Analyzing Nashville SC’s formation and what it means for new fans

The MLS made its return on July 8th with the MLS is Back Tournament, a cup-style competition taking place at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports that will run until August 11th.

Unfortunately, Nashville SC is being held out of the tournament after several players tested positive for Covid-19 just days before they were set to resume play.

Despite this minor setback, it’s a good time to be a soccer fan. Nashville has a professional soccer team and the city should be excited about it. Whether you’re brushing up on your knowledge of the game or learning from scratch, now is the time to really get behind Nashville SC. Soccer is a beautiful game, and is going to be very popular here in Nashville, so let’s dive right in.

If you’re a new Nashville SC fan and want to understand how the game is played at a high level, the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with a formation.

What formation does Nashville SC play, and what exactly is a “formation?”

A “formation” is a term that defines how the head coach decides to deploy the 11 players he’s chosen to put on the field. Think of it as a 4-3 or 3-4 defense in a sense. The coach decides how to line up his players and what shape he wants them to take.

The biggest difference when comparing a formation in soccer with a football lineup is that ideally, the team is to stay in this shape throughout the game, as opposed to it varying on a play-to-play basis. Things can change, and often do near the end of a game, depending on the scoreline. If you’re losing, throw on an extra forward in hope of making a push to find the tying goal. If you’re winning, replace a forward with an extra defender in hopes of securing the victory.

But other than those potential in-game changes, the team is to operate within this identity. If you’re addicted to FIFA like I am (leave your Gamertag and console details in the comments and I might just jump on the sticks to embarrass you), you already know that there are dozens of formations to choose from.

Nashville SC have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 throughout this season, and I expect them to stick with that formation for the foreseeable future. Let’s take a look at what a 4-2-3-1 looks like, using the lineup that Nashville fielded in their last game, a 1-0 loss to Portland.

The “4” represents the four defenders on the field, spanning left to right from Lovitz to Miller. The “2” represents two defensive midfielders (Godoy and McCarty). The “3” represents three attacking players, spanning left to right from Leal to Accam. The “1” represents your central striker, pictured as Badji. You’ll notice that the goalie isn’t included in the formation. That’s because every team plays with a goalie, so there’s no need to include him in your formation.

A 4-2-3-1 formation is relatively simple as far as formations go, and is probably a good choice for this Nashville team as they continue to grow together during their inaugural season in the MLS. The key to making this formation work often lies with the two defensive midfielders. Godoy and McCarty are tasked with helping out the four defenders playing behind them.

As things stand, Nashville won’t be the favorite in most games they play. That’s just the reality of being a “new” team. As they chase the ball around and are forced to defend their goal, Godoy and McCarty need to assist the four defenders. Defending their goal will be key if Nashville hopes to keep games competitive. When these two midfielders are able to regain possession of the ball, they need to quickly move it to the front three in an attempt to create an attacking scenario.

As you can see, the “2” in a 4-2-3-1 are not only tasked with helping defend their goal, but often need to be the ones to help start an attacking play as well.

The name of the game is scoring goals however, and the most important player in this formation when it comes to attacking scenarios, is the “number 10” (think three-technique in a defensive alignment). In this lineup, the “number 10” player is Mukhtar.

This player should be your most creative player, because many goal-scoring scenarios will likely go through him. This makes sense for Nashville, as Mukhtar is easily the most accomplished player on the squad. The “number 10” has to be skilled at holding the ball in this style of play, because he’s often waiting for his teammates to join him up the field from playing their defensive positions. Considering his success in Europe, soccer’s most talented continent, Mukhtar is the man for the job.

Mukhtar needs to be complimented by the two wingers in this formation, photographed as Leal and Accam. Ideally, these two players are fast and creative. They should showcase good footwork to help create attacking scenarios. They are tasked with running up and down the wings of the field, while causing headaches for the opposing defense. Think of them as your deep ball receiver (Kalif Raymond vs Marlon Humphrey, anyone?).

Every formation and strategy can be exploited, and this one is no different. There can be many downsides to playing this brand of soccer. For one, it can be incredibly tiring. Being the team on its back-foot for the majority of a game is not the goal (double entendre), but that’s usually the case when there’s a difference in talent between the two teams.

For reasons already explained, Nashville will likely spend a lot of time camped in their own third of the field. This allows the other team to control the tempo of the game. It also means Nashville are the team that are more likely to get tired first, and tired teams are more prone to mental errors. Chasing the ball around can be exhausting, especially over a 90 minute period.

Being the team that holds more of the ball and creates more attacking plays is a comfortable scenario to be in. The team on the front foot dictates the flow of the game, and this preserves energy. Nashville can absolutely be successful with their style of play and formation, but they’ll have to be mentally strong and well conditioned if they’re to pull it off.

What’s a formation that may give Nashville some difficulty?

A 4-3-3 is a popular attacking formation, and Nashville will likely face plenty of teams who line up this way. This is what a 4-3-3 looks like.

This lineup was taken from Washington D.C.’s 2-1 victory over Inter Miami CF earlier this season. The middle “3” represents the three central midfielders (spanning from Gressel to Felipe). As opposed to the two defensive midfielders that Nashville deploys in their 4-2-3-1, the middle “3” in a 4-3-3 act as “box-to-box” midfielders, and can link up with the front three attackers. “Box-to-box” is exactly what it sounds like. They are tasked with helping defend their own 18-yard box, but also need to get forward and attack the opposition’s goal as well. They are the chain link that keeps things moving, and while they still have to be responsible for assisting on defense, they are meant to get forward and help create goals.

This formation can overwhelm the opposition, especially one that is tasked with defending their goal for the majority of a game. Nashville will have to hold tight against formations such as 4-3-3 if they’re to have any success.

The strategy is overall, quite simple. Nashville has to be organized, disciplined and structured to make their formation and style of play work. They will likely see less of the ball than most of their opponents. They will attempt to play a defensive style in hopes of keeping the score low. This makes sense, as they don’t quite have the talent just yet to be getting themselves into a high-scoring game.

Think of them as trying to build an elite defensive team while they work and grow together in attack, perhaps adding more talent along the way. If they’re able to frustrate their opponent by keeping the score low, it will open up “counter attacking” opportunities. The idea behind the counter attack is to recover the ball after a failed attack by the opposition, and to basically catch them with their guard down.

It can be a quite effective strategy for an inferior team. The longer that the game remains in a tie, the more frustrated the opponent grows. The opposition may start to commit more men forward in hopes of breaking the deadlock. This often leaves them susceptible to the “counter attack.” