Nashville SC had a tough time penetrating to create offense against Birmingham a week ago. What went into some of those difficulties?
I’m clipping multiple pieces here – this is more a conceptual breakdown than a single play – but largely, this is about two teams playing a 0-0 game in First Tennessee Park.
Some of Nashville’s struggles to create offense were understandable: the Boys in Gold were without attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto, and for the first 70 minutes, striker Daniel Ríos. While the positions of this site are that Matt LaGrassa is very good (and highly underrated by the fanbase) and that Ropapa Mensah has a lot of potential, their skillsets on the offensive side of things aren’t as complementary as you’d like.
That meant a requirement to build offense from the wing players, and fortunately, Nashville SC had its top two at the position – Alan Winn and Kharlton Belmar – available.
First and foremost, I said in yesterday’s Graphical that Birmingham’s defense is very solid, and that remains the case. The Legion also took a very conservative approach in this game, opting to bunker-and-counter to hopefully leave with, at worst, a draw.
They had 10 behind the ball more often than not. Here’s an example:
Striker Brian Wright is the only player who doesn’t get involved defensively, either by marking a player or trying to actually play the ball. Even his compatriot up top, JJ Williams, sinks in to take away passing lanes (for what it’s worth, they’d both be activated on the press later in the game – Birmingham mostly bunkered, but didn’t exclusively bunker).
This play actually serves as an example of a way that Nashville tried to beat the Birmingham press: overload one side of the field, switch the point of attack from one side of the field to the other quickly, and find space on what had been the weakside.
There are eight Birmingham players on the ballside at the point that Matt LaGrassa makes the big switch to fullback Darnell King (the ninth player, midfielder Eric Avila, doesn’t have a number there, since he’s on what is about to become the strongside). The only Birmingham field player out-of-frame is left fullback Kyle Culbertson, who slides outside to man-mark King.
That switching of the point of attack – and Avila’s desire to hang out in no-man’s land – gives winger Kharlton Belmar, coming from a central position, a one-v-one with centerback Mathieu Laurent, and a running start on him. King quickly plays the ball to Belmar. Belmar makes a cross from a dangerous position, but there isn’t anyone home to receive it. Matt LaGrassa’s run is deeper into the box than Belmar is expecting (partially a chemistry issue: Belmar has to cut the ball back that sharply so his cross doesn’t get cut out by Laurent, while LaGrassa has to outrun a man-mark from Birmingham’s Mikey Lopez). Ropapa Mensah’s run is caught halfway between his two paths: he neither gets into a position to receive a pass, nor runs definitively back-post to clear more space in front of net for a player coming from midfield.
A secondary run from one of the deeper midfielders (Bolu Akinyode or Ken Tribbett) could still salvage it – and honestly, this pattern probably should see Tribbett run onto the ball for a chance – but that doesn’t arrive. That’s where you see the lack of Moloto have a ripple effect: if LaGrassa is in the position that Tribbett is playing, that run is more likely to come off (or Moloto’s initial run might be a little more comfortable for Belmar, who is used to the South African at the attacking midfield spot).
Nashville’s play is well-designed, and the accumulation of tiny errors in execution sums to what results in no shot at all, much less one on goal. This was a theme of the evening.
Another issue Nashville had – related, but not the same – was the ability for Birmingham to send a second defender to the winger, even when that player got the ball in a bit of space.
Here, Kharlton Belmar is initially in a one-v-one with Laurant, as Mensah has occupied the fullback, Culbertson. Belmar is going to win that individual matchup with a dribble every time.
However, Birmingham was extremely set on making sure Nashville didn’t get in-behind with the wingers. Culbertson is activated to tackle the ball away as soon as Belmar wins the matchup. That could be risky (as mentioned yesterday, it leaves Mensah singled-up by a centerback, with Winn singled-up by the opposite fullback, Akeem Ward), but Birmingham wants to overwhelm the ball with defensive numbers as the risk of that pass getting out. Here, Nashville needs to either give Belmar more options, send more numbers forward – so Culbertson will be occupied by a runner, unable to double-team Belmar – or simply (and this is the second-best outcome for Birmingham) have Belmar cross it blind as soon as he gets space.
Belmar takes a slightly heavy touch anyway, making Culbertson’s tackle an easy one. Well-designed plays and solid dribbling moves that ended with a heavy touch were something of a themes on the day (for Winn, Mensah, and LaGrassa, too), so it’s tough to feel out how to value the idea and the first stage of execution when the ultimate play is undone by it.
Nashville had solid schemes and individual talent to get the ball into dangerous areas, but Birmingham was determined to play a solid defensive game, even if it came at the expense of basically any offensive production (the Legion ended with only six shots, three of them from outside the box, and the only one on-goal came from the second phase of a set piece). The future is probably pretty bright for the Legion is they can maintain their level of defensive bite – and dedication to compactness – while continuing to upgrade talent and finding more offense in future seasons.
Despite that, Nashville still had plenty of possession in the box, including 10 shots from within it. Certainly, some of those came from set pieces (including the game-winner), and only a couple others were on target. However, you can see where a 1% improvement in execution a couple different places could have made this a nice offensive day. The Boys in Gold just had an off night in some of those regards.
That they did it without two of their most dangerous offensive talents in Moloto and Ríos bodes well for the future. That duo was still a touch off Saturday night against Pittsburgh in their respective returns to the starting lineup. With a chance to calibrate in that game, though, their upgrades (or the ripple effects allowed by having them available) could help NSC get back to its goal-scoring ways in the season’s final five contests.