Saturday evening, Nashville SC followed through on its preseason promises to be a pressing team. However, it only happened occasionally against Atlanta United. Let’s go to the Film Room to explore what they did and didn’t do against Atlanta United.
This was a fairly typical look when Atlanta United was transitioning out of its own end:
Nashville is in a mid-block 4-4-2, with the strikers (Hany Mukhtar on the near side, Dominique Badji trailing) providing some pressure on Atlanta’s back three, while the midfield is in a tight four-man line, and the defenders (you can only see right back Eric Miller in the photo) in another four-man line behind them.
The back eight didn’t engage high up the pitch that much, and the strikers’ token pressure was more to slow things coming out of the back than to try to press Atlanta into turnovers. Essentially, the scheme was something like this:
Escobar and Walkes were tasked with getting as high and wide as possible to prevent Mukhtar and Badji from covering all three at the back, while Atlanta’s central four and front three moved to get open against their respective marks.
When Nashville wanted to get more aggressive, it would slide one of the wide midfielders – here’s it’s Randall Leal – up to make a front three, man-marking all of Atlanta’s CBs (note who has the ball in that photo, we’ll get to this in a second):
…or try to give one of those CBs just a little bit more space on the ball, but no passing options to get it off his own feet:
The other option was – not as regularly used – to try to bait Atlanta into a look that was easy to press.
Springing a trap
As noted just above, the fact that keeper Brad Guzan has the ball while Nashville takes a more aggressive pressing posture is not only notable, but important.
The Boys in Gold would spring into a heavier press when certain pressing triggers popped up in Atlanta’s style of play. There were others, but one of the most common ones (for NSC in this game, but also for pressing teams generally) came when the ball was passed back to the keeper. This is for obvious reasons – a player who’s presumably worse with his feet than field players is tasked with controlling the ball, one of the field players has turned his back to give it to the keeper – and more subtle shaped-based ones.
Here’s an example of Nashville springing one such trap on the Five Stripes:
It actually starts out of a Nashville turnover (pressing immediately after your own turnover is often referred to as “re-pressing,” if you’re trying to build your tactics lexicon a bit), but NSC sets up a couple on-ball pressure situations with Mukhtar stepping quickly to Escobar while Randall Leal man-marks wingback Brooks Lennon.
Right mid David Accam man-marks Walkes out of the play. When the ball goes to Guzan, central midfielder Badji leaves CB Fernando Meza to pressure the keeper. Dax McCarty plays the space between Meza and central midfielders Remedi and Emerson Hyndman, hoping for an interception. It goes something like this:
The fact that this didn’t result in a turnover (and that Atlanta’s first goal came in part because Nashville was a little to aggressive in pressing) probably discouraged Nashville from using the press – and the traps – as frequently as they’d planned.
Unless you have a massive athleticism or skill advantage over your opponents – and even then – the concept of the press is that you’re hoping the opposition will make mistakes (If you’re Liverpool, you tend to get all three!). Yes, you’re forcing those mistakes, and more likely to force them the better-designed your press is.
However, the numbers advantage of having one more passing outlet – the keeper – than pressing players is unavoidable. You risk giving up counter-attacks the more bodies you throw forward into a press. You have to trust that the defenders can’t get the ball forward into their own numbers-advantage situation, or make sure you stay sound at the back.
Atlanta provided particular struggles to Nashville for two reasons: 1) their three-at-the-back formation is particularly hard to press with a two-high defensive structure, and 2) they’re one of the most skilled keeper-backline-midfield groups Nashville will face this year. Also 3) Josef dang Martinez is (was 😓) the outlet if they give up and bang it over the top. Three reasons.
It must be noted that none of those three things are likely to recur with any regularity for the remainder of the season. That’s not to guarantee NSC will press more regularly over the rest of the season – but I’d certainly expect it.