This is a guest post by Reid Murray, a Nashville SC supporter and student journalist at University School of Nashville. Show the man some love on Twitter: @ReidMurray9
Head Coach Gary Smith broke the norm at Nashville SC by employing a 3-4-3 formation in the team’s most recent game against the Philadelphia Union. The lineup was almost the same as Smith’s normal starting XI, with the only major difference being the presence of a third centerback in place of a central attacking midfielder. The change worked, as Nashville picked up their fourth win of the season against the reigning Supporters Shield winners, who were unbeaten on the road going into the game. Though the 4-2-3-1 has served Nashville somewhat well in their first handful of games, the 3-4-3 fits the team’s roster and playing style better, and should become the default formation moving forward.
One advantage is the stability it can bring to the Nashville SC defense. Both of Nashville’s starting fullbacks, Dan Lovitz and Alistair Johnston, are fairly offense-minded defenders. Their ability to whip crosses into the box and make plays out wide is a huge help to the team. Unfortunately, their offensive play has also hurt the team when their opposition counter-attacks and the overlapping fullbacks are not back in time to defend. The 3-4-3 provides a perfect solution to this issue by giving Lovitz and Johnston a more designated role in the attack while allowing them to defend when necessary. By creating a back three with Nashville’s abundance of centerbacks and moving the fullbacks into the wingback position, Smith can implement a fluid formation that allows his side to have up to seven attackers when they have possession and five defenders when they need to make a stop.
Another advantage of the 3-4-3 is its potential to unlock Hany Mukhtar’s full playmaking ability. Mukhtar is clearly a talented player; that’s why Nashville is paying so much to have him on the team. However, while he’s had bright moments like a two-goal performance on the road against Atlanta United, he has not quite made the game-changing impact the club expects from him on a regular basis. Despite his slow start to the season, Mukhtar can still be an effective member of the Nashville offense. The 3-4-3 formation does not feature a central attacking midfielder, meaning Mukhtar would have to play on the wing if included in the starting XI. While it’s not his primary position, Mukhtar has been more effective out wide at times this season – including during the stretch in which he scored both goals against Atlanta – and thus, the 3-4-3 would allow Gary Smith to get the most out of his star player.
The 3-4-3 is also a perfect formation for emerging talent Jack Maher. No matter the formation, Maher will get playing time during the Gold Cup, as he is the best candidate to fill the hole created by Walker Zimmerman’s absence for international duty. Maher has also shown in his past three starts that he deserves to be a permanent starter no matter what the scenario is. Unfortunately, when you are on a team with the MLS Defender of the Year in Zimmerman, and a left-footed center back who has played every MLS minute of Nashville’s existence in Dave Romney, finding game time is hard. Luckily for Maher and NSC fans as a whole, playing a 3-4-3 formation would allow Nashville to play what could be considered the best group of centerbacks (Romney-Zimmerman-Maher) in Major League Soccer every game. This would further strengthen the team’s defense while allowing Maher to develop into an even better player.
Finally, the 3-4-3 is preferable for Nashville because it fits the style of soccer the Boys in Gold want to play. In the latter half of the 2020 campaign, Nashville was able to scrape enough points together to earn a playoff appearance through defense. Though the team is already scoring at a much higher rate this year – 1.3 goals/game compared to 1.0 last season – it may be worth looking at how they got on the scoresheet a year ago. The 3-4-3, which can morph into a 5-2-3 if the wingbacks drop back into a defensive position, provides far more opportunities for counter-attacking. With a team that wants to stake its claim on stymieing opposing attacks (with the third-best goals-against average in the league last year, the scoring output may be increased with a full commitment to this aspect of the identity, and utilizing wingbacks in the lineup. A formation with a back three and wingbacks works for teams that defend well and play with fluidity — two things Nashville did effectively in their inaugural MLS season.
Since Nashville has gotten into a bad habit of conceding goals against lower-performing teams like Toronto and Montreal (six combined goals for these teams in three games – all at Nissan Stadium), it would make perfect sense to put a greater emphasis on defense with a change of formation, especially when that change worked against one of the best sides in MLS, Philadelphia Union.
If Gary Smith does not want to use the 3-4-3 as his permanent formation, he should at least use it in the upcoming games where Zimmerman, Johnston, and Aníbal Godoy will be away on international duty. Alex Muyl, a midfielder who tends to play more defensively than some of his teammates in the same position, would replace Johnston well at the right wingback position. While Zimmerman’s absence raises major red flags for Nashville’s CB depth, Jalil Anibaba is an experienced pro who could join Romney and Maher to keep opposing offenses at bay.
While it is unlikely that either player underperforms egregiously, it would not be wise for Smith to rely on a young and inexperienced Maher to completely take over Zimmerman’s role, or to put Eric Miller, who has logged zero minutes for the Boys in Gold this season, in the place of Johnston at right back.
Overall, for a team whose strength is defense, a shift to a more counter-attack-oriented formation could pay dividends and help them make a run in the MLS Cup Playoffs.