Nashville SC

From the Film Room: Straight off the training ground

A bit of an atypical Film Room piece this week, because we saw something that’s a bit of an atypical play: Nashville SC trying a somewhat-tricky set piece routine.

That’s notable because – as you might expect with a team boasting an aerial threat like Walker Zimmerman, and complementary pieces like Jhonder Cádiz (though he’s had limited opportunities to be a set-piece weapon in his NSC career, he has the height and the eye for goal to lead you to believe he’d be a good contributor in that respect), and even free-kick shooters like Hany Mukhtar – Nashville SC general plays its attacking-area set pieces in a fairly straightforward way. Gary Smith likes to give his taker the opportunity to shoot, or to loft the ball into an area where one of those players can head it home.

In the 65th minute, something different went down.

Nashville has two players over the ball – lefty Dan Lovitz and righty Hany Mukhtar – and seven players spaced out across the top of the penalty area. That means everyone but Joe Willis (the keeper) and Alistair Johnston (the defensive cover in case Miami wins possession and tries to break the other way) accounted for.

The spacing along the top of the box is important here: with two bunches (Zimmerman, fellow CB Dave Romney, Dax McCarty, and Randall Leal on the near post, and Godoy joined by Alex Muyl and CJ Sapong), there’s a big gap in the middle of Nashville’s line. It serves a dual purpose of looking like a shooting window for Mukhtar, and providing a shooting window for Godoy once the angle of attack is changed.

The personnel for Miami is not fully accurate – It’s hard to see all the numbers so I went with a basic guess, though this isn’t even the full group that was on the field (I gave up after realizing I wouldn’t get it 100% anyway).

The goal here is to create a shooting opportunity (and window) for Aníbal Godoy. As a second option, Nashville will send the two best aerial threats (Zimmerman and fellow CB Dave Romney) and one of the best cleanup guys (midfielder Dax McCarty) toward the front post – which will be the back post once the angle of attack is changed to Godoy – in case he has the opportunity to serve the ball there based on the way Miami reacts to the initial action, or to be there to have a shot at finishing up a rebound.

Alex Muyl’s task (which he successfully executes) is to wall off Nicolás Figal and Gregore, preventing them from getting out to Godoy. Since they have to assume there’s traditional service – lest they get beaten to the back post for an easy Godoy finish from aerial service out of Lovitz or Mukhtar – they can’t be overly aggressive to what happens until the ball is played. CJ Sapong’s role is similar.

Here’s what Nashville is going for, in a nutshell:

Of course, it falls apart for two reasons. First, Mukhtar’s service is improperly weighted: he doesn’t put enough on the ball to get it to Godoy in a timely fashion. Because of that, the fact that Miami’s players react very quickly to the pass (they aren’t fooled by Dan Lovitz’s being the one to signal that it’s coming while Mukhtar slides it to Godoy) manages to bungle the whole thing.

Godoy has to take a quick swing at the ball to make sure he gets something on it before Victor Ulloa can get to it. This prevents any sort of accuracy or touch on the ball, and Romney has no choice but to try – unsuccessfully – to recycle it back across the box. Nonetheless, you can certainly see what Nashville was going for.

In the future, are we going to see more of these training-ground plans? I don’t know that it’s necessary, given the aerially-dominant players Nashville has available. I would imagine that part of the reason a play like this one was used against Miami is the fact that Leandro Gonzalez Pírez and Ryan Shawcross are top-notch at defensive heading, and that Nashville wanted to mix things up because opponents are going to continue to expect the traditional service, and can overcommit to it if Nashville doesn’t make them think otherwise (see: the discussion of why Muyl’s screen worked so well). A bit of a trick play while you’re fighting tooth-and-nail to find a winner makes sense.

It’s worth noting that it was execution, not plan, that bungled this one. It’s an idea – or group of ideas – Nashville can keep in its back pocket for future contests. But it won’t likely become any sort of staple.

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