From the film room: Nashville SC can’t beat a compact block

Saint Louis FC beat Nashville 1-0 Saturday afternoon, and given the scoreline, it should come as no surprise that the hosts put together a strong defensive performance. How’d they get it done?

The situation

Neither team created a ton of offensive opportunities Saturday evening. The game remained deadlocked at 0-0 through much of regulation.

Nashville stuck to its 3-5-2 (until after Saint Louis finally broke the deadlock much later than the plays in question here), while STLFC went with a very compact 4-4-2 formation. Take a look at how narrow this backline is:

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 3.05.11 PM.png

Saint Louis certainly wasn’t letting Nashville’s strikers beat them centrally. However, you can see that there is probably opportunity in the wide areas (even if STLFC is also sinking its wingers into that space).

What happens

Nashville SC tried to beat that narrow formation by switching the point of attack, going from right-to-left (or vice versa), taking advantage of the fact that Saint Louis wanted to plug up the middle of the field. Getting into those wide areas can make lots of nice things happen – and not just (low-conversion-rate) crossing, either. Nashville wanted to widen the backline and find runners.

There were a couple problems with how that effort played out, not least of which was mediocre execution.

Switch1FILM.2019-09-11 15_20_10.gif
Slightly sped up to make the point

Nashville can’t the ball from one side to the other quickly enough to get Darnell King into space before Paris Gee is able to recover wide. That’s the design of the Saint Louis defense, of course (in the image above of Lancaster packed in, think how quickly those guys can bounce outside of Nashville tries to pass across the width of the field, even before taking into account that the wide midfielders are sinking to make it a back-six when Nashville had the ball).

King doesn’t trust his speed to get into a dangerous position anyway, and drops it back to Lebo Moloto, who tries to beat Masta Kacher on the dribble. Even though it appears he’ll have some space, Gee is there to help, and Moloto cuts his losses by trying to cross for the back post – and that cross ends up getting away from him.

Here’s another:

Switch2FILM.2019-09-11 15_22_33.gif
Cut at the end of the relevant portion

On this one, Nashville has successfully overloaded the right offensive side of the field, and wants to swing the ball across to the left to create some space.

Bolu Akinyode’s pass to Matt LaGrassa finds the fellow central midfielder in space, but it seems LaGrassa feels some phantom pressure, and takes an extra touch. This slows down the switch, and by the time Taylor Washington gets the ball, LaGrassa has actually had to bend it around the recovering striker, and Saint Louis FC easily has eight behind the ball.

It’s worth noting that Ropapa Mensah is being marked by the right back, but doesn’t do a good job pinning him to his spot by staying just close enough that the player doesn’t want to leave his mark, and in a threatening position to make a run into the box. If he can hold that back, and LaGrassa’s pass can get out to Washington quickly enough that Cicerone can’t immediately get out there, NSC would be in business.

Why it happens

The thesis of this post is obviously that Nashville wasn’t far from achieving what it wanted to with the gameplan, but individual errors (extremely minor ones, at that) made it juuuust far enough away from perfect to be executed well enough to succeed.

Soccer is a game of individual moments, and even the ones that ultimately seem insignificant can make a big difference, particularly in a game that ended with just one goal (and even that one on a somewhat fluky play). An extra 1% better in execution here or there, and Nashville may have scored. Bonus: if you score, you don’t just get that 1% of the goal that it cost you in execution! You get the whole thing!

I also think there’s something to be said for how Nashville was set up tactically in this game. Going with the 3-5-2 seemed to be a tactical approach that was overly fearful of Saint Louis’s ability to generate goals (I think Bradley Bourgeois’s selection in the starting lineup was also indicative of this: his presence tends to demonstrate that Gary Smith is wary of the opponent’s athleticism up top, and wants Bourgeois in there to make the defensive runs tracking back). STLFC is a low-scoring team, and as you can see in the still and GIFs above, emphasizes getting numbers behind the ball defensively above all else. Nashville could have been a little bit more offense-focused, and even if Saint Louis made dangerous moments on the counter, NSC would have made up for it with dangerous offense of its own.

There’s also value in the 3-5-2 in stretching the field sideline-to-sideline with wingbacks (rather than a bit more compressed with narrower offensive wingers), but as we’ve seen, the execution to make that width matter just wasn’t there on the night. By the time Alan Winn and Kharlton Belmar entered the game, Saint Louis had the luxury of being even more compact than they started the game, and NSC would have been better-served to have players who could beat a defender on those flanks when the game was still tied… or from the beginning.

Going forward

We saw earlier in the year that Nashville SC put renewed emphasis on getting forward, and it probably cost them some defensive effectiveness. When Jimmy Ockford and then Forrest Lasso arrived, the personnel upgrade seemed to fix the leaking withou much need for a tactical shift.

Despite that, the pendulum’s swing back to defense may have led to an overcorrection here, with Nashville valuing its ability to protect its own goal over attacking the opponent’s net. That NSC managed to score twice on a good Tampa Bay Rowdies team out of the 3-5-2 (against whom that formation made plenty of sense) probably lured Smith into thinking that the offense would come even in a defense-first formation – never mind that the two goals against Tampa came on a set piece and a counter-attack against a high-pressing team – a very different style of play from the compact STLFC.

The hope here is that plenty of rest for the wingers – and perhaps more importantly, Daniel Ríos, the lone striker on the team who has shown to consistently win physical battles when outnumbered in the box this year – sees a return to a more offense-minded tactical approach.

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