Welcome to the Film Room, whereing I break down a key play from a recent Nashville SC game. Today, the insurance goal in a 2-0 win over North Carolina FC.
Thanks to a first-half header from Ropapa Mensah, Nashville SC has taken advantage of a set piece to build a 1-0 lead on North Carolina FC. On the expansive turf at Nissan Stadium, they’ve held onto the lead, and are inviting North Carolina FC to come forward, hoping to open up gaps in the back to find a winner.
NSC has used one substitution, inserting Taylor Washington for Mensah. Typically a left fullback, Washington lines up on the left wing of a 4-2-3-1 formation (while Alan Winn, previously playing left wing, switches to Mensah’s vacated spot on the right).
Carolina is attempting to build from the back.
This isn’t a counter-attacking goal in the sense that NCFC is pushing numbers forward while Nashville bangs one over the top to catch a striker in-behind. On the contrary, NCFC is building slowly, and Washington makes a great individual play by popping into a pressing mindset.
He intercepts a pass that doesn’t have quite enough weight on it, and pushes down the left flank using his speed. He crosses the ball to Lebo Moloto, and the attacking midfielder casually nods it back across the face of goal into the bottom corner.
Washington’s three touches between the interception and the cross happen on the run, and then as he settles the ball and picks his head up.
Striker Daniel Ríos is ahead of the ball, and gets on his horse before cutting off his run to provide a passing option. Moloto ends up with a free run at the back post, and Washington’s service is inch-perfect, allowing the finish to be the same.
Why it happens
I alluded to this a bit in the Graphical, but one thing that separated Nashville and North Carolina in this game – in which they otherwise had similar formations, gameplans, and implementation of personnel – was a bit of aggressiveness in the midfield. That mostly bore out defensively in the performances by the central defensive midfielders (the “2” in 4-2-3-1, mostly sitting in front of the centerbacks), with NSC’s more willing to get into box-to-box areas rather than sitting deep.
It also bore out just a bit in the performances of the wingers. That included both Mensah and Winn making a huge offensive impact in the first half. With Washington’s substitution, he was able to bring a bit of defensive bite as well. Thanks to his speed, he combined that defense with some offense.
I’m not positive if Washington has a pressing trigger there, or if he just sees an opportunity and takes advantage of it, but the quick-change opportunity is one that plays out well for Nashville. By intercepting a pass between a holding midfielder and the fullback on his side, he gives his team a numbers advantage.
You can barely see D.J. Taylor, the intended recipient of Viktor Igbekoyi’s pass, running into the frame. There’s no way he’s going to be able to catch up with Washington. Similarly, the left fullback, Aarón Guillén, has no chance of catching up to Moloto. Igbekoyi’s central midfield partner, Graham Smith, was upfield to move the ball into the attacking third, and has no chance to affect the play (though from all the replays I can see, he doesn’t make an attempt to do so, anyway – he’s represented by the question marks there).
RCB Alex Comsia has to step out to cover Washington, leaving Igbekoyi one-on-one with Ríos. Comsia’s partner in central defense, Sam Brotherton, does what you’d typically expect a centerback to do – shift over to cover the running striker in that transition moment.
That leaves Moloto unmarked, with Alan Winn making a trailing run – which further holds Brotherton inside and also gives Washington options. Ríos stops his run to give Washington a cutback pass (though he should probably clear through the box, even going into an offside position, to open the back post run as much as possible), not realizing that Winn is going to arrive for that purpose.
Of course, since Comsia doesn’t get out to stop Washington or provide pressure on the service, the important part of Ríos’s job – giving Moloto space – is done, and the service-finish linkup is perfect.
Washington recognizes it early and gets the cross off with perfect timing and placement to prevent defenders from making the play. Moloto’s header finishes the deal.
As I mentioned above, I’m not sure if there’s a coached-in pressing trigger or just an opportunistic moment from Washington to being this play. Either way, his interception and speed give Nashville the numbers situation.
In the past, Washington’s service has been one of the weaknesses of his game (that and a little more physicality in defense have been what get Justin Davis on the field over him), but he’s taken major strides in that department this year, even providing lefty corner-kick service at times. Now that he’s added that element to his game, it’s going to be a weapon as long as the Boys in Gold keep their playoff run alive.
Nashville’s chemistry up front makes this work – and is translatable going forward – as well. I don’t begrudge Ríos making a potentially selfish play here, because he had been on a pretty dry spell (one goal in nearly two months), and it’s in the best interest of the team to get him rolling again, and a little selfishness to kick-start that is justifiable. Now that he’s off the schneid with a brace against Atlanta United 2, the complementary scoring options that have risen up around him could help fuel a more-potent offense for the next four games.