Nashville SC has yet to earn a result in two games against Atlanta United. Saturday evening, it was a singular moment of brilliance from Eric Remedi and Pity Martínez that broke the game open. How did Pity put the Five Stripes ahead just a few minutes before the half?
In its first game under interim head coach Stephen Glass, Atlanta has a different philosophy than it did under recently-dismissed Frank de Boer. The Five Stripes are a little more content to sit deep and let the attacking players have freedom on the break, rather than the possession-oriented slow builds up the field that de Boer favored.
Through about 38 minutes, Nashville SC has had slightly less of the ball than Atlanta, but has generated seven shots in comparison to Atlanta’s three. While four of NSC’s shots were deep bombs from Aníbal Godoy and Randall Leal that had little expectation of success, the Boys in Gold have just created the best offensive opportunity of the game, with rookie winger Alistair Johnston running onto a Dax McCarty pass behind the ATL backline. Johnston could only get a toe to the ball before Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan blocked it away.
The rebound falls to Atlanta centerback Anton Walkes, and the Five Stripes are tasked with starting their offensive push from the back.
Atlanta executes a few passes around the backline and midfield – Walkes to left back George Bello, Bello to central midfielder Emerson Hyndman, and Hyndman to central defensive midfielder Eric Remedi – before sensing an opportunity. Remedi is given all sorts of time on the ball, and he decides to go for it all.
Remedi fires a long pass down the left channel to left winger Pity Martinez, who finds himself an extra bit of space behind Nashville right back Jalil Anibaba. He touches the ball forward to himself, clearing space from Anibaba, then cuts back to beat centerback Walker Zimmerman. Alone in space inside the Nashville penalty area, Martínez senses Anibaba bearing down from behind, and sees goalkeeper Joe Willis leaving his line to cut down the shooting angles.
Martínez pokes the ball past Willis with his favored left foot, and gives Atlanta a lead the Five Stripes would never relinquish.
Why it happens
This play begins going wrong for Nashville at the time Johnston is unable to get enough of the ball to force a dangerous rebound from Guzan’s save. That’s partly because Nashville itself was on a bit of a breakaway: striker Dom Badji had held up the ball along the sideline before a quick drop to left back Dan Lovitz provided the first-time pass to McCarty.
As you can see from Lovitz’s earlier pass to Badji, this was a quick offensive move for Nashville in the first place: the left back was half-clearing it after an Atlanta cross was ineffective, half-passing to Badji. Either way, Nashville isn’t yet throwing numbers forward. But at the same time, they don’t have a structured, slow-build attacking shape, either. This is a counter.
After the Guzan save, Nashville’s offensive shape was not conducive to immediately recovering to press the ball… but with a press-heavy gameplan installed before kickoff, the right side of Nashville’s defense – namely Anibaba stepping up to support McCarty – goes for high pressure, while the left side is getting back into its shape.
The differences in aggressive play particularly between central attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar (who doesn’t have support from Badji because he’d been along the sideline on the offensive play, nor from left midfielder/winger Randall replacing Badji up top because Nashville was counter-attacking) and Anibaba at right back is the first major problem here.
Anibaba has gotten way upfield because he’s executing the pressing gameplan. However, defenders getting upfield while the players in front of them don’t put pressure on the ball is a major issue. Mukhtar properly forces the ball backwards to Remedi. However, once it arrives there, Mukhtar continues dropping and tracks Hyndman’s leisurely run. Without Badji or Leal to support as the other member of a 4-4-2 pressing scheme, Remedi has all the time in the world to pick out the pass.
Check out Anibaba (arriving from the right side of the screen during the second Atlanta pass) when Atlanta begins to cycle it. He sees that Remedi is going to have time to launch it, checks what’s going down in the area he’s vacated, and has an “oh shit” moment to get back on his horse and try to run Martínez down before the ball gets there.
He actually does a reasonable job arriving with the ball… but the problem is that he’s too busy tracking the pass itself as Pity receives it. That prevents him from getting into a good position to stop the winger once he’s in possession, and Martínez is easily able to get goalside (both inside and downfield) of Anibaba, giving him a one-v-one with a centerback.
The centerbacks also misplay this one. Walker Zimmerman’s physical error – losing a one-v-one – is more obvious and impactful (also: understandable, given Martínez was the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year, and a player with that on his resume should be winning one-v-ones with a CB). However, it probably would have also made more sense for Dave Romney to step up, and play Adam Jahn offside, rather than continuing to man-mark the striker. That would have dissuaded Martínez from cutting past Zimmerman in the first place (he may still have attempted it, of course), and since Joe Willis was late to leave his line – on account of not knowing that Zimmerman was going to get cut back on – he would have been in position to claim a pass to Jahn across the face of goal if the striker had stopped his run to get back onside.
This is all happening so fast that you can’t fault the players in real-time, but the benefit of watching many times makes it clearer – when Romney has to cut behind Jahn to get ball-side of him, he might as well leave him offside to Pity can’t pass to him (or at least has to wait until Jahn gets back onside, at which point he has to restart any forward momentum, and a pass to him should be within Willis’s range to claim).
Of course, Romney’s – and to a lesser extent Anibaba’s – problems are hardly the greatest sins here. Mukhtar and the Badji/Leal combo giving Remedi loads of time on the ball, and Zimmerman losing a one-v-one (again, understandable though that may be) are what really allow a top-class player like Pity Martínez to change the game.
This play in part explains why Nashville SC doesn’t press more. There’s an inherent risk in leaving your backline exposed. However, it also displays that – even in the event of a broken press – there’s value in it. Literally two steps forward from Mukhtar, and Remedi doesn’t see the window to try to beat multiple lines of the NSC defense with a longball. Even with that longball, it takes at least two mental errors and a major lost one-v-one to result in a goal.
The outcome from the coaches’ perspective is naturally going to be to go back to what has worked so far this season: more of a mid-block philosophy, since it’s been nigh-impenetrable aside from opponents’ individual moments that are even more brilliant than this one: of the three goals Nashville SC had given up so far this season, all were more incredible strikes, and two of them were from set-piece situations. Only Ezequiel Barco’s blast in the opener came from the run of play.
One final takeaway here is that, as impressive as Walker Zimmerman is over the course of 90 minutes, opponents seem to know they can exploit his aggression a couple times a game (the second Martínez goal also came at Zimmerman’s expense, but by that point it’s totally excusable as NSC needed to be taking those types of risks to get an equalizer). Given that Nashville has compiled one of the best defenses in the league on a strict goals-per-game margin – and is the best by a wide margin on an xG-against basis – those risks are absolutely worth it. But they exist.
Overall, if it takes all this to give up a goal, you’re feeling pretty good about your defense. But you need an offense to complement it, or – as we saw in this one – a comeback is going to be tough.