It has been over a week and a half since Nashville SC headed into Columbus and came away with its first loss since August. But we’re completionists in these parts, and therefore, we must mine the data for the insights. Without further ado:
Possession, purpose, etc. etc.
Nashville SC came away with the lion’s share of the possession in the contest. Indeed, the breakdown heavily favored the Boys in Gold:
That’s a big advantage, and especially in the second half!
However, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, teams that are behind tend to have a greater share of possession and a greater share of shots and expected goals. This intuitively makes sense: the losing team’s priority is to level things up, whereas the winning team – even if there’s a desire to score more – has less incentive to push forward at the risk of giving up goals. Nashville SC had more of the possession in the first half, sure. But once Columbus went ahead, the Crew was very content to let NSC kick the ball around as long as they didn’t threaten goal.
Secondly, an old adage that we became very accustomed to in the USL days (mostly for the negative in 2018, and mostly for the positive in 2019) is that possession means very little if you don’t do something with it. This follows downstream from the above. It… was an issue for Nashville!
Every successful entry into Columbus’s penalty area came from a cross or a long pass. Zone 14 (that dangerous spot just outside the box from which attacks are most dangerous) is basically blank.
All this isn’t necessarily a damning indictment of Nashville SC: Columbus’s defense is good. Entering this game, they’d given up four goals all year. (They’ve since given up four more, one to Minnesota and three to Toronto FC. That still makes them the best goals-against defense by a two-goal margin). Nashville is not blameless – you’d have a hard time finding anyone to say the Boys in Gold have an effective offense, much less a great one – but against a Columbus team that had the opportunity to go into its shell pretty early in the second half… well, putting a less-than-ideal offense into a less-than-ideal situation is going to turn out this way.
Defense stands strong
It’s easy to look at a 2-0 scoreline and believe Nashville SC was just smacked in this game. Of course, we’ve seen time and again that scorelines in soccer can be misleading. That’s more often than not meant Nashville under-scoring its expected goals numbers, but it meant Columbus made the most of its opportunities in this one. The Crew’s shot chart is not exactly indicative of a barrage:
That’s eight total shots. One of them was an audacious (and ultimately very poor) attempt to catch Joe Willis out of his net, with Harrison Afful shooting from his own side of midfield – and Willis back in plenty of time to watch it bounce harmlessly wide. Two of them were poor-angle attempts from the edges of the penalty area. Two were blocked practically before they left the foot (head, in the case of the Zardes attempt signified by No. 11) of the shooter.
That leaves three realistic shots, one that went over the bar, and two that resulted in goals. Poor Joe Willis, who never gets many chances to make saves (fourth-fewest SOG faced among keepers with at least 1,000 minutes), and when the opponent does put one on goal, it tends to be unsaveable. He has vanishingly few easy lobs into his chest this year.
A lot of that opponent finishing is down to poor luck for Nashville, and good play from opponents. Against high-caliber opposition (Pity Martínez for Atlanta – as bad as that team has been for much of the year – is another example of this), it’s going to cost you games. Thew backline has a tendency to be perfect but for one or two moments a game, and Willis has been unlucky that they’ve been maximally punished.
Meanwhile, on the other end
It’s no secret that Nashville SC’s offense just isn’t effective enough. I touched on it in the top section, which you can consider the “why” to this section’s “what.” Nashville SC simply doesn’t take enough good shots per game:
Talented though some of the players obviously are, “finishing from 30 yards” is probably not within the core skillset of any of them, and that’s a ton of shots from 25-plus. Columbus’s defense prevented Nashville SC from working the ball into better spaces, yes. Again, an elite defense will do that.
I’ve also been an advocate for this team being a little more bombs-away, too. This… may have been an overcorrection in that regard (particularly with a proven long-shooter in Randall Leal unavailable due to injury). There has to be payoff in the long shooting, whether that’s directly in goals, or opening space for others (with the defense stepping forward to take away the shot, more room to slip a teammate through).
Nashville SC didn’t get enough of any of it in this one.
Columbus has had a fairly effective high press this season, allowing the Crew to create easy opportunities for the offense, and prevent the opposition from advancing the ball into dangerous areas. That… wasn’t really the case against Nashville, though. Indeed, it came as something of a surprise to the Boys in Gold.
“They didn’t press anywhere near as aggressively as I felt they would,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “I think they sat off hoping that we wouldn’t get in behind them. They kept a really nice tight block, which gave us some good possession, but it also made it a very pragmatic game. And I think they maybe found themselves that there wasn’t an awful lot to get out of our unit and good defending.”
Here are Columbus’s defensive actions for the game (defending the goal at the bottom):
That’s as close to “no press at all” as you’ll see, at least as it can be represented graphically. As Smith notes, that plays into both of the above sections as it relates to Nashville’s offense: lots of possession, not a lot of opportunity to get into dangerous areas on the break or otherwise.
It is sort of an interesting chess match: when you’re not particularly scared of an opponent’s talent (as Columbus coach Caleb Porter was not of Nashville’s), do you sit back and absorb pressure because they won’t beat an organized block? Or do you take the game to them because you know they’re unlikely to beat you if they break your press? Going with the former was clearly the philosophy for Columbus, and it paid off.
From a Nashville perspective, it will be nice to have the ability to perform both styles of defense at a high level (and the team probably isn’t far off from that, in reality). It would be even nicer to develop on the offensive end so that the opponent is unable to dictate the style of the game.
What did you see from the game? Poke around the data and share your thoughts in the comments or on social media.