Welcome to The Graphical, wherein we look at charts and figures and graphs and the like to get some insight into how recent Nashville SC results came about. We go back about a week to see how NSC ended up drawing the Houston Dynamo in Nissan Stadium.
First 60, last 30
It’s not exactly a mystery that Nashville SC – which had been the better team for the vast majority of the game – was holding on for dear life in the final half-hour or so of this game. The graphical representation should make it clear:
Before the very end of the 66th minute, Houston had seven shots, five of them on target. However, five of those shots (including three of those on target) were launched more than 25 yards away from Joe Willis’s net – not the most difficult ones to cut out. For Nashville’s part, eight total shots had one super-long-range effort, and even though three of the others were blocked, the majority of those shots (including Daniel Ríos’s goal) were from enticing-enough positions.
To close out the game, Houston ramped up the pressure. There weren’t a ton of effective shots, even – three of those from inside the box were blocked basically off the foot of the shooter – but the simple volume of them, particularly as they crept closer to the net, gave a sense of unease to NSC fans. Add in that the Boys in Gold had basically no offense – the lone shot above came from Dan Lovitz deep into stoppage time after Houston had equalized – and the tilt of the field is clear.
What can Nashville SC do differently? Unfortunately, one of the best #protips is “don’t let your only forward (and a good holdup player) get hurt.” We’ve seen this team withstand the type of pressure Houston was providing – in fact, this weekend we saw much scarier pressure unable to find a breakthrough at all – and sometimes it doesn’t work out.
Take into account that for the Dynamo to score, it took a couple pretty significant Nashville errors on a set piece. As much as Houston improved its play in the final half-hour, it feels pretty safe to say they weren’t going to score from the run of play.
Hit the big diagonals
One obvious aspect of Nashville SC’s gameplan was to hit diagonal balls into dangerous areas behind Houston’s fullbacks, who tend to get involved in the offense and leave space behind them.
It’s easy to understand the reasoning behind that tendency to get forward when you look at the characteristics of the 4-3-3 formation (this is similar to the drawbacks of the 4-diamond-2 that I’ve broken down before, though there are some key differences).
The priority is to keep midfield numbers in the center of the pitch while allowing wingers to create from wide on offense. Unlike the diamond, the fullbacks aren’t providing essentially the only width on the pitch (on both side of the ball – the wingers track back to help defensively). They still like to get forward to support the offense, and if Tab Ramos wants to have combinations and overlapping runs on the flanks (spoiler: he does), those fullbacks will have to be able to get forward, or the Dynamo’s offense is going to be pretty stagnant.
Unlike Nashville’s 4-2-3-1 (the prevailing formation in MLS) – where one of the holding midfielders should always be in position to rotate over and provide the defensive cover – the lone defensive midfielder can’t step in to replace when they do get forward.That means teams prioritize getting the ball into that space in transition moments, before the fullbacks can recover.
MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle looked at how that plays out:
And here’s a look at Nashville trying to take advantage:
You can actually see that plenty of those passes were ultimately unsuccessful. That’s for a couple reasons, not least of which is that they’re hard to execute – Houston is typically taking a calculated risk with its fullbacks, and it’s one that pays off for them often enough to be worth it.
Another – and unfortunately the game broadcast made this tough to see, but take my word for it seeing from the pressbox – is that Houston was a little more conservative with the fullbacks than I was expecting. There were plenty of midfield turnovers or potential transition moments (including the first one in Doyle’s video, around the 0:17 mark) where the fullbacks were basically at the same height up the pitch as their centerbacks. I can’t speak for Tab, but it seems Houston believed that the only way Nashville could score was to get in-behind the fullbacks (and was proven correct in how both positive and negative outcomes came about for the Dynamo).
With both teams’ midfields concentrated on shutting down the center of the pitch as described above, perhaps it comes as no surprise that they were resigned to creating a lot of their settled offense from wide:
That’s atypical for Houston (which likes to get those wingers cutting in to shoot), but unfortunately a regular occurrence for Nashville when they’re having difficulty creating.
Of course, for much of the duration of this one, they had a one-goal lead and were without anyone who can be expected to both connect with the players behind them and score goals, so “whip it in and see what happens” is a low-risk way to keep the game progressing, and possibly get a second with a little bit of luck.
Holding Houston to a bunch of crossing is probably a best-case scenario for handling a potent Dynamo attack – and remember, their goal ultimately didn’t come from the run of play, either. It was Nashville’s inability to make the one-goal advantage turn into more than that which turned a pretty solid game into a 50/50 shot to hold on for the victory (and a shot they ultimately did not capitalize upon).
What did you see in the Opta stuff? Share your observations in the comments or on social media.