Nashville SC

From the Film Room: Leal can’t sneak one in

Nashville SC had just a few solid offensive opportunities Saturday evening in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. One sequence saw a couple of the best chances, to no avail.

The situation

Neither team is mustering much in the way of offense from Rio Tinto Stadium. Nashville SC began in a solid-at-the-back 4-4-2, whereas RSL’s typical 4-2-3-1 has not been particularly adept at finding opportunities against it.

We pick up in the 68th minute, after a number of Nashville substitutions (center forward Jhonder Cádiz and attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar replacing starting strikers Dom Badji and CJ Sapong, and winger Luke Haakenson as a like-for-like replacement for yellow-carded Alex Muyl at left wing) have seen the team shift into a bit of an unbalanced 4-2-3-1. Haakenson is maintaining some width on the left side, whereas right back Alistair Johnston is pushing high on the right to allow the right winger, Randall Leal, to slide inside for some combination.

While it remains a 4-2-3-1, the way it’s playing is a bit more like you see at the right.

(For what it’s worth, this is another living example of why formations are a good starting point, but concepts are more important to the overall idea of what a team is trying to do. Nashville has forward width provided by Haakenson and Johnston, a single strike threat in the box in Cádiz, and creative/running midfielders in Mukhtar and Leal. There are two defensive pairings behind them in McCarty/Godoy and Romney/Zimmerman, while Lovitz is mostly defensive cover, but with some freedom to be a late-arriving player in the box, as does happen in the immediate run-up before this play).

Nashville has the ball wide left on Haakenson’s foot after some passing around the top of the area, but his attempted cross is cleared by CB Erik Holt.

What happens

This play begins with something that’s emblematic of this Nashville SC team: hustle and winning loose balls in the open field (or one-v-one tackles to prevent dangerous moments, as the antecedent play discussed above was initiated by a swipe from Dax McCarty). Alistair Johnston gets on his horse, and not only beats RSL winger Just Meram to the ball, but hustles again to make sure the ball stays inbounds, giving himself tons of time and space on the ball.

He takes a touch to push from the corner to the edge of the box, and lofts in a cross. The play ensues as such:

Ochoa manages to get a paw to the cross, but leaves a soft rebound in a juicy area right on the edge of his six-yard box (as I’ve discussed previously, he leaves a lot of meat on the bone with rebounds, and if that part of his game doesn’t get fixed, his USMNT trajectory is going to stall out quickly).

Luke Haakenson is on the back post (striker Jhonder Cádiz crashed the front post while Johnston was still on the ball – we’ll get more into that later), but his first-time swing at it doesn’t have a chance with Mukhtar also attempting to get something on the rebound. Haakenson does manage to retain possession, and has some deft dribbles through traffic – perhaps with more composure and fluidity than you might expect a guy in just his second MLS appearance – then leaves a nice little no-look backheel for Leal.

The Costa Rica International does what he does, and shoots from distance. Alas, he tries for placement, rather than his usual power, and ultimately doesn’t get enough of either to beat Ochoa. The shot is tucked a couple yards inside the post, and Ochoa goes to ground to make the stop. Although he gives up another rebound, RSL’s defenders held Cádiz pretty high with an offside line (given where the ball was), and he doesn’t crash to get something else on it. Ochoa scrambles and collects the ball, and Nashville’s best chance of the night is over.

Going forward

As I mentioned above, a hallmark of this Nashville team is winning races and physical battles all over the pitch. McCarty gains the initial possession with smart, physical defensive play, and Johnston retains it after Haakenson’s initial cross with smart, athletic, effort-intensive play.

However, it does seem like Johnston’s decision-making after opening space for himself left something to be desired. He has plenty of opportunity to take at least one more touch here, and bang a ground pass into a forest of teammates. Given the options to get onto the end of the cross, it would have made even more sense than just the typical “a pass from a more dangerous area to the penalty spot is better than a cross” considerations:

Jhonder Cádiz’s movement to crash the front post is absolutely right for the situation. It’s his job there – and sometimes it’s easy to forget a striker’s job is more than just “score goals” or “run a lot” (in fact it’s almost never the latter, which he bizarrely gets a ton of grief for not doing) – to provide a passing option on the front post, and if he doesn’t find a spot into which Johnston can pass, well, he’s occupying three (3!) defenders by his lonesome thanks to that run.

This does, however, leave Johnston crossing into an area where his only targets are Haakenson (5-11) and Mukhtar (5-9) against a host of centerbacks and mifeilders. Taking one more touch – you can see from the still that Meram’s merely jogging to cover, while the left back (Danny Toia) is hesitant to step out and open up space in the box – would let Haakenson’s run develop to the penalty spot where he’s going to be unmarked. It would also give Johnston an angle to pass to Leal, who you may note is wide open in one of his favorite areas to shoot.

Crossing isn’t a terrible decision there. It’s certainly one that Alistair Johnston realizes was definitely not the right decision, with the benefit of having had the opportunity to review the film by now. That’s a bit of inexperience and the pressure of a first road game getting to him, perhaps. We saw last year that when he makes a mistake, he immediately learns from it for subsequent games and doesn’t make it again.

Haakenson’s dribbling in traffic was a revelation (again, as I noted above), and the nifty little pass to Leal after turning his back makes it impossible for Justen Glad to challenge the shot. Glad can only take away the left part of the net as a shooting target, and Leal’s got to aim where he can. There’s not enough net and he doesn’t hit it accurately enough, and Ochoa makes the save.

Alas, Cádiz and the other Nashville players in the box either don’t have the scouting report on Ochoa, or they don’t realize where Leal’s shot is going to go, and there’s nobody there to poke home the rebound. Again, a mistake they wouldn’t make again, but this time it’s a scouting-report-specific opportunity that slips away.

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