacks will be the majority of your production.

*Surely, there’s a point at which the fact that it’s easier to create a crossing chance (and therefore you can create a larger volume of them) balances out the much lower conversion rate on them. The multiplier value of “it’s X easier, so you can have Xn greater chances per game, which makes up for the fact that they’re 1/X as likely to turn into a goal” is one I certainly don’t have the data nor desire to calculate.

Formation change helps tilt field, but NSC lacks composure

Gary Smith went into a bit of detail on why he didn’t change from the 3-5-2 formation until a little later.

I did think we started the second half much brighter and more positive, and there were some signs that we might be able to find our way to a breakthrough,” he said. “The choices that have got to be made at that point, 20 minutes out, 15 minutes out, just before they scored was are we going to change dramatically to what we are or were there just one or two areas to tinker with that might have helped us.”

He chose “tinker” until Saint Louis scored (Nashville actually had Kharlton Belmar up on the bench getting ready to come in, so it was the moment of truth even before the goal). After the change, the field was definitely tilted in Nashville’s favor. Here’s the heatmap for both teams, aside from the goalies.

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.47.11 PM
Nashville attacking right-to-left

That’s for multiple reasons, of course. Not only was NSC trying to push for a goal, but Saint Louis FC was content to trust its defense to stay compact and prevent good looks. They happily booted the ball long (whether to an intended target or to clear it from their own end) whenever they got the chance, and didn’t worry about possessing it in Nashville’s offensive end.

Frustratingly, it seemed like Nashville was too frantic trying to generate something. With the eventual game-winner coming in the 77th minute, and Nashville holding all three subs (making the Belmar change before the ball was put back into play), there was plenty of time to be patient in working some offense. That did not happen:

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.47.17 PM
Full NSC passmap after Saint Louis goal

That is a lot of over-speculative long-passing. Again, the opponent had a lot to do with that: Saint Louis remained compact and forced it out of NSC, not providing any obvious openings to methodically work the ball forward. Having confidence in the face of that tough task is necessary, though.

Certainly by the time Tucker Hume entered in the 90th minute, it was “chuck it up and pray” o’clock. Before that, though, Nashville probably would have been better-served to be a bit more technical and precise, rather than hopeful.

Shot volume: not that lopsided!

On the game, Nashville wasn’t horribly outdone in creating chances, even though the offense was meager. NSC is shooting at the goal on the left (attacking right-to-left), while Saint Louis is shooting on the right:

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.58.14 PM

The quality of Nashville’s chances wasn’t great (especially when you take into account that three of the five from inside the box were at the end of crosses), but neither was Saint Louis’s.

Being outshot 17-12 isn’t that bad – particularly on the road – when the numbers inside the box were just 8-5 in Saint Louis’s favor. That STLFC was willing to take a bunch of really poor shots from distance (five of which were blocked without a chance to even test Matt Pickens) doesn’t really reflect poorly on Nashville’s defensive effort.

Indeed, this was a defensive battle through-and-through. The difference was more about a single moment for Saint Louis – an exceptional play by Russell Cicerone, and a shot from distance that managed to sneak past both Ken Tribbett and Matt Pickens – than a game-long advantage for Saint Louis FC. It’s soccer, though, and a single moment can be enough to win the game. Credit to Cicerone for taking advantage of it.

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