Nashville SC

The Graphical: Nashville SC 4-2 Atlanta United

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the Opta data and graphics for insight into a recent Nashville SC contest. Today, a look at the most-resounding (only resounding?) win in the club’s MLS history thus far: a rivalry thrashing of Atlanta United.

Eatin’ on the left side

Atlanta United played its more stay-at-home right back (Franco Escobar, whose secondary position is CB) over its more adventurous one (Brooks Lennon, who actually started in his secondary position, right midfield, before being yanked at halftime), but… Nashville still found it pretty easy to get in-behind up the offensive left flank. Here are NSC’s four goals, and the key passes on the three run-of-play goals:

The goal from the doorstep was Dom Badji’s easy tally off the set piece.

That’s a one-v-one matchup win by Dan Lovitz (2) over Lennon in the corner, and balls over the top to players streaking through the center off the field from midfield (9 and 6, Badji and Dax McCarty, respectively) under little duress on that left flank. The runners were… not particularly perturbed by the central defenders for Atlanta, either.

Nashville had lots of other success up that left side, as well: Escobar and right CB Miles Robinson were caught upfield regularly, and then simply couldn’t keep pace with Nashville. Here are the defensive actions for that duo. Escobar (2) was naturally higher up the pitch – that’s standard in comparing a fullback to a centerback – but Robinson was in really high areas out of possession, as well.

Atlanta is defending the goal at the bottom – so the field is flipped in comparison to the above image – because Opta can’t make anything easy.

For good measure, here’s their positioning at key moments in each of the three run-of-play goals:

Even the one that looks the best there (Nashville’s second in the game, first from the run of play, on the left) is a real bad look for Escobar, who is hanging out by himself on the sideline, and Robinson, who both lets Badji get an easy uncontested header off and makes sure he’s not in position to defend the resulting pass. In the second, Escobar’s removed from the play by an overlapping run, but a cross whizzes by Robinson’s head without his reacting to the ball or any opposing player at all (McCarty would have an uncontested header in the box), and on the third, both get caught so far upfield that left CB Anton Walkes and keeper Brad Guzan are the only players within a mile of Danladi when he scores.

McCarty’s “don’t talk about it, be about it” routine in the postgame… may have been onto something.

Put the ball in on the net

Nashville SC has generated a reason amount of scoring opportunity this season – dead-center of the pack in expected goals per game, according to American Soccer Analysis – but is 21st in goal-scoring per outing. A big part of the reasoning behind that has been actually putting those chances on the frame.

When you’re barely above average in generating scoring chances (1.29 xG/game, 13th in the league) and well below it in actually testing the frame of the goal (32.8% shots-on-target entering the contest, 21st in the league), you’d better hope you’re playing against some pretty weak keepers or you won’t be scoring a bunch. And lo, Nashville has faced some very good keepers – Brad Guzan three times, Luis Robles twice – and not scored particularly well.

Giving the ball a chance to go in definitely helps:

Nashville put two-thirds of its attempts on-frame (bumping up to No. 14 in SOG% in just one game), and had an offensive breakout. McCarty’s ball on the Badji goal was also scored as a shot by Opta, even though he was clear in the postgame that it was a flick-on, and MLS credited him with an assist for it – without that, Nashville would have put 6/8 attempts on the frame.

That little 1% of luck here, 1% of improved performance there, and you can really experience an offensive breakout. Yes, “going against a backline that was having A Bad One” could also be credited with an unofficial assist on each of the four goals. But in past games, we’d have seen only one or two of the shots even given a chance to beat the keeper and score.

Mukhtar the midfielder

The central attacking midfielder position in a 4-2-3-1 position is always a little flexible in its offensive duties. That’s borne out for better and for worse at times with Hany Mukhtar this season. He’s looked – and probably felt – crowded deep in the attackiing third at times this year with his striker and the wingers all pretty close to him.

So, want him to orchestrate a little more cleanly? Let him hang back a little farther, pick out passes from deeper, and make timely runs. The sense of timing and chemistry that’s led to mishandled or mishit close-range passes won’t be a problem.

He still wasn’t perfect – nobody ever is, of course – but letting those combinations happen in a little less-tight quarters, with longer passes (or runs of his own into the box) the way to get involved inside the penalty area, and it looked perhaps the most comfortable he’s been this season. With a set-piece assist (an MLS assist in reality – it was scored a key pass by Opta as noted above) to go along with his free-run at goal, the potential is there to be highly involved in the offense, even if he’s not living in the offensive end of the pitch.

Similarly, Nashville has been a bit of a pressing team in recent weeks (either situationally or as a game-long tactical approach), but backed off a little bit against Atlanta in this one. That not only allowed Escobar and Robinson to hand them the game on a platter by getting upfield, but felt like it gave Mukhtar that opportunity to play a little more relaxed, rather than the hurry-hurry-hurry nature of picking up the ball in the opposing penalty area.

Nashville has now proven to have both styles in its back pocket, and ironically the one (long passes on the counter with a healthy use of crosses) that’s associated with “defensive play” – in the pejorative sense it’s often used against Gary Smith – is the one that led to a four-goal outburst.

What did you see from the Opta data? Share your thoughts here or on social media.

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