Jalil Anibaba photo courtesy Nashville SC
NASHVILLE – Over a third of the way through the season, it’s easy to name a few results where the expected goals numbers and the final scoreboard disagree on what Nashville SC should have achieved in the game. In draws against FC Cincinnati and CF Montreal (in both meetings with the Quebecois), the Boys in Gold had massive expected goals advantages. In other draws – including a pair on the road at Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls – the advantages weren’t quite as stark, but NSC still had the slightly better end of the advanced stats.
That was once against the case in Nissan Stadium Thursday evening. The expected goals tally (according to American Soccer Analysis) reads 2.10 to 0.46 in Nashville’s advantage. But Atlanta United managed to scrap its way to a 2-2 draw.
We’ve been very, very good tonight in a lot of areas, and I’ve been really, really pleased with a lot of displays,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith. “But we still haven’t come away with all three points. I looked at their expected goal tally, which is 0.3, and they scored two goals. So you can’t help me from being a little dejected about that.”
The party line of club country usa dot com is that we believe in the stats and science: over time, teams tend to finish at rates in line with expected goals models, and a squad that is over- or under-achieving the underlying stats in any individual game or stretch of the season is probably going to bounce back to the mean in the long run. Nashville, you will note, is underachieving its expected goals on a regular basis, and in at least four games, significantly enough to cost the team results on the table.
At a certain point, the Boys in Gold are who the tables says they are. Of course, that’s not the most disappointing things in the world: fifth place with a game in-hand on two of the four sides boasting higher point totals. Nashville has knocked off both of those teams (No. 1 New England Revolution and No. 3 Philadelphia Union) already this year, accounting for a full third of their losses. But with 14 of Nashville’s 22 remaining games coming away from Nissan Stadium, the expectation that Smith’s side can stick to business as it stands and maintain position in the table is a misguided one.
When you can identify a mechanism that explains how a team is underachieving its expected goals numbers, one can recognize that life won’t simply snap back to what the spreadsheet says it should be. In NSC’s case, that mechanism may very well be an inability to defend set pieces – or a propensity to give them up unnecessarily. That’s become an especially noteworthy gap in the team’s performances lately.
Nashville gave up a penalty-kick goal in the opener against FC Cincinnati on a bizarre mistake by goalkeeper Joe Willis. Against New York Red Bulls, a defensive-half free kick allowed the hosts to get on board early, and NSC couldn’t recover. And in three of the past four games, Nashville has given up: a corner-kick header to Toronto FC, a corner-kick header to Montreal Impact, and two corner-kick headers to Atlanta United.
While the throughline for the more recent games may be the absence of centerback (and aerial wizard) Walker Zimmerman, that situation won’t be improving any time soon: he’s away with the United States Men’s National Team for at least the next week, and likely beyond that as the Americans look to advance past the group stage in the Concacaf Gold Cup.
“I don’t base anything on luck; I think there’s some disappointing defending,” Smith said. “There may have been situations where guys were a tad more focused, sensed a little bit more danger. I don’t think the deliveries or anything that anyone’s throwing at us is any different. There’s certainly a big difference when Walker’s in the group. He of course is very aggressive aerially. But I do think maybe there’s a little lack of guidance and belief when he’s not around. But he ain’t gonna be around: I’m not gonna be able to magic him back here, so we have to find a solution.
“Tonight was hugely disappointing. Honestly/ I can’t tell you how deeply disappointed I am – probably more so than I’ve ever been since I’ve been here. Listen, we haven’t lost, I’m absolutely delighted with the way the guys have gone about their business. I said at the start, we’ve shown some very good form here, we’ve shown great character here when we’ve gone a goal down, to a team that you would suspect would maintain possession in their stats – even missing bodies, they’ve got a very talented group still on the field.”
