From the film room: Ropapa Mensah’s rapid improvement

Ropapa Mensah’s career with Nashville SC is one that fans have strong positive feelings toward. From scoring the first goal in club history to a last-kick game-winner, and so on and so forth.

So far, his career has also had its share of disappointment, too (as is true of any player). However, his game is growing – rapidly – and as some of those rough edges have been smoothed out, he’s becoming the type of player who’s tough to keep off the field. There remains, however, room for improvement.

Let’s take a look at some of how that manifested itself on the field against Loudoun United Saturday evening.

The situation

Since I’m not singling out an individual play – but rather a few distinct ones – in this edition of the Film Room. the specifics of a situation are unimportant. What is important is the general shape of the game.

Nashville SC was fairly content to absorb pressure from a Loudoun United team that’s talented-but-unrefined (uh, sound familiar?) and focused on punishing DC United’s USL affiliate on the counter-attack. With that gameplan in mind, the tactical choices by Gary Smith were somewhat interesting.

His team based out of a 3-5-2 formation, but it was flexible enough to shift into 4-2-3-1 looks – as well as amorphous shapes in attack – at the drop of a hat. Mensah’s presence as either a wide attacking player or the player whose lack of a defined position (I like the Thomas Müller “raumdeuter” description: a guy with the responsibility to find space and exploit it, wherever it may be available) led to the flexibility in the attacking phase was a major asset to the team.

This:

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Became something almost like this:

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While the three-man backline was the preferred defensive setup, it was tilted toward King and Davis having near-equal responsibilities on the offensive end of things (even though Davis was nominally a centerback and King nominally a wide player), with Washington sliding forward as a typical wingback-type or wide midfielder, and Mensah free to do basically whatever in order to cause havoc for Loudoun.

Defensively, he would often sink like a wide midfielder despite nominally being a striker, and it was similar to the typical 4-4-1-1 look at times (but again, he was mostly a free player).

The examples

Mensah’s two scoring plays (one, an assist to Daniel Ríos that was almost certainly intended to be a tight-angle shot, and the second an accurate version of the same shot that found far netting) came with him playing as an attacking player wide and high up the field.

Nashville emphasized banging the ball to Mensah in that deep corner, and he made the plays count.

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The first play show him executing a nice 1-2 combination with Lebo Moloto to get the ball into that dangerous area. The second shows him getting a step on left back Chris Odoi-Atsem to get onto his favored right foot, before blasting the ball past both the defender and keeper Earl Edwards Jr.

The give-and-go. Also a don’t give-and-don’t go

Let’s take the first one. Mensah’s passing interplay with Moloto was a massively important part of getting the ball into a dangerous area with the space to get a shot (or “pass”) off.

There were later opportunities too, in which Mensah didn’t trust himself to dish the ball, and even turned back after he felt like he wasn’t going to win a one-v-one footrace:

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If he had played the same 1-2 on this opportunity that he’d played with Moloto earlier (and in more space!), he probably would have ended up with an even better opportunity in more space.

Passing the ball to Moloto here, when 15-year old Loudoun midfielder Moses Nyeman has turned his shoulders and committed to stopping the ball would force the young… Loudounite? yeah, let’s go with that… to turn all the way back to Moloto, who would then have the opportunity to give it right back to Mensah as they’ve both left Nyeman in the dust:

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A 2-v-1 with the left fullback in that situation would have been a nice opportunity. As you can see in the GIF, there’s even a possibility that Mensah can turn up the pace and try to beat Nyeman on the dribble.

Turning back and releasing the ball to LaGrassa is hardly the greatest sin – it’s better than a turnover by any metric – but there was a counter opportunity that a player with a little more awareness (and maybe a little more pace) can turn into a very dangerous one. We know he can do it – he had just done it for an assist barely five minutes earlier – and being more consistent with the right decision can turn him into a star.

(As a side note, there’s also something to be said for the lack of trust in his own speed. He’s taken about half the season to get to full fitness each of the past two years, and sort of has to use some of that time to psych himself up into realizing he’s a fast guy once he gets going. A more effective offseason fitness regimen could eliminate that step and make him an impact guy from day one in future seasons).

Setting up the right

It’s no well-kept secret that Mensah is basically a one-footed player: of his 17 goals in three USL seasons, one (1) has been with the left foot. Three have been headed, and the rest are with his preferred right foot. Despite that, he’s shown very good technical ability, including squirming out of tight spaces even using just the right foot on the dribble.

HOWEVA!

Teams can (and often do) scheme to try to prevent Mensah from getting on his right, since they know there’s not a ton to fear with the left. How did he get time and room on his right for the goal, then? Apparently, the rumors of his left foot’s demise (or non-existence) have been greatly exaggerated!

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This play was just moments earlier. Look how dedicated Odoi-Atsem is to taking away the right foot: very! That’s the right choice to make, and at the very worst, he’s either forcing Mensah to try with his far weaker foot.

The problem is that Mensah not only stays inbounds (you might expect him to run out of space with a dedication to getting it onto his right), but the lefty(!!!) cross that he fires is a pretty good one, finding Daniel Ríos in a dangerous area to get a shot off. Indeed, it’s just a couple inches from resulting in a goal.

That gives Odoi-Atsem hesitance to over-defend against the right foot a minute later, and he affords Mensah the time and room to rip one into the bottom corner.

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Mensah doesn’t necessarily need the left foot to be a weapon. If it can just be a credible change-of-pace (as it was here), it can open up the things that he’d prefer to be doing anyway.

Just a little bit more development of that left foot can make him an impact player to an even greater degree than he already is. Combine that with just a little more experience and fitness, and this is a guy who can have a bright future in MLS and beyond.

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