Aké Loba’s lack of involvement has been the subject of much consternation among Nashville SC fans in recent weeks, but his performance in Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw with Columbus Crew should relieve some of those concerns.
Since joining Nashville for a record $6.8 million transfer fee in July, Loba has been limited to appearances off the bench, playing just 313 minutes and making a sole start, in which he was taken off at halftime. Fans have understandably been concerned how sparingly he’s been used.
In his 28 minute shift off the bench last night, though, Loba showed his importance to the team and pushed for a larger role going forward. He was a vital part of Nashville’s equalizing goal, making a deadly run in behind the backline before finding Daniel Ríos in the box with a deft touch.
After coming into the match in the 68th minute, Loba changed the game for Nashville with his runs in behind Columbus’s defense. His pace and directness forced the Crew to drop their lines deeper to cope with the treat of diagonal balls over the top, which in turn opened up space underneath in which Mukhtar thrived.
“There was a lack of connection from back to front, getting in behind and stretching the game out. There wasn’t enough sacrifice from players to stretch the game out and create those pockets to get into. And that was a big conversation at halftime,” said Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith following the match. “[Loba and Ríos] brought a different dynamic to the game. That’s no slight on CJ or anyone else, but sometimes those games just need a new perspective. They brought it. There was a different life and energy about the frontline.”
While Loba has drawn comparisons to Hany Mukhtar in recent weeks, he impacted the match in a much different way than Nashville’s MVP frontrunner.
Mukhtar got on the ball every minute-and-a-half. Loba only touched the ball only six times in his 28 minute shift, once every four minutes and 40 seconds. He completed every pass he attempted and looked dynamic on the ball, but his greatest impact was his threat off the ball. That “verticality”, to use a popular phrase, has been consistently cited as one of his greatest attributes.
“Center forwards tend to either play in front of center backs with their back to goal, or they play on the back shoulder of center backs and try to run in behind them,” Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs told 104.5 The Zone after Loba’s signing. “Ake has breakneck speed with the ability to stretch defenses and get in behind them. He can certainly play in front of center backs also, but the pace and speed he has to open up an opposing defense is really going to excite fans.”
Nashville have strikers who excel with their back to goal; CJ Sapong and Daniel Ríos both dropped into deeper areas and got onto the ball more, averaging touches every 2 minutes 50 seconds and two minutes 33 seconds, respectively. And while both occasionally make back shoulder runs, neither has the defense-stretching pace that of Aké Loba.
Loba is certainly a different type of player than anyone on the roster, and he’s not a like-for-like replacement for anyone currently in the starting group. But last night’s performance showed his potential and the type of impact he needs to have more.
Gary Smith says that his performance has been a long time coming.
“He just looks like he’s got a bit more energy and positivity about him. He had been working very hard up until the international break. He had some time off. And sometimes, you need to go away and allow that core physical work to settle in,” Smith said after the match. “He’s come back and he has a little glint in his eye. He looks like an individual who says, ‘I’m going to make a difference here, I’m going to find that moment. I’m going to be effective’. And I’m not sure that was the case before. There wasn’t anything wrong, but there was just so much going on.”
It’s not that I don’t think he can’t be effective. It’s just about making sure that those moments offer him the opportunity to build confidence.Gary Smith on Aké Loba
With both Hany Mukhtar and Luke Haakenson suspended due to yellow card accumulation for this weekend’s vital road trip to Philadelphia, Loba has a huge opportunity to stake his claim for more minutes and a bigger role going forward.
“We’ve got one or two guys sitting in the background who are hurting over the fact that they’ve not been in the team and they’ve not been getting minutes,” said Smith. “And I would hope that they see this as their opportunity to try and say ‘you’ve been wrong’.”
As Nashville gear up for a postseason run, getting Aké Loba up and running is key. Wednesday night may well be the start of him finding his form.