Nashville SC

The Graphical: Nashville SC 2-2 CF Montreal

Dan Lovitz photo from file. Courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I look through some of the data to attempt to provide some deeper insight about Nashville SC’s most-recent game. Today, a second-straight 2-2 draw, this one against Montreal Impact.

Hang it in the Louvre-itz

hey, you try avoiding the “we lovitz” pun before you criticize

Nashville SC defender Dan Lovitz is having A Moment. See?

For what it’s worth, American Soccer Analysis has him for only 11 key passes, but nonetheless that remains four more than Houston’s Tyler Pasher (a name you’ll unfortunately recognize if you’re a longtime NSC fan). It is an impressive number of key passes. But how meaningful has each key pass been?

Even if Lovitz led the league in expected assists – he doesn’t, though only teammate Randall Leal eclipses him as the duo drives the most-explosive offense in MLS(!) to this point – his value-per-dollar might not be that great, right? Well, with 1.28 expected assists, he’s averaging 0.12 xA per key pass. That’s still pretty good!

Since this Graphical is about the Montreal game, let’s look specifically at his three key passes last weekend. They were a pass up the sideline that Randall Leal took six touches of before shooting (not a bad look, but something Lovitz didn’t have as much a hand in creating as “one key pass” on the scoresheet would have you believe), the well-publicized Jhonder Cádiz miss (from a cross, a low xA situation), and a lofted ball to Walker Zimmerman that the CB attempted to volley and barely got a piece of (not a bad look, but certainly not one you’d expect to turn into a goal very often). His chart on WhoScored (at right) has him down for an additional key pass from inside the box, but there’s not an associated shot, so I’m thinking that’s a data-entry error.

All-told, this week’s output was 0.28 expected assists – less than a quarter of his total for the season – but… that’s not much of a problem?

In a situation where NSC is creating more of its offense directly from corners – he’s the left-footed taker of those – his xA from dead-ball situations would be much higher. All told, Nashville has 5.68 total xG, and 5.37 from the run-of-play so far this season. Last year’s team got 8.08 xG from set pieces last year – more than a third of the total on the season. The Boys in Gold are at 1.14 xG from set-piece situations so far this year, almost exactly 20%.

Your mileage may vary as to whether set-piece reliance is specifically bad, or just another way to generate offense. But Lovitz’s role in it will be big, and even a relatively quiet game (because he didn’t have set-piece output) wasn’t enough to take him off the top of the leaderboard.

Tilt the field

In Nashville SC’s first season in USL under Gary Smith, we got very used to saying that possession doesn’t mean a whole lot if there isn’t purpose to it. What does that mean? The simple status of having the ball doesn’t win games: moving into dangerous areas, and creating scoring opportunities is the name of the game.

So, Nashville… did well there. Here are the teams’ respective heatmaps (Nashville on the left, Montreal on the right, both attacking toward the middle of the image):

Not only did NSC have a reasonably dominant edge in possession (54.5% per WhoScored, 56.8% per, but the areas in which that possession occurred were far better. NSC lived on either corner and top-center of Montreal’s penalty area, all dangerous spots for goal-scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, Club de Foot found a curtain that couldn’t really be passed about 12 yards short of Nashville’s penalty area.

That’s how you end up with an xG chart that looks like the one at left.

After the first 30 minutes or so, Nashville didn’t just take a stranglehold on the possession statistics, the Boys in Gold turned that into meaningful offense. Once again, they racked up major xG numbers while the opponent did not.

Of course, there are game-state effects to take into account here: Once Montreal had a two-goal lead, the team’s shooting output may not have decreased a whole lot, but they certainly went into a bit of a tactical shell. Meanwhile, Nashville was sort of chasing the game, and loading up on a number of chances.

There’s still plenty to like in what NSC did: Montreal is already set up to be a bunker/counter team out of its 3-5-2 formation, and with Nashville pushing numbers forward, the opportunity was there for Club de Foot to hit a killer counter and put the game out of its misery. That didn’t happen, and the field was one-way traffic for basically the entire second half, even when things got tied back up.

Fixing a Hole

So, two weeks into the season, and two 0-2 deficits created before Nashville SC really gets going. I’ve made it no secret that there’s a significant element of luck (an uncharacteristically poor decision from Joe Willis leads to an early Cincinnati penalty, Montreal hitting a pair of shots with a combined xG under 7%).

It’s worth exploring whether there’s something beyond luck happening depending on the gamestate. That is to ask: is Nashville playing worse when not digging out of a deficit, or have the results thus far largely been swayed by a bit of poor luck? Nashville SC leads the league by a wide margin in Goals Added differential (+3.28) through two games. Does it look worse at various differences in the scoreline?

StatusG+ Differential
Even gamestate+0.63
Trailing by one goal+1.67
Trailing by two goals+0.98
Data via American Soccer Analysis

So, though it may not be explicitly linked to the time in the contest (after all, Nashville clawed back level for the final 17 minutes this weekend, and the final 28 against Cincinnati), there’s something to be said for Nashville playing better once it’s been hit.

Finding that sense of urgency and playing better before going in the hole is obviously a priority, and one I would expect Gary Smith to at least try to figure out a way to make happen this weekend.

Going forward

Put the above together, and you have a Nashville SC team that is playing at an elite level but for one factor: being unable to open the scoring.

Of course, the tactical approach will be different when the team (finally) takes its first lead of the year. But if NSC were to be sharp from the beginning and keep the foot on the gas, you’d see a team that’s not only bound to win a lot of games, but entertain people in the process.

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