Nashville SC

The Nashville SC striker problem: Badji to the Bone?

Dom Badji was socially isolated on the pitch before it was trendy.
Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Nashville SC has had a meager offense through two game of its inaugural MLS season. The team has both created less than the average MLS team and finished at a below-average rate:

offensetwogames
Worth noting that the outliers really skew the averages here. We love small sample sizes!

While the finishing will likely regress to the mean, it remains the case that Nashville SC – despite playing from behind for much of the clock in its first two games – has the eighth-fewest expected goals in the league. There are sample-size issues, and strength-of-schedule inequalities, too: it stands to reason that Atlanta United has an elite defense, and a decent chance Portland’s winds up above-average, too.

(For comparisons’s sake, it’s likely that neither of those teams ends up with a bad offense on aggregate this year, but they look bad now because 50% of their games came against Nashville’s defense, which looks like an elite xG-against unit through two games.)

Still, there’s no denying that Nashville SC’s pmost-obvious area of improvement remains on the offensiveend of the pitch. Among the fans, the scapegoat has been striker Dominique Badji.

Fit issues

Some of Badji’s struggles have been a matter of fit in the system, and even those aren’t damning in the big picture. Nashville SC has been playing in gamestates (namely: trailing) that don’t match his skillset. His selection to the starting lineup wasn’t necessarily a mistake – certainly Gary Smith wasn’t expecting wonder-strikes from Atlanta and Portland to put Nashville behind the game – but when NSC went down, Smith couldn’t make an offensive sub that early, and Badji was a poor fit.

If NSC stays level – or even leads! – in a game, Badji’s style could be exactly what Nashville needs. However, he tends to be a player who thrives on getting into space. He wants to win one-on-ones (a reason FC Dallas deployed him as a winger in the past two years) or simply run off the centerback’s shoulder into tons of space, either with the ball or running onto it.

What he is not is a guy who’s going to combine in traffic.

badjistyle

What are we seeing here? Aside from his rookie 2015 season, Badji was slightly-below to well-below average in terms of his touch percentage among teammates on the pitch, and pretty much always well-below average in his passes per 96 minutes. He appears to not be particularly involved in build-up play, and a greater proportion of his touches than the average striker are shots.

In two games so far (film review, not statistical review) he’s had trouble figuring out how to move into space when a teammates create offensive traffic in the final third. This is a guy who is a finisher/poacher/cherry-picker by style, not a hold-up forward or guy who’s going to show slick movement in Zone 14:

badji.2020-04-01 12_56_31

Badji and Accam are both less-than ideal there, but Badji’s lack of movement/spacing is particularly grating given that Mukhtar managed to dribble five guys, and ended up looking at his striker standing immediately behind one of them.

This is bad when you are down!

There’s a place for a “run-in-behind” sort of guy. When you face an early deficit as Nashville has in both games to date, this can be a problem, thanks to simple geometry. The opposing team has the opportunity to absorb pressure and take away space in the defending third, because they feel less need to push forward for a goal of their own.

This was most pronounced in the second game. The Portland Timbers got a 12th-minute strike from Diego Valeri, and didn’t care to play soccer for the rest of the game (that’s not an insult: they successfully executed a gameplan to get the win). For a player like Badji, who’s not as skilled in combining in the final third, this is a problem:

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There isn’t going to be space to run in-behind, and if he gets on the ball at all, he’s going to have a pair of centerbacks right on him. He’s going to have to link up with teammates in a precision passing game. He doesn’t have the advanced vision or precise passing to combine quickly on a consistent basis, and he doesn’t have the physical strength to sit in there and win a physical battle against solid CBs. This wasn’t the game for Badji.

Contrast that with the type of game Nashville was likely expecting, with Portland very stretched out and susceptible to the counter – the way Minnesota United was able to hit them en route to a 3-1 win at Providence Park in the opener:

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There’s a lot more space there because the CMs, wingers, and forwards can’t sit back and restrict it. It was far to expect that style to be available headed into the game (again: Minnesota shredded these dudes on the counter). Going down 1-0 early changed that calculus, and changed the nature of the game Portland wanted to play. It allowed them to bunker and make sure Badji didn’t have the space he needs to thrive.

Other options

Of course, there was no way to know before the game that Portland would get the early goal and take Badji out of his wheelhouse. Smith couldn’t make an offensive substitution that early in the contest to get a better-suited striker into the game (Badji was ultimately replaced by Daniel Ríos in the 71st minute).

However, the game did expose a lack of versatility in the game situations that Bajdi can be used: he’s fine in a level game, and potentially lethal when his team has a lead. However, Nashville probably needs a striker who’s going to be more capable in all three potential gamestates (tied, leading, or trailing). Even if the defense remains elite and picks up a bit of luck, a well-rounded striker is helpful.

It seems that it’s time for Daniel Ríos to get his shot as the starting striker. Albeit at a lower level, he’s showed more strength and combination play in tight spaces. He may not have get-in-behind speed, but that’s proven less crucial so far, anyway.

Badji (and/or fellow winger/striker Abu Danladi)’s speed off the bench against tired legs late in games can be a difference-maker, while Ríos seems to be the best-balanced player to contribute offense that isn’t generated by teammates.

The future

Obviously our whole world is on pause right now, so who even knows if the 2020 season gets completed (and it seems unlikely that all 34 games are played, no matter what). However, when soccer returns, a chance for Ríos to prove his mettle at the MLS level seems like Step One in trying to wake up the O.

If he can get it done – if he’s the next Christian Ramirez or Brian White, in terms of translating second-division production to MLS – then Nashville may not ultimately need a Designated Player-level striker (I would imagine a top-notch right wing is the choice instead). However, he needs the shot to show that, and it seems most likely that a DP striker makes sense even if Ríos is solid.

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