Nashville SC

From the film room: Trouble building from the back

Trying to rip through the typical postgame content from the past three(!) games. Likely the only film room from the bunch, let’s take a look at how Columbus Crew broke the deadlock in their win over the Boys in Gold.

The situation

Nashville SC and Columbus Crew have played just over a half of ball from MAPFRE Stadium, and it’s been a pretty even one. NSC has the better of the possession and shot numbers, but not by massive margins (and legitimate scoring opportunities have been thin on the ground for both teams).

Columbus, which has sat back a little bit more than expected – Nashville was thinking they’d press – goes with a little bit of mid-block pressure. The Crew wants to get Nashville into uncomfortable situations before springing a trap and winning the ball back.

What happens

Nashville obliges! Against a 4-4-2 mid-block with the strikers starting to put a little bit of pressure on the ball, Nashville can’t seem to get it out of the backline.

Eventually, right centerback Walker Zimmerman and right fullback Alistair Johnston are pinned against the sideline together. Crew left midfielder Youness Mokhtar and striker Gyasi Zardes don’t give them any lanes to get the ball out, and passing it between each other eventually gives Zardes the opportunity to rip it off Zimmerman’s foot.

He bursts down the sideline, finds attacking midfielder Pedro Santos at the top of the box in an unsettled situation, and earns the assist. Nashville’s recovering numbers can’t get a body to Santos while also tracking the other runners, and he curls it past Joe Willis.

Why it happens

This boils down to a few individual mistakes (Zimmerman putting Johnston into a situation where he has no other options but to give it right back, Zimmerman having it tackled away, and neither Aníbal Godoy nor Dave Romney marking Santos as they’re preoccupied with the path of the ball), but it starts with Nashville’s inability to play out of the back against Columbus’s mid-block press.

You can actually see here what they’re trying to do:

Nashville is pulling a player out of its attacking midfield three (in this case, 10 Hany Mukhtar), and dropping him very deep – to both get a player with more dangerous ball skills on the rock, as well as stretch the Columbus lines out of their shape. He’s essentially replaced in the attacking three by Dax McCarty.

You can also see Alan Winn on a run designed to stretch the Columbus backline. Again, that’s working! Jonathan Mensah is not in what you’d call an ideal position for a centerback. With the Columbus fullbacks held wide (on the far side, you can see Alex Muyl holding his marker to the touchline, while on the nearside 2 Dan Lovitz is threatening a run behind RM Luís Díaz, so the fullback is providing some cover there.

That should put Dominique Badji one-on-one with a CB, which is a situation you really like to have! However, Nashville can’t find an open man and a passing lane (credit the organization of Columbus’s defense, just as Nashville’s often deserves credit for the same), so they knock it around the back a bit more, and it leads to The Bad thing.

After Zardes gets the ball away, it’s sort of a comedy of errors in recovery defense for NSC. That’s understandable: this is a team that is highly organized by nature, and doesn’t have to deal with a whole ton of transition moments for the opponent.

The triptych on the right tells the story: 4 Dave Romney is preventing Zardes from getting into a shooting position – this is fair! Zardes remains among the Golden Boot leaders – by keeping his hips open to the US International, rather than taking a more neutral body position. With Zimmerman right on Zardes’s shoulder, though (and Johnston trailing, in position to take away any cutback), a broader view of the field may have been prudent.

It still looks covered, with Romney directly in front of Santos, and Aníbal Godoy coming up behind the Portuguese DP. Alas! Romney’s Zardes-centric positioning and Godoy’s head of steam put them both a few yards past Santos into Dave Romney’s box. As a bonus, Romney takes one false step left as he sees Díaz out of the corner of his eye, with Lovitz not in particularly strong position to stop a throughball.

Thanks to Romney’s false step and Godoy’s overrun, Santos’s one touch to his left frees up plenty of space. Godoy and the recovering Johnston both try to get a leg in the way, but when you’re five yards away from him, and he’s 16 yards from the goal, it’s not ideal. Both go low, and Santos’s shot clears both slides. It’s perfectly-placed, and Willis’s diving effort can’t do much about it (even though he gets a paw to it, it’s barely more than a fingernail).

Even though Nashville SC has been able to recover in numbers, their five-on-three advantage in field players sees nobody stop the shooter, and he does the scoring thing.

Going forward

It’s worth noting that, once the ball is turned over, a lot of the issues are “Nashville SC is not used to defending in these situations.” A lack of experience in dealing with bad situations… means you don’t put yourself in them much. In the macro, that’s a good thing.

The fact that Romney makes a split-second decision that’s imperfect essentially leads to the goal, but I wouldn’t count it as an indictment of Romney, either. Would he have been better off forcing Santos to try to thread a ball to Díaz? Knowing how the alternative played out, of course. If that pass isn’t inch-perfect, either Lovitz or Willis can deal with it – or it just dribbles out of bounds. He does what seems like the right thing in the moment, and it turns out to be the wrong one. It’s a defensible guess as to the right move, to say the least.

Similarly, Godoy slightly overruns Santos (and then Santos’s touch makes that even worse), but more often than not, making sure that player doesn’t get in-behind is far more important than not getting too deep and giving him that space.

In the end, this one boils down to the turnover itself. Nashville’s players either needed to be more patient (don’t force the ball to the sideline with little to gain out there) or less so (bang it to a single-marked Badji up top) against a mid-block defense. NSC has either dealt with bunkers or true presses, so this was a little out of their wheelhouse. They managed to get the looks they wanted from Columbus’s shape, and needed to make that work to their advantage.

Otherwise, bad things can happen.

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