Nashville SC

From the film room: The MLS Assist… assist

The new #pod MLS Assist should be in your listening rotation if it’s not already, and when soccer returns, it’ll be even more worth your time. The March 17 episode had some interesting observations as it relates to Nashville SC.

While co-hosts Joe Lowery and Jordan Angeli were mostly focused on the Portland Timbers in the relevant section, the game that they’re analyzing came against Nashville SC, and thus they drew contrasts between the Timbers and NSC. They are also much, much more astute observers and analysts of the game than I – Jordan’s a former pro, and Joe’s Rising Tactics has been a major inspiration for and contributor to my learning about the game – and they did a really good job of putting into words something that you may notice, but not realize why you’re noticing it.

“It ends up just being this gap, this massive divide between Diego Chara and then the attacking midfielders,” Lowery said. “Polo’s pushed up the field, Yimmi Chara, Diego Valeria, Sebastian Blanco: they’re all just kind of there. And Nashville don’t really have any problem blocking off angles to them with their midfield line of four in Gary Smith’s 4-4-2 block… that’s what Portland consistently found themselves having trouble to break down.”

“Every time the ball gets passed, you are trying to block the next passing lane,” Angeli added. “And I did not feel like the two holding midfielders for Portland – really that midfield block in general – did a good enough job of adjusting constantly. If watched this 4-4-2 block for Portland, and then you compared it to the 4-4-2 block for Nashville, it would be significantly different: every second, Dax McCarty is moving, he and [Aníbal] Godoy are moving. They’re trying to figure out,’OK where do they want to go next? Nope, you don’t get that passing lane anymore because I’m going to slide over slightly to my right to block the pass in to the center forward.’ And I don’t really feel like Portland did that.”

So, while the information they’re presenting is “Phoenix didn’t X,” that observation stood out largely because Nashvilled Xed a lot.

Going back on a re-watch, there were tons of examples of Nashville’s movement in the central midfield (and other areas of midfield and defensive lines, and even some from the strike duo) using their motion not to intercept passes, but to prevent them from being played in the first place.

McCarty and Godoy’s movement to take away the desired passing lanes ultimately forces Portland to get frustrated, and Jorge Villafaña just plays it over the top.

The movements also came in more obvious ways – particularly at the end of plays. McCarty gets the glory in the following for ranging wide to make the tackle, but keep an eye on both he and Godoy at the beginning, as well.

Their movement takes away the passes that Portland wants, setting up an unwise pass that McCarty can disrupt shortly after completion.

Their comparison also showed up on the other end of the pitch. The lack of movement, vision, and coverage from Portland’s central midfield also let Hany Mukhtar do work in Zone 14 (something I noted in The Graphical after the game). Again, their expertise shed even more light on why this happened. Here’s Jordan again:

“How many times did Mukhtar get the ball not only in between the defensive and midfield line, but in between the two holding midfielders?” she asked. “The ball just splitting that line and finding him in that pocket. That’s not a good sign for Portland.”

I re-watched to answer her question: even with a fairly conservative set of counting criteria – only when the pass split those central midfielders – nine times Hany Mukhtar received the ball in the pocket she mentioned (and once more, the lane was open, but user error made it incomplete through no fault of the Timbers’ own. There was also one instance of Randall Leal positioned in that slot and receiving the pass, and one each of Dominique Badji and Daniel Ríos exchanging role with Mukhtar and receiving in that area while Mukhtar pushed high to keep the CBs off them). Here’s one:

Threaded between Andy Polo and Diego Chara

You can see that Portland’s central midfielders are positioned pretty close to each other, but McCarty is able to find a sliver of space to reach Mukhtar. He’s then able to push forward and take a centerback out of the play, forcing Jorge Villafaña to squeeze inside and cover David Accam, opening up a shooting lane for Randall Leal. Indeed, it seemed that – in contrast to Nashville relying on movement to take away the center of the pitch, Portland just physically placed the “2” in a 4-2-3-1 formation close to each other, hoping that would get the job done.

“Diego Chara is a defensive liability as a central midfielder” is a nuclear take if ever there was one, so I want to be clear that it’s not the point I’m trying to make. However, in this game his activity in the center of the pitch didn’t live up to snuff, and whether that was a coaching point, a bad game from a good player, or something else entirely, it proved to be true, even if you wouldn’t anticipate it recurs.

From a Nashville perspective, there’s every reason to believe that the defensive solidity, led by that duo in in the middle of the pitch along with a strong backline, will continue when the games return. A little more precision from the passing of those two – McCarty absolutely threaded the pass above, but struggled with accuracy and decision-making on a couple other occasions (obviously everyone does at times, see “Diego Chara is bad at defense” above), and his track record indicates you’d expect him to smooth it out – and the rewards on the offensive end of the pitch should lead to solid results for the Boys in Gold.

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