Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data for some insights about Nashville SC games. Since last week featured two (2) of them, let’s go in chronological order. Here’s the Tuesday win over Birmingham Legion.
Ropapa Mensah, center forward
Nashville SC’s young Ghanaian striker Ropapa Mensah is a lot of things. Mostly, those things revolve around having a ton of potential for the future. In addition, they include being a really nice complementary player, and as all Nashville SC fans know, a lethal finisher when the opportunity arises.
One thing that Tuesday’s game showed is that he can’t be the primary driver of the team’s offense. Nashville lined up in what was nominally a 4-4-1-1 (though it played out more like their typical 4-2-3-1, with the wingers getting up high and Matt LaGrassa having quite a bit more defensive responsibility as the No. 10 than he would have as the second striker) with Mensah as the lone man up top.
There were ups and downs, but mostly we saw that Mensah needs help in the attacking third (or needs to be the helper himself) to get the job done.
Nashville SC attacking left-to-right
On the left you have the passmap (squares), shots (circles), dribbles (upside-down triangles) and defensive (upwards-pointing triangles) actions, and on the right, those are mostly boiled down into the touchmap.
Mensah drifted wide to get onto his preferred right foot to win one-v-one dribbles – a useful activity, but not the one typically asked of a center forward – and his desire (and ability) to do that is certainly part of why Nashville has tried to convert him to a winger. He had a tough time linking to his teammates in the attacking third, and when they didn’t create for him, his role in the game is tough to find. His skillset necessitates either being in space (i.e. out wide), or having teammates generate his opportunities (i.e. receiving service from out wide or through the middle).
Since he wasn’t the former – by tactical choice of the lineup, though he drifted out that way plenty – that means he needed the latter.
No Lebo, some problem
So why didn’t Mensah get much of the latter? I’ll start by saying I’ve been extremely high on Alan Winn and especially Kharlton Belmar as players who can dominate one-v-one battles on the wings in order to shoot for themselves, or (especially) to create for a teammate. Seems likt it should be the perfect fit for what Mensah needs, right?
And while Lebo Moloto’s absence was certainly felt in the realm of creativity in Zone 14 (the central area just outside the opposing penalty area), Matt LaGrassa’s presence as the No. 10 should have helped NSC be more counter-attack oriented with the vision he shows to push the ball from deep. And of course, a counter-oriented style plays into Mensah’s strengths, because it gets him in space – and in more dangerous central positions – and lets him get help from his teammates in ways that take advantage of his athleticism and “tries shit” mentality.
Alas, for whatever reason, those three players couldn’t provide the service Ropapa needed. Here are their passes from the attacking half of the field:
The only completed passes into the box were one nice through-ball from Belmar (it’s sort of hard to see, so I circled the endpoint in yellow there), and some set-piece service from Winn.
Meanwhile, between the three of them they attempted four (4) dribbles the whole evening, with Winn going 2/3 and Belmar 0/1 on completing those moves. Largely, given what we think of – and have observed of – their talent so far this year, just an off night for the wingers, and unfortunately timed the same night Nashville was forced into using a style of player at the No. 10 spot who couldn’t carry the offensive load without their help.
Of course, the opponent’s ability and style played a huge factor here; it’s not just about what Nashville didn’t do so much as what Birmingham did, as well. Legion FC started the year somewhat rough, but has rounded into one of the USL Championship’s better defenses since the nadir to close out June (three goals allowed to Indy, four allowed to Pittsburgh in back-to-back games), has been basically elite.
Look at how the Legion defenders and lone defensive midfielder (Zachary Herivaux) set up. Keep in mind this includes their time on the ball, though “on offense” would certainly be a misnomer here:
Those fullbacks sure as heck didn’t fly up the field on offense, and they made it their duty to maintain defensive responsibility first and foremost. They were a compact defensive line, and on the rare occasions a fullback was caught off-balance (remember, they avoided putting themselves in position to have that happen) and beaten off the dribble – which again, only happened twice – the centerbacks were able to step out to cut the attack out before anything happened.
Nashville wasn’t throwing numbers forward, and the Legion trusted the weakside defenders to match numbers on the lone striker and far winger while the numbers recovered from midfield. Either Nashville had to:
- Take on – and beat – the fullback more consistently
- Get a midfield run from LaGrassa (sure) or Ken Tribbett/Bolu Akinyode (they made a couple attempts, but you can’t rely on it consistently), or
- Hit the risky big switch to the other winger to get the mini-overload and a one-v-one without a second defender in position to recover.
Failing that, a more hold-up focused striker is needed if the wingers aren’t winning battles against the backline.
This is a really well-drilled and defensively competent Birmingham team, with a decent amount of good talent. If they’d had some of the offensive pieces clicking earlier in the year – with JJ Williams and Brian Wright both making returns to their MLS clubs, and taking a while to get on the field together in the early phases – they would be safely in the playoffs by now, instead of in a battle for one of the final couple spots.
The future is bright in the Magic City.
Dominance doesn’t pay off
It should come as no surprise given the above that Nashville sort of bossed this game. There wasn’t a huge possession advantage (which coincidentally happened to by the duel-win percentage as well, so I included that for a nice bit of symmetry):
…but there was when it came to meaningful possession, and particularly generating shots:
A 14-6 overall advantage is fairly sizable, especially when you consider that half of Birmingham’s shots were from outside the box (and none of them came remotely close to bothering Matt Pickens) while Nashville’s were largely inside the penalty area (10/14), and most of them came from high-value areas in the center of the pitch (nine-ish from inside the width of the six-yard box).
It was sort of a night of bad luck finishing, more than an inability to create anything meaningful. Of course, given we got a second consecutive game with some of that over the weekend (and with a solid 70-plus minutes from Daniel Ríos, too), you have to worry a bit about the calibration of some of those shooting legs for the home stretch of the season. However, I’d anticipate a more-fit Ríos and a little time for the first-choice XI to get back on the field together probably sees things go a little more smoothly.