As Nashville SC prepares to enter “the bubble” prior to the MLS is Back tournament, there remain plenty of questions about the team: with just two games played, our body of evidence about the team’s overall quality is decidedly slim.
Given the unconventional nature of the 2020 season – which was going to be the case no matter what form the return-to-play took, but even more so with a tournament whose group-stage games count for regular-season standings, as well – there are factors at play that would not apply to typical contests. Today, we take a look at whether a Gary Smith-led team is more or less likely to advance from the group stages of a tournament.
NSC General Manager Mike Jacobs is confident in Smith’s ability to manage a team through a tournament format. A couple weeks ago, the GM said:
“I’ve always referred to Gary as a great Cup manager, because he’s tremendous at preparing for one opponent, when he has time to prepare a gameplan.”
The question he was asked that drew the response was only tangentially related (it was about load-management and extra substitutions thanks to IFAB’s rule change allowing five subs per game), but certainly has a kernel of truth that relates specifically to tournament play.
NSC radio broadcaster John Freeman brought some stats that emphasize a history of success for Smith-led teams:
Of course, those are strict knockout tournaments, and we’re looking at something different in the MLS is Back format: group play. I’ve focused a lot on getting out of the group stage because: 1) I think it’s a pretty tough ask for the team with zero league wins ever to emerge as knockout champion, and 2) it’s tough to ask for anyone specific to emerge as knockout champion due of the inherent randomness in a knockout format.
So: let’s continue to analyze the group stage.
The book on Gary Smith teams is that they’re defensively-oriented, more focused on preventing the opposition from creating chances than they are excellent at creating offense of their own. Without getting into the specifics of whether or not that’s true (certainly he emphasizes being solid at the back, but I think a lack of creation has been more about having a lower roster budget than most of his opposition over time), let’s take a look at whether teams with strong defenses – or those with strong offenses – are more likely to advance from a group.
There’s an obvious example to pull up with single round-robin (three-game) group play: a World Cup. Let’s take a look at 2018. A couple obvious caveats here:
- The dataset is extremely small, so there’s bound to be plenty of noise (xG data for 2014 was not available, or I’d have included more info)
- There’s a distinct possibility that national team results are not directly applicable to those of club teams.
With those in mind, let’s take a look at whether you’re better off being an offensively-minded or defensively-minded team – if you can’t be both.
You can see that there’s a wide range of offenses. In both the group that advanced to the knockout stage and those that went home after three contests, you hit pretty much the entire range. For the most part, though, the defenses that advanced – other than Mexico, at least – were close to average or above average.
That dark dot in the bottom-right quadrant that looks like it should have been a pretty good team (but failed to advance) is our good friend Germany. Die Mannschaft provided evidence to demonstrate what appears to be an even clearer trend: it’s better to be lucky than good in a tournament format. Your lying eyes may deceive you, but it looks like luck (and particularly goal-scoring luck, rather than goal-preventing luck) is more important than creating or preventing the opponent from doing so:
Our sample sizes are small, yet. That’s also part of the point here: the noise can be more important than pure quality over small stretches.
Germany was probably the fourth- or fifth-best team in Russia, but was very unlucky and failed to make the knockout stages. Host Russia was horrible at creating offensively, but had insane luck (an Egypt own-goal and a free kick tally against Saudi Arabia helped there), and advanced. it’s worth noting that they won group-stage games 5-1 and 3-1 (and lost the third 0-3), so it’s not like these were nail-biters, but that luck matters in the end.
Your mileage may vary as to whether “luck” means the literal dictionary definition (factors outside of anyone’s control), is a measure of finishing ability (I would contend the Germany and Russia examples point out that’s probably not the case), or somewhere in between. However, I’d say it’s fair to assume that it’s not predictable as you enter a tournament.
So, as we look toward Orlando, Nashville SC’s style of play may ultimately be less important than getting the right breaks at the right times (and of course, the unconventional nature of Group A is another wrench in the analytical works here). The Boys in Gold have been unlucky through two games of 2020, but if they find a lucky rabbit’s foot by next Wednesday, they could just find the juice to make it through.