Nashville SC

From the film room: Bou in behind

Nashville SC has a very good defense! Even that quality of D suffers the occasional lapse, though. While this opportunity from New England didn’t turn into a goal, it was probably the Revs’ best chance of the night just over a week ago.

The situation

It’s early in the second half from Foxboro. Neither team converted in the first half, but there’s no denying New England controlled the run of play. The second half is young, but begins in similar fashion – without a true striker on the field, Nashville is content to put eight men behind the ball and ride out a scoreless draw.

We begin with a little bit of pressure on the Nashville goal, after which Dan Lovitz clears the ball from within his own penalty area. The ball is in the air from that clearance.

What happens

The ball takes a higher-than-expected bounce off the FieldTurf, and goes over Derrick Jones. New England central defender Andrew Farrell corrals it, and passes to his left fullback, DeJuan Jones.

Jones carried upfield and passes to his striker, Gustavo Bou. Bou plays a one-two with midfielder Tommy McNamara, and his run into space finds him all alone with keeper Joe Willis. The Argentine tries to slot the ball to the far post, but Willis leaves his line and gets big, with a kick-save putting it out for a corner kick.

Why it happens

This actually starts at the very beginning of the above clip, with Farrell winning a free ball in midfield (and less importantly, but notable for the way the game played out, he’s a CB winning it on Nashville’s side of midfield). One of the under-celebrated portions of Nashville’s defensive success this season has been winning more than a fair share of those balls.

Without a pure striker on the field (due to injury), it’s Derrick Jones in position to win it. The turf plays a role in his misjudgment, but it’s worth noting that – despite his 6-4, 178-pound frame – Jones is actually not particularly good at playing the ball in the air. When he does manage to get a foot on it, he can make spectacular plays (see: his assist in the previous game), but with the chest he’s mediocre, and has even more room for improvement as a header of the ball.

After that, DeJuan Jones’s push into midfield allows Bou to find space between Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston. Johnston has to stay wide to mark winger Tajon Buchanan, while Bou takes advantage of the open grass between defenders to pop up in a somewhat unexpected spot (and despite Zimmerman’s call for an offside, Bou times the run very well – and got a little lucky with Dave Romney behind him – to stay onside).

The main breakdown here comes from Bou’s give-and-go with Tommy McNamara. As soon as he lays the ball off, Zimmerman steps to McNamara, presumably thinking that Tah Brian Anunga (who has challenged Bou’s pass to McNamara and is the closest Nashville player to the striker) will follow Bou for the second half of the one-two.

McNamara ultimately manages to slip the ball back to Bou, despite being surrounded by Anunga, Dax McCarty, and (trailing from behind) Randall Leal.

Fortunately, the angle that Bou takes and the service from McNamara both force him wide enough that his placement would have to be perfect to beat Joe Willis. Willis’s goalkeeping ability saves the play.

No goal (or, in this case, goal-scoring opportunity) is created by any individual mistake. Jones failing to win the ball, Anunga chasing DeJuan Jones for a beat too long, and then Anunga not passing a striker back off to his centerback in a more obvious way play fairly obvious roles here.

But the big one is a spot of ball-watching by Zimmerman who, regardless of the threat he thinks McNamara may pose to his goal, has to track a striker running off his outside shoulder. There are several other Nashville defenders on the field, and Zimmerman’s tendency to get stuck thinking he needs to be a hero and do it all himself (to be clear: a very important part of what makes him special in a positive way, as well) can bite Nashville – as can ball-watching in other circumstances. McNamara is surrounded by two Nashville defensive midfielders, with a forward tracking back, as well. Bou is the threat for Zimmerman.

Going forward

In all honesty, some of these mistakes from Zimmerman are just going to happen. His style of play is that he’s a risk-taker, and the tradeoff for Nashville is that it’s going to work out in their favor much more frequently than it comes back to bite them – and even in some cases where it bites them (such as this one), Willis is good enough to paper over a mistake.

Other aspects are not likely to be as big an issue in the future: Anunga was on the pitch largely because of the unavailability of Aníbal Godoy, and while the Cameroonian will certainly continue to play an important role for Nashville, Godoy’s return should allow him to grow into the MLS level of play a bit more, rather than constantly being thrust into high-leverage situations. In addition, it’s important to remember that NSC was playing a flat 4-3-3 formation for the first time in this game, and is far better-drilled in its 4-2-3-1 – a return to which will be aided by the healthy return of Godoy and someone – anyone – at center forward.

Lastly, there’s room for growth in Derrick Jones’s game, as well. I had initially planned a longer film piece about him specifically (only tangentially related to this one) that I’ve scrapped due to time constraints, but the research for it was enlightening. Despite his size, he’s a really good technician with his feet and a poor one with his head. He tends to try to play off his chest instead (which is what he appears to be doing here), so when the ball bounces higher than expected, he’s unable to handle it well. Fortunately, that’s something that can be developed.

All told – as with most of the negative-leaning film room pieces – this is a combination of little circumstances and decisions that are unlikely to go wrong in combination with each other on any sort of regular basis. That’s now Nashville SC has one of the best defenses in the league – with some room for improvement nonetheless.

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