Hey, this is a little late, yeah? Let’s get right into it with a look at what the Opta data can tell us about Nashville SC’s loss in Harrison, N.J. 12 days ago.
Red Bulls typically want teams to try to play out of the back: if they’re executing short passes in their own end against the New York press, there are more opportunities for turnovers close to scoring range. Nashville SC, well aware of this, did not play into the gameplan.
Starting with the goalkeeper, Joe Willis almost exclusively played long. Despite not being as press-intensive, NSC (typically) shares a lot of characteristics with NYRB: the ability for its outfield players to compete for aerial balls, and then win the 50/50s when the ball does finally hit the turf after long play.
Even if Nashville wasn’t winning these duels (and they were slightly below 50%, winning 57/117) changing the venue of play into New York’s end forces the opponent to connect passes to get back closer toward your own goal, which is something the Red Bulls really aren’t comfortable doing. By moving the ball into the attacking half – no matter who ultimately gets on the end of it – you’re forcing NYRB to build in a non-preferred way.
This was an intentional part of the gameplan, and one that worked… OK.
Former Bulls not fantastic
This contest was a homecoming for two Nashville SC players: Dax McCarty is a former Red Bull captain, while Alex Muyl is a product of the NYRB academy and a Manhattan native who was taking on his childhood club for the first time.
It did not go particularly well for either, unfortunately. Here’s the full CV for their respective days in terms of the negative:
That’s a ton of missed passes (squares), lost tackles (point-up triangles), failed dribbles (point-down triangles), and fouls committed (pentagons) for McCarty and Muyl – 6 and 19, respectively.
Here’s how the passing, in particular, compares to the season averages:
|Player||Season passing%||% Against NYRB|
McCarty was nearly 20 points below his usual passing percentage, and Muyl about 15 points below his (with a much lower starting point). Of course, that’s what Red Bulls force out of the opposition: if you don’t have incredible technical skill, New York is going to make life tough on you. There are only a few teams in MLS who would look at that New York press and shrug their shoulders while continuing to build out of the back.
I singled out the above two players because of their history with the Red Bull organization, but you can basically go down the line and say everybody fell into their trap of disruption. It happens. Here’s the above chart extended across teams through the first several games of the 2021 MLS season:
|Team||Season passing%||% Against NYRB|
|Sporting Kansas City||83.0%||68.0%|
|New England Revolution||77.2%||74.7%|
|Orlando City SC||82.0%||80.8%|
|New England Revolution||77.2%||72.4%|
Everyone except Chicago Fire (one of those teams that doesn’t fear playing out of the back against anyone – but worth noting also a team that pretty deeply sucks) has performed below the season average passing percentage when playing Red Bulls. Some of those differences are small enough as to be statistically insignificant – the Union, Revolution, and Orlando City – but there’s certainly a major pattern that shows here.
Of course, the flipside of that coin is… five of those games are Red Bull losses, and another is a tie. You can beat this team despite not connecting passes, and Nashville didn’t do that. The context of the passing number is important. The context of the results season-long are also significant when evaluating a game against Red Bulls.
Goals change games
This was, in fact, a very level game until Red Bulls broke the seal with a goal that’s… not particularly replicable. As a reminder:
It was something of a bizarre play, and took a world-class finish to beat Nashville SC after the Red Bulls had generated precious little prior. Depending on how much time I have to devote in the next six hours or so, I may very well do a play breakdown of it.
It was a cagey, limited-opportunities affair before the goal, and pretty much remained one after it, until Nashville SC ran out of gas and ran out of belief after Randall Leal’s fastbreak opportunity and Hany Mukhtar’s from a free kick didn’t pan out.
A low-trials, high-variance game such as soccer will always feel much more lopsided on the basis of a multi-goal win (or loss) than the underlying aspects probably indicate, and this was no different. Nashville only lost the xG battle by 0.4 – but the final score showed a two-goal difference total.
The offense was certainly not clicking regardless
Is that too long for a section head? #YOLO
Only eight total shots for Nashville is not great. It’s also something that you may expect with the combination of factors I’ve already addressed above. Perhaps the bigger issue for NSC is converting some of the best ones (Leal’s attempt, which was impressively saved by Carlos Coronel, was the only one that even tested the target).
But if you don’t convert at the rate you’d expect, one solution is to generate a bunch of chances. That’s been Nashville’s MO so far this season (inshallah the conversion rate will catch up to expected numbers and this team can really break out). Red Bulls make it hard still. The key passes and shots:
Calling almost any individual shot other than a goalmouth dunk a “must-finish” is an unserious level of analysis. Doing so about Leal’s attempt (0.25 xG – i.e. three times as likely to not be finished as to be converted) is more so. But on aggregate, Nashville must do a better job converting, no doubt. In this game, the Boys in Gold didn’t even give themselves a chance to convert by putting attempts on frame, and they didn’t make up for it with their usual volume of attempts.
It’s worth noting that there was no key pass for three of the eight shots. Those would be two Mukhtar free kicks and a Matt LaGrassa volley attempt on a failed Red Bulls clear (Romney long-throw gang raise up).
The other five key passes? Three corner kicks, a free-kick (the Dan Lovitz 2 well outside the penalty area), and just one key pass from the run of play: CJ Sapong’s layoff pass for the Leal shot.
If you can’t pass through the Red Bull press, and you have difficulty playing over the top, you’re going to have difficulty generating anything from the run of play, and that doomed Nashville in Harrison, N.J.
What did you see in the data? Poke around and share your observations in the comments.