Nashville SC

From the Film Room: Atlanta goes over the top to break the ice

Nashville SC had a reasonably-effective game in Atlanta last weekend, but there were a couple serious defensive lapses that gave the hosts opportunity to score their two goals. A Nashville team that’s incredibly stout on a minute-to-minute basis and doesn’t often concede without those critical errors… got bitten.

The situation

It’s the first game in front of a full-capacity Mercedes Benz Stadium since the first weekend in March a year ago. The home crowd is accordingly raucous. Atlanta United has done a very good job possessing through the first few minutes of the game, but we’re yet to see a serious threat from either team.

Atlanta is playing in its hybrid 3-4-3 system (with defensive midfielder Santiago Sosa dropping to be a third CB in most situations). The Five Stripes gain possession, and begin to build from the back.

What happens

“Build from the back” ultimately turns out to be a misnomer. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan swings it around the horn to RCB (and US International) Miles Robinson. He takes just a couple touches upfield, and pings a long pass to left winger Marcelino Moreno.

A couple errors at the back for Nashville, and the ball is in the back of the net.

Why it happens

This one actually starts with Nashville’s tactical approach backfiring, I think. The Boys in Gold know Atlanta likes to possess, so they’d planned to sit back a bit and let the opponent pass around a bit. Alas, when Atlanta can break lines with CB passing, it doesn’t work out!

“They’re a team that possess the ball very, very well,” Gary Smith said. “We were comfortable if they kept the ball in front of us, but certainly didn’t want them to penetrate too often.

“Robinson’s distribution in the first half was very good: it caused us a lot of problems, and the goal came from there. My concern was that I felt as though we might have dropped slightly quicker. It was a little bit too easy for the ball to be dropped in behind our backline. A pretty routine run from outside to in, and before you know it, it’s gone through Dave [Romney]’s legs, and it’s caused Joe [Willis] a serious problem. I just know that the guys are in a better place normally than that. The ball did kick up, it didn’t skip on which is what it does on turf, and maybe there were a few difficulties there trying to read the bounce.”

Sosa’s positioning keeps Nashville’s two defenders at the top of a 4-4-2 (central attacking midfielder Hany Mukhtar and srtriker Jhonder Cádiz) pinned centrally. Choosing not to put any pressure on the backline* gave Robinson time to push forward and pick out a pass, and he has the skill to get the job done.

The greater sins were at the back, though. You can see from the close-up of Romney – who’s most to blame here – that the awkward bounce played a role. In all honestly, though, it’s mostly an overrun, and an uncharacteristic error from him.

He oversteps the ball as Moreno winds to shoot it, and that allows the shot to get off cleanly. Adding insult to injury, the manner in which he oversteps the ball also shields Willis’s line of vision, and the keeper has no idea where it’s coming until it’s too late. Yes, the way he goes down makes it look like a semi-comical goalkeeper error (and a bit better luck would have seen him block it even without getting eyes on it), but his mistake is ultimately not a major factor.

Romney deservedly gets most of the blame here, but Smith’s “we might have dropped slightly quicker” is a bit of a giveaway, too: he thought the backline was a little too high, and didn’t do a good job reacting once Robinson put the ball over the top. Let us go to the tactical view.

As you can (kind of) see, Walker Zimmerman’s momentum is headed the wrong way as Robinson winds up to fire the pass. He sees it and reacts, but that allows Moreno to get in-behind. Because of that (and Josef Martinez’s decision to drop back for a potential lay-off pass), neither he nor Romney has a good man-mark on Moreno. Because Alistair Johnston has to keep an eye on the left wingback far on the sideline, he’s also slow to react, and simply gets beaten for speed by the Argentine.

Combine that with an attempt to head the ball to Willis (an attempt he missed) from Zimmerman, rather than playing the body of the man, and the communication and decision-making errors compound one after another.

“You always look back at split-second decisions: ‘should I go for this ball? Should I let it hit the ground? Should I try and toe-poke it out, should I slide?’” Zimmerman explained. “There’s all these decisions that come through all of our minds who are involved in the play, and those are the decisions that kind of got you to this level, and you trust in those.”

Going forward

Shot-out-of-the-blue goals are more common against this Nashville team than well-worked team play. Obviously, Atlanta went out and earned it, too. They wisely use Sosa to free up their CBs on the ball, knowing that those defenders have the technical ability to make the plays Robinson does. But it arrives from what appears to be a “nothing” play and turns into a catastrophe. Those are inherently less predictable.

The individual errors by Romney and (as much as you even consider anything he did an error) Willis have not happened in that fashion in the past, and I wouldn’t project they do in the future, either. The two ways Zimmerman messes up – both examples of risk-taking, first in his positioning and then in attempting to head the ball clear rather than make a more-certain play – are a little more baked-in to the player he is, but more often than not they don’t bite the team because he’s athletic enough to make up for them.

In the long run, Nashville’s tactical approach, when combined with a couple breakdowns in communication and decision-making, led to the goal. There aren’t a ton of MLS teams with the talent to punish Nashville for it (obviously the nature of focusing on Nashville inherently undersells what the opponent does on these plays, but this was as much a “talent wins out” goal as you’ll see), but certainly Gary Smith will rue this one.

* I’m certain that there are segments of the fanbase who will say this is an indication that Jhonder Cádiz is lazy defensively, despite a quote from the head coach literally explaining that it was the tactical approach. Can’t please everyone.

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