Nashville SC

The Graphical: Atlanta United 2-0 Nashville SC

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I take a look at some numbers and charts and whatnot to tell the story of recent Nashville SC games. Today, a 2-0 loss in Atlanta.

A tale of two Central American Internationals, one gun-shy and one trigger happy Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Can I squeeze a few more words into the section heading? This hypothesis will have to be tested on another day.

Nashville SC left winger Randall Leal has a bit of a reputation as a YOLO-tastic long-shot specialist. However, after an early (as in, within 30 seconds of the opening whistle) attempt when he probably should have made the decision to thread a pass instead… he shot zero additional times. One of the things that make Leal special immediately dried up. He was wary of wasting possessions with further long shots.

Meanwhile, central midfielder Aníbal Godoy seemed willing to pick up the slack, in a big way. Here are their respective shot maps. Leal (8) literally did not shoot again all game, whereas Godoy (20) took it upon himself to go bombs-away.

That’s not necessarily to say all of Godoy’s shots were bad ideas – a couple were near-misses, he forced a save from Brad Guzan, and even a miss has some value – but you’d much rather have a guy with a track record of scoring take those shots. The early miss significantly impacted the decision-making calculus for Leal. He actually provided the key pass on two of those Godoy launches – including the lone shot on target – but could have been better-served to shoot.

There’s both risk and reward to either decision, of course. The shot has a chance to score or miss, the pass has a chance to find its target or not. Making the right decision – the one that maximizes the team’s chance of ending the possession with a goal – is the idea. Passing up a decent opportunity to give a slightly better look to a (presumably) less-effective shooter can improve the chance of scoring, but it’s unlikely to always be the better choice. When Leal finds the balance, his production will (hopefully, finally) come. The hope has to be that it comes soon.

Mukhtar also struggles to connect

I’m not exactly exploring uncharted territory here: the play of these two guys is the low-hanging fruit of analysis from Saturday’s game. Hany Mukhtar was reasonably effective between the 18-yard boxes, but his contributions in the final third were unfortunately absent:

Squares are passes, circle (outside the box to the left) is his lone shot.

All five of those longer incomplete passes into the box were set-piece opportunities (two corners and three free kicks), and otherwise… his effectiveness ended when the goal drew close. He was tidier on the ball than it might have felt (complete passes behind a teammate are still complete passes), but there wasn’t a whole lot going down at all.

Nashville SC needs its DP attacking midfielder to… be involved in the attack. It’s right there in the name of the position.

Maybe it was just an off game for him, but in five games of data thus far, the reality is that he just hasn’t been particularly effective. Knocking off rust? Adjusting to a new league? Simply stringing together a few poor games due to sheer (un)luck? Whatever it is, Nashville needs better. Mukhtar has proven to have the potential to provide it, and – like with the NSC’s other Designated Player – the instant they get it, this team improves immediately.

Isn’t it a Pity?

Yes, it is.

Atlanta DP Pity Martínez, meanwhile, was fairly ineffective outside of his two shots. And he only got two shots off. But they were both goals of extremely high finishing quality. That’s what you hope for when you sign a high-dollar attacking piece, and it’s what Nashville SC has to hope its duo will provide.

Gary Smith’s quote last night has been taken out of context to somehow mean that he doesn’t think Pity is any good, when the point he was making was literally the exact opposite: Martínez can have a mediocre game by his standards and still win it for his team.

“Did Pity Martínez play as hard as Randall Leal or Dax McCarty or Hany Mukhtar?” Smith mused. “I would say no. I might be overly critical – I didn’t study him – but I would say no. But he’s just won the game for them.”

Does Nashville have that type of player? Even without adding the “to Pity’s level” qualifier, you can safely say no, at least not that we’ve seen. Has or will the NSC front office spend $17 million on a single player like Martínez reportedly cost Atlanta United? That’s also a “no.” But you can see the value in spending. If you have faith (as I do) that NSC will get a return on the value it placed in guys like Leal and Mukhtar, there will be positives. But not the same sort of upside Pity brings to Atlanta.

More like Good-ji, IMO

While Nashville SC can still look at a target striker as an area to immediately upgrade by signing a DP, Dominique Badji had a really strong game, in my estimation. He won a few footraces with Atlanta defenders (or battled enough to draw a foul out of the situation), and he was able to break in-behind defenders much more than we’ve seen at all this season. Those were the expectations coming into the year, and it was nice to finally have a chance to see it.

What he added to that was more on the unexpected side. Badji showed a little bit more physical strength to box out defenders and hold the ball up, and combine with his teammates. If he can bring both of those factors on a regular basis, an improvement at the level behind him should see the goals come.

He was all over the field, comfortable linking passes with teammates, and… took literally one shot all game, and that shot was blocked before it even reached the 18-yard box.

“Look: there’s no criticism of the workload put in, some of the quality in possession, and even some of the moments to get ourselves in good areas,” Smith said. “But for sure, we’ve got a lot of work to do in front of goal, and until we can trouble their goalkeeper more often, and with more quality, results are going to be difficult to come by. There’s no doubt about it.”

He wasn’t talking specifically about Badji, but “solid performance but no effective shots” encapsulates him, just like it does his teammates. That’s where the issue lies: if Nashville SC isn’t going to get DP-quality play from its two Designated Players (and through five games, it certainly has not), it needs something out of the striker from an offensive standpoint. With one shot and zero key passes, even a solid game from Badji was an offensively impotent game from him, as well.

The High Press

Nashville has pressured a little bit more than given credit for so far in 2020, but the Atlanta game took things to another level. Not knowing what to expect in the first MLS contest for a Stephen Glass-coached team, Gary Smith made a clear tactical choice to not let the Five Stripes dictate the game.

The press was on. Here are Nashville SC’s defensive actions in the Atlanta half of the field:

That’s solid, but hardly a game-changer. However, take a look at Atlanta United booting it out of its own end (unfortunately the Opta widget that MLS uses has both teams oriented going South-to-North, so it looks like we’re on the opposite end of the field here. We are not, so mentally make this the same end of the field shown above: Atlanta’s defensive end):

Not only is that a lot of unsuccessful passes originated in the defensive half, it’s unsuccessful passes that don’t even get out of the defensive half. Those are offensive opportunities for Nashville – or they would be with cleaner attacking-third play. The counters that Atlanta gained for their two goals displayed the risk of the press – and why it won’t be an all-the-time deal – but you certainly saw that Nashville can be the aggressor without the ball.

What it all means

There are pieces for Nashville to build on, no matter who’s in possession and no matter where the action is on the field. The Boys in Gold are not getting DP-level output from their Designated Players (or anyone else – this offensive weakness is not just on Leal and Mukhtar), and when that’s the case, any slip-up at the back can be the difference between winning and losing.

Does Nashville SC need a DP #9? I don’t think so. Obviously, one could be of extreme use. But when the center forward isn’t the problem in the game – getting him the ball with accurate passes, or simply not turning it over with final-third passes, was – it’s not the panacea that some seem to believe. Nashville couldn’t get the ball to the striker because the attacking midfielders couldn’t complete passes accurately, not because the guy’s not good enough. The weak link is happening before a striker is involved in the offense.

Nashville doesn’t need to play like a team with three DPs (through the mechanism of, uh, signing one). It needs to not play like a team with zero DPs. Whoever they get that production from – whether one of the DPs proper or otherwise – it has to come, and soon.

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