Nashville’s goals also came from dead-ball situations on the night, with one of the players seeing the field in Zimmerman’s stead – veteran centerback Jalil Anibaba – nodding home from a corner kick by Hany Mukhtar. Mukhtar would add his own tally later, converting a penalty kick earned when Atlanta United’s Cubo Torres handled a free kick that may have found its way from Mukhtar’s right foot to the back of the net itself if not for the infraction.
“Yeah, I mean conceding two goals is definitely a negative, but scoring two goals is a positive,” Anibaba said. “We walk away with a tie; it’s not the end of the world. I think the way we balance those things out is it makes it pretty easy to understand where we could have won this game, and how we could have won this game.
“Sometimes you’re kind of sitting after a result where you feel a little bit disadvantaged or what have you: you feel confused trying to figure out exactly what went wrong. But it’s pretty clear tonight and I think that makes it easy for us to nail it in and be better.”
If Nashville wants to achieve its larger goals on the season, “nailing it in” has to happen soon.
Of course, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel on defense when Zimmerman returns (albeit a light that’s a month away). There’s also a potential light on the attacking end of the pitch: the arrival of striker Aké Loba. A Nashville SC team that’s scored just 16 goals on 20.87 expected goals brings in a player with a track record in South America and Mexico. If the Ivorian can convert at a high rate – and complement those around them to allow them to reach their level as well – there may be a fix there, as well.
At this stage, it appears Nashville is on a path to simply being an xG underachiever this year unless and until something changes. But change may very well be a-comin’.
Just a couple this week because this was a bullet-info-ish column:
- Nashville has only been out-xGed once this year (in the loss at New York Red Bulls), which is obviously a sign of a good team. The question about whether they’re just built to underachieve xG is obviously one I shaped the column around, but it’s also worth noting that this team outperformed xG in most regards last year (and some of the individuals who are converting under their xG numbers are career xG over-achievers). It’s also totally possible that this team snaps out of it, because from an xG perspective, they’re borderline elite.
- The rubber will really hit the road when the team hits the road. “They are what the table says they are” is not particularly worrisome when they’re fifth in the table despite what one might consider a lot of bad luck! But the good scheduling luck of having played 53% of their season total of home games and 18% of their road games this year makes it look less rosy.
- It was a nice game for the midfield throughout. Some of that is Atlanta’s style of play and the Five Stripes’ personnel deficiencies on the night. Hopefully it can be a building block for Brian Anunga and Alex Muyl to hone in their passing the rest of the season.
- Atlanta not only entered the game short-handed, but had two players leave the pitch with injury, and another play through a broken elbow. This was an even more short-handed team than was expected. As much as bad luck or individual moments in a 90-minute game can alter the result, it’s a disappointing one no matter what.
- This was an extraordinarily chippy, borderline dirty game from the Atlanta perspective. In some ways, that’s nice because ATL consistently talks about how Nashville isn’t and won’t be a rival, and this game not only dispels that notion but also adds a chapter to the lore a bit. On the other end, the center official had a really rough outing – I don’t know that we’ve seen three VAR checks in a game yet this year, with one of the on-field calls (albeit an offside that’s actually the fault of the assistant referee) overturned. The inability to prevent the game from getting chippy is on him. The tackle from behind on Randall Leal just moments before the one that drew the red card was incredibly dirty – to the extent that not issuing the straight-red there probably inspired him to give the makeup call moments later. Justice levels out in the end, I guess, but “random number generator that eventually comes out close to a just tally” is probably not in the PRO handbook.
- Atlanta fans (of a certain segment, at least) are up in arms about Nashville booing injured Atlanta players. Multiple points here: I generally don’t care for booing a guy on the turf, but really can’t get worked up about it one way or the other. When it’s a team like Atlanta that is pretty well-known for diving and time-wasting – both of which were on full display throughout this particular contest, and especially in the later stages – it’s even less worth getting upset over. I know this particular Atlanta SG doesn’t have a very good reputation even within the Five Stripes’ world, but “grow up!”