Welcome to The Graphical, wherein I mine the data and chalkboards to provide some insights about Nashville SC’s performances. Today, an upset win against one of the East’s expected powers.
No crossing zone
One of the reasons the 4-4-2 has fallen out of favor as a preferred formation around the world is because it’s fairly difficult to generate solid offense out of it. Teams tend to end up relying upon whipping balls in from the wings, or going Route One up the middle to get into dangerous areas. Here’s a quick look at why, with the general idea of each formation drawn up:
It’s very difficult to progress the ball with two strikers on top. Simply put, you’re sacrificing numbers in the midfield to get the ball into dangerous areas, in hopes that having more bodies in dangerous areas will pay off. The problem? As you can see in the image on the left, the strikers in a 4-4-2 are pretty isolated from the central midfielders (and more isolated from the wingers, as well). The hypothetical opponent’s backline can match the strikers and wide midfielders man-for-man, and without a connector in the middle, the passing distances are long.
Meanwhile, the striker is 1-on-2 in the 4-2-3-1, but the advantages are that you add a connector in midfield, the wingers have a little more ability to tuck inside without overcrowding the spacing, and they’re also able to draw opposing wide defenders inside, or opposing central midfielders outside to create better passing angles. In a geometry problem, it’s the winning formation: better angles, shorter distances.
So, ALLLLLLL of that said, Nashville went from a 4-2-3-1 producing cross maps looking like this across three games:
To a far more-palatable:
A lot of that is gamestate, of course: Nashville was clawing back from two-goal deficits (and then hunting for a winner) in contests against Cincinnati and Montreal, and pouring on pressure against a packed-in Inter Miami CF to try to take all three points. Getting the ball into the penalty area BAMN is the goal there.
By contrast, NSC spent 71 minutes with a lead, and 19 of those with a two-goal lead against New England Revolution. When you aren’t desperate for a goal, there’s less need to bang in a high volume of passes that get the ball into dangerous areas (even if each of those passes has a very low probability of turning into a goal – the value is in the large number of trials you get, even if each trial is low-probability on its own).
So, even with a formation that calls for a lot of crosses, Nashville wasn’t forced by gamestate to actually do that. And also managed some tweaks within the 4-4-2 to make it happen.
Check-back strikers, fold-in wingers
NSC managed to build through the middle despite a formation not built for it in two ways: first, the Boys in Gold were able to drop one of the two strikers into midfield on a regular basis, with Dominique Badji and CJ Sapong then able to feed each other passes in-behind, or build with their defenders and midfielders.
“It’s easier to share the load where he can run behind and I can check in, and when I’ve got energy, I can run behind and he can check in,” Badji said. “So we can kind of share the load. So that’s what we did all game, and we were able to have a lot of success.”
Their combined touchmaps is at right. As you can see, they both managed to not only check back into the spaces a No. 10 might otherwise be expected to occupy, but also to get both depth and width in their positioning, at times. That allowed Nashville to show up with 4-4-2 personnel, but not necessarily have to play a style that you might expect from a team using the 4-4-2 gameplan.
The fact that each is able to make technical plays in traffic – not to the extent that a true No. 10 like Mukhtar could, perhaps – while having the speed of a pure striker to get in-behind certainly helps.
Nashville also used its wingers to fold inside a bit, and allow the fullbacks to get up the touchline to make up for the width that might otherwise be sacrificed. Again, this is using some of the concepts you might expect from a 4-2-3-1, and adapting them to 4-4-2 personnel. This is particularly true when the ball is wide on either side. Putting Dan Lovitz out wide and letting Alex Muyl connect inside – or better yet, doing the same with Alistair Johnston and Randall Leal (a technical-enough player that he’s filled in as a pure No. 10 in previous Mukhtar absences) on the right is again allowing 4-2-3-1 concepts to come into play with 4-4-2 personnel – and to some extent, a 4-4-2 gameplan.
The heatmap for Muyl and Leal is at left. You can see that Leal, a ball-dominant player, got plenty of action participating in wide overlap 1-2s with Johnston. But both players managed to traverse the width of the pitch to allow them to fill in as a connector between defensive midfielders Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty and the pure attacking lines.
Nashville’s rotations in these circumstances (primarily pushing the ball-far striker a bit deeper so the near-side striker could occupy a central position along the back) allowed NSC to unbalance the defense without getting too unbalanced itself.
The nature of New England’s gameplan – starting winger Tajon Buchanan at one of the fullback spots and pushing both of those players very high up the field, but keeping the centerbacks tight to the middle of the pitch and opening huge channels for Nashville’s strikers to run into – also helped NSC put together a cohesive attack in spite of the circumstances. I would imagine you won’t see big gameplan errors from opposing coaches regularly. But when NSC has a personnel advantage (like – sigh – against FC Cincinnati), a 4-4-2 and blunt-force attacking philosophy can pay off while being extremely sound defensively.
Press to impress
this is a bad pun.
Nashville’s second goal was generated by a nice healthy press. This is a team that – at times fairly, at other times incorrectly – had a reputation for not doing so at all last season. However, they’ve got that tool in the toolkit, and while they aren’t going to go all-out like a Leeds United or Liverpool, it can pay dividends at key times.
Take a look art NSC’s defensive actions throughout the contest against New England Revolution. As you can see, the Boys in Gold didn’t chase down the flanks (or into the New England penalty area), but as soon as the opposition got about 25 yards from their own goal, it was open season.
Oddly, Matt Turner is generally a “boot it long” type of goalkeeper – a vertical distance of 43.55 yards per pass this season (per American Soccer Analysis), much longer than even noted booter Joe Willis’s 27.90 – so for Nashville to create a goal when New England was playing out of the back… well, for starters you can see why it paid off. New England isn’t as used to building from the back as many MLS sides. It also probably means that Nashville had some built-in pressing triggers (in addition to the ever-common “ball is played from defender to keeper”) and some gameplan-specific pressures to execute. That’s more film room stuff, though.
I do have a theory – albeit one impossible to test – that the 4-4-2 allowed Nashville to be a little bit more press-happy. While the team almost always defends in a 4-4-2 block anyway, the fact that the general offensive structure was also a 4-4-2 means less shifting to get into a defensive posture. An attacking scheme that requires less of the fullbacks and wingers running up and down the wing lets them use more of the energy defensively. Of course, Alex Muyl is always going to run his tail off anyway:
…and having him available in a structure that makes life a little easier on the other players in front of the backline means lots of energy to harass the opposition. That’s even more than Nashville’s usual energy to have a lockdown defense.
The big numbers
Of course, put it all together, and the big picture is that Nashville didn’t necessarily dominate: 1.5 expected goals to 0.7 for New England. It’s a solid, comfortable advantage. It’s not “throw out everything you’ve been doing to focus on this new wunderformation” territory, either.
That brings us back to the importance of understanding what it means to get a strike from a low-value situation (Dan Lovitz’s pass to Walker Zimmerman was ultimately an MLS assist… but you aren’t going to find a lot of goals generated immediately from that position on the field), and taking hold of the gamestate. For New England to notch only 0.7 xG despite chasing all game speaks to the ability of Nashville to lock down even when the opponent is going to throw everything at it.