Nashville SC

The Graphical: Nashville SC 1-2 Atlanta United

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I peruse the Opta data for some insights about Nashville SC’s most recent result. The widgets that MLSSoccer.com uses are way less aesthetically appealing than those from the USL that we’ve dealt with for the past two years, so I’m hoping to have something a little more elegant in the future. 

Win the (xG) battle, lose the (uh, game) war?

One of the major narratives coming out of the game involved Nashville SC exceeding expectations. Part of that is that any sort of competence was going to be a surprise for the folks who didn’t have a lot of faith in Nashville’s build.

Another part is that the Boys in Gold pretty comfortably won the expected goals battle, and it took one outstanding play from a $20 million player and a world-class strike for the Five Stripes to earn the win.

Here are the teams’ respective shotmaps (Nashville left, Atlanta right) as well as the timing of those shots (Nashville top, Atlanta bottom):

ATLshots

Simply put, Nashville created a lot more offense, and the offense that was created tended to be better (to say nothing of David Accam being a half-yard away from finishing a cross on an open net, not reflected on that view because it didn’t result in a shot). Every Atlanta shot that wasn’t a world-class goal was blocked – pretty significant caveat, of course – and they had only two attempts inside the box.

There is a catch, though, and that comes in the timeline aspect of it: trailing teams almost always get more – and better – shots than leading teams. Gamestate effects are real here. In even (0-0) gamestates, Atlanta took four of its six shots, while Nashville didn’t get any shots off. When ATL UTD held a one-goal advantage, Nashville took all 14 of its shots, while the Five Stripes only attempted two.

The Boys in Gold weren’t played off the field by any stretch, but the xG numbers are ultimately going to skew toward “charitable.” Regardless, turning that opportunity to get good looks into actually generating good looks is a step in the right direction. Now, about the final connection and finishing…

Badji company

We simply love a pun.

One of the issues – particularly early in the game, but sort of throughout – was the lack of ability for Nashville SC to get striker Dominique Badji involved in the game. Both he and midfielder Dax McCarty spoke about it postgame.

“I wouldn’t say frustrated, but I know we can do better for sure,” Badji said. “We showed it in practice, we showed glimpses of it in the game. I think there were moments when we could have tried to make a play where we kind of hesitated: we were hesitant today. But I know going forward, having discussed it at halftime and at the end of the game, we know what my strengths are, and it’d be nice to have more opportunities to be able to really show what I can do.”

“If we’re going to have our strikers score goals, they need to be in the box, and we need to be creating chances for them,” McCarty said. “It’s a team-wide effort: it’s not just one or two guys, it’s all 11 of us on the field. Trying to be a little bit sharper in the final third, trying to be a little bit more fluid in the attack: that’s something that will come with a little bit more time.”

Here’s Badji’s every action in the game:

Screen Shot 2020-03-03 at 9.04.15 AM

Not a lot doing there! Only two shots, one blocked and the other from well outside the box (but baaaarely off-target). Not much in the way of link-up play, defensive actions, dribbles…

The struggles aren’t exclusively Badji’s fault – as McCarty said, he needs more help from the players around him – but certainly Nashville will be better off on offense by getting the lone striker involved in the game. As it was in preseason, the productivity of that position is going to be a key to team-wide success going forward.

Playing from the back?

There was lots of preseason noise about Nashville’s desire to play out of the back, rather than boot the ball upfield to clear the defensive zone. The Athletic‘s Joe Lowery said they showed no desire to do that($), and you can see a little bit of that in the passing chart (front four players removed):

Screen Shot 2020-03-03 at 8.58.54 AM

As you can see, there’s just a little bit of progressing the ball with shorter passes, an avoidance of the middle (where Atlanta’s midfield gave the Boys in Gold fits), and a fair amount of trying to go long. There was, however, a bit of interplay along the touchlines to progress the ball in possession there – and approximately one metric ton (you know, the unit you use to measure passes) of the central midfielders banging a pass from right-center over to Daniel Lovitz on the left – along with some lateral passing to maintain possession rather than try to force the action.

We need more than a one-game sample size to know whether some of these aspects are going to be season-long themes, opponent specific, first-game-jitters, or some combination thereof. However, you saw the pieces for setting up to play out of the back, but the consistency in using and executing those tactical pieces was lacking.

hash tag winn ing

Alan Winn is a guy I’ve long believed would be able to fit in at the MLS level, and while there are – as ever – some caveats to a 30ish-minute sample size (all but four minutes of which came in the aftermath of Atlanta losing its emotional leader in Josef Martinez, he had a strong performance.

winnaccam

Here’s a comparison between Winn (19) and the player he replaced in the lineup, David Accam (11). Obviously the game situations they each had were extremely different: Winn’s task was to generate offense, and quickly, with his team trailing and time running out. Accam had to be more of a full-field player and multi-purpose contributor.

This isn’t necessarily about whether one or the other had a better game, but about whether Winn accomplished the mission he was tasked with. As you can see, there were some problems in that final phase on the edge of the box, but largely there’s a lot of green there (one of which was a nutmeg both hilarious and awesome that will please in the GIFs). At a point in the game where high-risk, high-reward is the priority, he was forcing action, and the success rate when the opponent knows you’re going to be forcing action is solid enough.

The question will become about how much of the paucity of final product boils down to the difficulty of the situation, how much of it is the same questions we’ve sort of always had about Winn, and how much he can improve after taking the lessons from his first MLS game. As with everything else that happened Saturday night, we don’t have a great enough sample size to draw any sweeping conclusions. There are positive signs and question marks, but early feeling is that having scaled the strengths of his game into successful moments at the MLS level should provide the platform to get better very quickly.

What did you see in the data? Poke around and as always, feel free to report back with your findings.

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