When Nashville SC hosted Atlanta United way back six
years months ago, I noted that the Boys in Gold tried to spring some pressing traps against Five Stripes goalkeeper Brad Guzan and his backline to try to force turnovers deep into Atlanta territory (and thus goal-scoring opportunities for themselves).
With a philosophy to press whistle-to-whistle Saturday evening, it should come as no surprise that playing out of the back was again an area in which Nashville saw an opportunity. Let’s take a look at another of their schemes.
It’s reasonably early in the game, and Atlanta United has a goal kick. Guzan’s centerbacks flank him close to the endline (thanks to the new rules allowing GKs to be played inside the box), while central midfielder Eric Remedi stands just behind the high line of Nashville’s 4-4-2 press, Dominique Badji and Hany Mukhtar. Nashville central midfielder Aníbal Godoy (blue arrow) is just behind Remedi. Atlanta’s fullbacks are outlets high and wide.
Nashville knows that Guzan wants to play out of the back, rather than risking a 50/50 longball, and dares him to do so.
The Boys in Gold are hoping to force Atlanta to turn it over before moving possession to a player who’s more comfortable on the ball. Largely, that means either pulling it directly off the foot (or a bad short pass) from one of Guzan or the centerbacks, or forcing them to give up and launch it long.
Guzan passes to his left, where Anton Walkes collects the ball. He’s immediately pressured by Mukhtar, and goes right back to Guzan. With both Badji and Mukhtar bearing down on the veteran keeper, he finds just enough of a window to slide it to Remedi, who has broken into a bit of space in front of Godoy.
Remedi hits it first-time back to the unmarked centerback, Fernando Meza, and he has enough space to show composure on the ball. Nashville left winger Randall Leal shows some token pressure to prevent Meza from dribbling forward (and giving Atlanta a numbers advantage with Badji, Godoy, and Mukhtar caught up deep in the Atlanta penalty area and only two field players from the Five Stripes with them). But the press is broken.
Why it happens
Even though Atlanta ends up getting out, I’m calling this a successful press (and very close to actually forcing the turnover): Nashville was able to apply pressure in a structurally sound way, and didn’t give up a transition opportunity when the Five Stripes escaped that pressure.
It also took a little bit of luck and a great pass – from potentially a poor decision – from Guzan to Remedi, or Atlanta would have been in trouble.
The goal is to have Mukhtar take away Remedi through the curvature of his run, so Walkes has to go back to Guzan. Then, both Mukhtar and Badji execute a pincer shape on Guzan, so he can’t go back out to either of his centerbacks. Godoy has to be close enough to Remedi to discourage the second pass from Guzan. He is, but Guzan makes the pass anyway, and Remedi sees that he can send the ball wide first-touch to beak the pressure.
Guzan is one of the better MLS keepers in playing with his feet, but he barely has enough time to get onto his stronger left foot for that pass to Remedi, and even a tiny leg thrown in the path by one of Nashville SC’s pressing forwards could have resulted in one of the easiest goals they’ll see in their careers.
You can argue that Godoy should stick closer to Remedi, so that if Guzan tries to pass it to him, he has to go in the air over Godoy to get it there – a much riskier pass, and another avenue through which Nashville could have forced the turnover – but the risk (allowing Guzan and Walkes to occupy three Nashville field players by themselves, giving Atlanta a 9-on-7 break if the pass is completed) is pretty dire there.
Gary Smith was very adamant in his press conference yesterday about the difference between a “defensive” team and an “organized” team. You could call it a mini-rant:
“I think I’ve said this before: There’s a difference between an organized team and a defense-minded team,” he said. “An organized team is a team that has a plan that knows their roles within that plan and within that shape, and they execute that plan as well as they possibly can – which is what we did at the weekend.”
You can see what he means: Nashville is being very proactive defensively, pressuring the ball basically 120 yards up the pitch. What they aren’t going to do is take such risks within that tactical approach that they leave the back exposed. They were organized behind the three-man press, without leaving the players behind them exposed. It’s a very different thing than sitting in a 4-4-2 (or 4-5-1) low block and letting the opponent come at them. Smith’s reputation is (let’s not kid ourselves – at times fairly) the latter, and that’s usually not been the case.
We’ve seen two different high-press executions against Atlanta United. The Five Stripes are probably one of the most technically adept teams in MLS. It will be interesting to see how much Smith is willing to break into this bag of tricks against teams that have little hope of breaking a press – though of course, they’re less likely to try (and allow Nashville to set those traps) in the first place.