Welcome to the film room, wherein I break down how certain plays happened in Nashville SC’s most recent game. Today, a rarely-used high press leads to an easy tally.
It’s early in the first half against Charleston Battery in the first round (second? the league has never been super-clear about proper nomenclature with the play-in games) of the 2019 USL Championship playoffs. Neither team has created much in the way of dangerous chances.
After an attempted long ball from NSC scoots harmlessly over the endline, Charleston has a routine goal kick situation. The Battery choose to play out of the back.
Nashville, knowing that Charleston is going to play out of the back, goes into a high-press tactical approach. It’s a full-field 11v11 man-marking press (though the Boys in Gold would likely have snapped out of it if it didn’t pay off deep in the Charleston end).
The broadcast was showing us an extreme closeup of Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser while the ball was in play for no apparent (and certainly no possibly-legitimate) reason, so we can’t be sure exactly what the passing sequence was. However, it appears that keeper Joe Kuzminsky plays the ball short to centerback Taylor Mueller, who immediately moves it to fullback Kyle Nelson.
Nelson is under heavy pressure from his man-marker, Taylor Washington, and doesn’t have time to make a well-reasoned decision: he either needs to beat Washington one-on-one or move the ball. He chooses the latter, trying to slide it in to defensive midfielder Angelo Kelly-Rosales.
Kelly-Rosales is marked tightly enough by NSC’s Matt LaGrassa (and LaGrassa is athletic enough) that LaGrassa is able to take a calculated risk to beat the Battery player to the ball. He steps in front, hits a first-time pass to Lebo Moloto (who has sunk from heabvy man-pressure on Mueller into a dangerous shooting position), and earns the assist as Moloto beats Kuzminsky.
Why it happens
Nashville SC has used a high press intermittently this year, but after working it heavily in preseason, it’s been more of an occasional gadget play rather than a focus of the consistent tactical approach. The fact that it’s not a constant presence has prevented teams from being ready to tackle it with plenty of practice reps.
Nashville breaks it out here because they know that Charleston is going to insist on playing out of the back (how they knew is beyond me – while the Battery certainly prefers it, they don’t have a dogmatic insistence on playing short from goal-kicks). Take a second look at the overview: Nashville is basically daring Charleston to play long, knowing that it’s not in the gameplan.
Alan Winn is in position to cut off a ground pass to Higashi or Paterson, but anything over his head would probably eliminate him from the play (or at least force him to get on his horse to get involved defensively). Nashville’s centerbacks are staying deep, but would likely step forward to win a header if Charleston plays over the top.
All that, again, is strongly, strongly to the advantage of the Battery if Kuzminsky can get the ball there. Instead, the Battery insist on playing short, and it’s their downfall.
There’s also something to be said for the structure of Nashville SC’s press. While it’s largely a man-to-man scheme, there’s enough freedom for Moloto and Ríos (and, if necessary, Winn – who would have a breakaway offensively for the same positioning reasons that he’s giving one away to Higashi) to get into scoring positions quickly. NSC is set up in a way that allows them to not only win the ball back, but score before Charleston can do anything about it.
Lastly, Kuzminsky is easily beaten from a scoring angle that’s not the worst in the world, but certainly is not a good enough one that the keeper should look like he has no chance. That’s poor goalkeeping, which compounds the inability for Charleston players to recover on account of their positioning to play out of the back.
This – as it has been all year – is a nice tactical approach to keep in the back pocket and be able to pull out when necessary or beneficial (it’s worth noting, if it comes to this, that Phoenix Rising can be given a hard time by messing with their ability to play out of the back), even if it’s not going to be a cornerstone of Nashville’s approach. As noted above, there are risks, particularly in the opportunity for the opponent to have fast-break offensive opportunities, if all does not go according to plan.
That’s why it’s so impressive to see Nashville use the press only when they knew that Charleston wouldn’t be willing to go over the top (Kuzminsky did hit five long passes – all of them incomplete – in the game, though none were directly from goal kicks). That’s playing scissors when the opponent is throwing paper, and getting the victory.
NSC’s players, of course, are going to be the same athletic, intelligent players in the remaining game(s) as they were on this play, even if future contests don’t provide the same opportunity. That speed – both of mind and of movement – pays dividends on the pitch in various ways. The tenacity of offense-first players to do the dirty work defensively (though it’s worth noting that LaGrassa and Washington have plenty of defensive acumen, as well), including from a star striker whose MLS future is already secured, speaks to a belief in the mission and the path to successfully completing that mission.
The buy-in is just as important for the final stretch as is the X-and-O makeup of the play itself.