There was a pretty significant difference between Nashville’s games against New England Revolution and Minnesota United FC, despite both ending with identical 0-0 scorelines. Let’s get into the Opta data on both of them to see what went down.
Hey, those don’t look the same!
The 10,000-foot view of this two-game set comes from the expected goal charts. Nashville SC was competitive (even the better team!) in one game, but… very much not in the other.
As you can see, New England was unlucky to score fewer than two goals, whereas Nashville didn’t create so much danger as to be expected to score once in eight(!) games that plays out the same way. The Revs were dominant, and an incredible goalkeeping performance from Joe Willis, a bit of luck, some bad finishing… all of these combined to give Nashville a point in the standings.
Meanwhile, NSC was the better team against Minnesota (particularly in the first half), and there was less than a 10% chance that they would ultimately come away scoreless in the game, given the chances they created.
There are contextual things that go into the difference, of course. The New England game was on the road, Minnesota traveled to Nissan Stadium. The New England game was Nashville’s first playing a new formation, and with a specific set of personnel (not) available, whereas they had a game of experience by the time they played Minnesota. New England’s defense is just better than Minnesota’s (by a lot), even before taking into account the Loons’ own injury/suspension situation for that one.
In the end, though, if you’re evaluating on a metric of “how happy are we to achieve this result, based on the way the game played out,” you feel good about New England, and less so about Minnesota.
The Willis wall
In the New England game, as you can see above, a great goalkeeping performance was necessary! Joe Willis didn’t have to be particularly adventurous outside his six-yard box to have a massive game. The New England shot chart (on-target only) is worth digging into:
Certainly the shots by Tajon Buchanan (17 outside the box | video) and Bou (7 on the left side of the box | video) weren’t from the most-dangerous spots, but both were well-placed and required a little more of Willis than you’d expect based on the locations. The rest of them… well, there’s a reason he was a finalist for MLS Player of the Week, and made the team of the week.
Honestly, don’t have a ton more to add here. As you’d expect, saves on the shots from closer range were not any less impressive.
I alluded to a change of NSC’s shape above, so let’s get into it. The Boys in Gold typically go with two holding midfielders (in the best circumstances, Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty, though Tah Brian Anunga has been able to stand in for one or the other) when given the opportunity. Without Godoy – and importantly, without the typical goal-scoring options up top, as well – Gary Smith didn’t simply go for a like-for-like replacement. He switched to a conservative 4-3-3 formation. The origin points of the passes from Matt LaGrassa (22), McCarty (6), and Anunga (27) can give you a pretty solid impression of that shape.
As you can see, they remained relatively conservative in their positioning, and relatively flat, as well, with all existing on essentially a horizontal line across the width of the pitch (also notable in a 4-3-3, which is typically narrower offensively and relies on the wingers to provide width), and not progressing into the final third.
This obviously played a role in the solid defensive performance against the Revs. It just-as-obviously played a role in the meager offensive output: there just wasn’t a connection with the front line without an attacking midfielder to facilitate it. The priority was all-defense, and it showed.
Anunga and LaGrassa weren’t exactly Messi-like in their offensive involvement against the Loons, but certainly they were a little more involved offensively. No fun animation, but here’s how they – and Taylor Washington, who came on for LaGrassa in the 64th minute – played passes when Minnesota United came to town.
Neither was quite as wide, and both got a liiiiiittle higher up the pitch to get involved in the offense. Nonetheless, priority No. 1 was still to be ready to play a defensive role if called upon.
More in a moment, but part of the ability to play only a tiny bit more offensively in position – but be part of an offense that was much more productive – came from a more-productive outing from the offensive front three than the team had received against New England revolution. There was also an element of holistic offensive creation with the defenders having an opportunity to get involved.
No individual player or tactic is ever singularly responsible for the way a particular game plays out. The placement of these guys, the performance of the front three, and the service from the back line were all important in making more of the game.
Eating up the right side
Minnesota United’s defense is fairly poor: in expected goals terms, it’s 22nd in MLS after Tuesday evening’s game. In pure goal-scoring terms it’s seventh (in part because of Nashville SC’s underachievement in conversion Tuesday, but also goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has been awesome since ascending to the starting role).
They were also without starting left back Chase Gasper – suspended due to yellow card suspension – when they headed to Nissan Stadium. Given that they were playing CB Bakaye Dibassy at fullback, it stands to reason that Nashville wanted to get the ball into that space. Seeing if you can generate chances against a guy 1) who’s a backup anyway, 2) playing out of position, 3) for a defense that starts out pretty poor… this, to me, makes sense.
And lo, it came to pass:
Aside from one Taylor Washington (23) cross in from the left, and a Matt LaGrassa service from deep (you can just see the tip of the arrow coming from the bottom of the selected area), everything came in the territory of that left back and LCB Michael Boxall. Even if you ignore the corner kick, that’s a heck of a lot of work coming up Nashville’s offensive right flank.
Right back Alistair Johnston was very much able to overlap with Anunga, and provide width for that fluid front three. He had three key passes himself (albeit all from crosses, which as we know are an inherently low-probability mode of chance-creation), and was able to connect with the guys who are more responsible for making “dangerous position” into “dangerous shot.”
His versatility is interesting to explore – in a very different way than Matt LaGrassa’s was as a USL player (for the uninitiated – it was often tough to describe what made LaGrassa good, aside from his ability to play basically any field position as a USL player). Johnston played both central midfield and right back in college – at St. John’s and then Wake Forest – and broke into Nashville’s lineup initially playing as a winger.
A guy with that breadth of skills makes sense as a high-quality offensive and defensive fullback in the long run. 15 games into his professional career, you could probably saw his development is ahead of that track. Getting even more comfortable with those combinations (and less tendency to whip in a cross with other options available), and handling even more talented opponents in his defensive assignments – though there’s something to be said for Minnesota’s wingers being an incredible test that he’s now passed – shows the upside.
If I am Canada Men’s National Team coach John Herdman (I am not – at least not yet), I think very hard about calling Johnston up to the senior national team. Even if he’s not going to beat out Richie Laryea and Zachary Brault-Guillard – something I wouldn’t guarantee – he can contribute in other positions as a swingman, too.
What did you see in the Opta data from either game? Share your thoughts in the comments, or hit me up on social media to discuss.