Nashville SC

The Graphical: Nashville SC 0-0 Inter Miami CF

The Boys in Gold once again couldn’t find a winner Sunday afternoon. For the first time this season, they couldn’t even find a goal. Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine some of the stats to help understand what went down in Nissan Stadium.

Same old song and dance cross and header

Inter Miami was not a particularly good team last year, but a lot of that – particularly defensively – came down to bad luck. The Herons were actually pretty good at preventing high-quality chances. Through just three games (albeit this one the first resulting in a shutout), they seem to have taken that to another level.

A way that good defenses find success? Shut down the middle of the pitch and force the opponent to generate its offense via low-percentage means.

That’s every open-play cross from the Boys in Gold (the blue or grey boxes), plus all the key passes (passes that result in shots – i.e. assists whether or not a shot goes in). In there, you have one corner-kick key pass, and a couple short-area Leal passes that probably shouldn’t be classified as crosses – at least one of them (the one closes to the goal there), I recall as being a passing attempt along the ground, not a cross.

Regardless, that’s either long-passing service, or banging balls in from the wing. Interestingly, most of the service from the wings came from the right, after left-back Dan Lovitz had led the league in key passes in a big way through two weeks (to such an extent that he still leads the league, despite just two chances created this week).

Nashville couldn’t really crack the code, aside from a long ball or a couple solid throughballs, to getting into decent shooting positions against a well-drilled Miami squad. “Zone 14” – the most-important offensive creation spot, just outside the top of the box – looks like a ghost town. That’s a credit to the opponent, and an indication that Nashville must be more clinical when the better chances are available.

The shots were there

To follow from that theme, Nashville did still manage to find some decent shooting positions. With the caveat that many of these were generated from crosses (and are therefore low-probability finishes, whether headed or if a player can bring it down in traffic), there are seven shots from inside the penalty area.

This is where Nashville needs to be more clinical. It’s too much to ask to see every good opportunity hit the back of the net – even Nashville’s highest-value shot, the Mukhtar (10) attempt near the corner of the six-yard box, which you’ll remember following a throughball, still has barely over a one in three likelihood of going in, according to historical trends – but the keeper has to be forced to make a save.

Nashville once again dominated shots and expected goals. Over the long-term, that’s far, far more correlated with team success than the goals scored in an individual game. But you have to make those count sooner or later.

Whether it’s bad luck or a lack of cutting edge, the reason a typical shot from that Mukhtar location, for example, has low xG is because there’s a keeper there to make the save. Certainly John McCarthy made life difficult for Mukhtar and forced the shot wide.

But if you drill down to only the shots on-target, Nashville’s xG advantage disappears. The three shots totaled 0.117 expected goals. That means well over 80% of the Boys in Gold output from an xG perspective didn’t even have a chance of going in as soon as it left the player’s foot.

Defense back?

The flipside to that is Nashville’s defense had a bit of a return to 2020 form.

There’s a bit of a “they were bad in the first 15 minutes, just like in the prior two games” narrative, but I don’t know if I buy it. Yeah, Inter Miami forced two saves from Joe Willis in that timeframe, and both were scary moments. But here’s Miami’s xG over the course of the contest – with Nashville’s raceplot jumping off the chart pretty early on:

Those two shots went for a total of 0.117 expected goals (which, in a weird coincidence, may look like a familiar number). They weren’t exactly slam dunks that Joe Willis had to go above and beyond to stop. Per American Soccer Analysis‘s post-shot xG model – taking into account that they’re on-frame, not blocked, etc. – they summed to 0.69.

Nonetheless, those were the only two that tested Willis, and were part of an offensive output that was not particularly productive in generating even off target shots (uh, I guess a silver lining for Nashville offensively is that they at least generated those?).

This Miami passing map is essentially the NSC one above on steroids. Of course, it includes all passes, not just the key passes (of which there were just two). But the point here is to show that Miami had even more difficulty than Nashville in generating much of anything.

Despite being very willing to kick it around the back and hope for openings (while those openings very rarely appeared), Miami still only held 40% of possession – largely because they wanted to pack it in and stop even trying after the first several minutes.

The key for Nashville will be putting the offensive and defensive performances together at the same time, because the way NSC was successful defensively was not by using a style that should hamper the offense. Dominating on one end of the pitch because you’re sacrificing on the other end shouldn’t be necessary, and the Boys in Gold simply need to have a good game (or some luck, if you think about the Walker Zimmerman could-be red card) from personnel in both areas to finally find that first win.

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