Nashville SC

From the film room: Hard work is undefeated

Photo via MyTV30 broadcast

Nashville SC midfielder Alex Muyl is known much more for his work rate than technical wizardry. Sometimes, though, the former can be more important for scoring a goal than can the latter. The Manhattan native put the finishing touch on Nashville’s win over New England Revolution Saturday primarily as a reward for working hard.

As a bonus, he didn’t even have to work all that hard on the play itself! Nashville’s press allowed him a “right place, right time” opportunity and he took advantage.

The situation

Just a couple minutes after subbing out striker CJ Sapong for midfielder Taylor Washington, Nashville SC remains in a 4-4-2. Brobdingnagian center forward Jhonder Cádiz and Lilliputian winger Randall Leal are the two forwards, while Washington is on the left flank and Muyl (who started the game on the left with Leal on the right) slides over to the right side. (It’s worth noting that it’s also possible Nashville is in a 4-2-3-1 tactically with Leal as a central attacking midfielder, but there’s really not enough time before the gamestate is changed by Muyl’s goal to know).

Nashville is nursing a 1-0 lead and therefore prioritizing being strong at the back over seeking another goal. However, after a New England attack fizzles out with a Tajon Buchanan swing-and-near-miss harmlessly rolling to Nashville SC keeper Joe Willis, there’s an opportunity.

What happens

Willis would typically play the ball short here – or potentially blast his punt to around the midfield stripe – so Nashville either retains possession or has the opportunity to win a 50/50 ball around midfield and retain possession (or at least battle for it with a tall target like Cádiz and a number of hard-working grinders like Dax McCarty, Aníbal Godoy, and, yes, Muyl around him). Instead, Gary Smith opts for his team to go Full Red Bull.

Willis boots it about as far as he can, with the intention to potentially create quick offense with the head of Cádiz a strong option to win the first ball – but more importantly, to pin the ball back in New England’s own end with the intention of pressing with the front six to create a mistake out of the Revs and a turnover in a dangerous position for NSC to get an opportunity after the giveaway.

And lo, that comes to pass.

Cádiz actually does win the header and plays forwward – and Leal is there to battle for the ball a bit. Nevertheless, centerbacks Henry Kessler and Andrew Farrell box him out and win the ball, respectively. What’s important, though, is that it doesn’t change what Nashville’s long game is: create a turnover and a scoring chance.

There’s a bit going on here, so let’s look at where things stand as the ball is passed to Brandon Bye (15 along the sideline):

Bye is man-marked by Taylor Washington – who comes up with some aggression – while Dax McCarty is tight on central midfielder Matt Polster. Leal effectively has both CBs marked (along with goalkeeper Matt Turner) because they don’t do a good job re-finding their spacing after the pass. Thanks to Muyl’s athleticism and New England’s spacing, he’s able to mark both Wilfrid Kaptoum – Polster’s fellow central midfielder – and left back Tajon Buchanan. A pass from Bye or Polster to Buchanan would have to bypass (I swear this was not an attempt at a pun but sometimes it just happens) multiple players, and be in the air long enough that Muyl could recover to intercept or at least recover to Buchanan.

With New England’s front four slow to get back for the second ball, and each man-marked by a Nashville defender, that leaves two Nashville players – Aníbal Godoy and Jhonder Cádiz (who is also shielding Polster from passing to his CBs or Turner, but along with Leal that still means Nashville is taking away three options with two pressers) free to mark zonally, pressure players when they get the ball, etc.

The imbalance of passing options to yellow shirts sees Polster lose his composure, make an incorrect assumption about what Kaptoum is going to do, and pass the ball directly to Muyl. Since Turner was out of his net presenting a passing option to play out of the back for his teammates, he doesn’t have a chance to recover before Muyl slots it opposite corner.

Bang-up effort from Kessler trying to block a shot on his net when he knows or should know that his keeper is not in it, as well.

Why it happens

It’s worth noting that it takes a combination of New England-specific factors to make this happen. That is to say, it’s not a purely replicable thanks to Nashville’s own actions. However, the Nashville punt-and-press forced many of those mistakes, and also punished the mistakes maximally.

First off, Nashville has been playing most balls quite a bit shorter from the keeper, so there’s an element of catching New England by surprise so the Revs couldn’t establish numbers dominance in their defensive end. The front-four players all sort of jogging back also opened the door for Nashville to execute a pretty vigorous press without even needing to activate any member of its backline (and thus expose the back-end to being countered).

Then, it’s about poor spacing from New England, and a ton of individual effort and awareness from Nashville. The angle from the southern end of the pressbox gives a pretty good view of what happens.

Washington and McCarty force things to get hectic quickly for New England, and some token pressure from Cádiz is enough to give Polster the “oh shit” feeling and get rid of the ball immediately. He does it just as Kaptoum (who’s been on the field for only 10 minutes) is breaking forward to try to avoid back-shoulder pressure from Muyl. Polster goes to where he thinks Kaptoum is going, not where he actually goes, and it gives Muyl the easy interception.

From there, it’s hard to overstate how little effort Kessler (generally a very good player) puts into preventing Muyl from putting a shot on-frame. He’s got to know the scouting report – “Alex Muyl is not exactly a technician who’s going to beat me on the dribble if I step to a shot in a one-v-one situation” – much better than that. He also has to know that Turner is out of his net.

Keepers being out of the net is pretty standard in build-from-the-back situations (you want to give your backline a passing target who is not in an area where a slightly-bad ball to him is a goal), but I don’t know if this particular situation called for it, because he didn’t have any workable angles to receive a pass until it is no longer pinned on that right sideline. Either way, a solid idea for beating one of the best keepers in the league is to shoot when he’s far away from the goal itself.

Muyl’s workrate and athleticism put him in positions to succeed, but Nashville’s pressing structure and effort from the other five players in the midfield and forward lines (the only player who you wouldn’t say “wow, what a good effort move in there!” about is Aníbal Godoy, and it’s because he was playing off a guy intentionally, not because he did anything wrong) turned it from an effort play into a goal.

Going forward

Nashville has been more offensively expansive this year, but it’s worth noting that mucking the game up can Red Bull one’s way into some goals (worth noting that a former Red Bulls player is the one who scored it). NSC pressed more last year than credited for nationally, and it’s another tool to have in the back pocket.

Nashville can make hay from the workrate of players like McCarty (coincidentally – or maybe not – another former Red Bull) and Muyl in particular, but also a guy like Leal way more than many realize. The more ways the team has to make goals happen, the better-complemented their strong defense is, and the more this looks like not just a solid mid-table side, but one definitely bound for postseason play.

GIFs via MyTV30, appropriated under Fair Use.

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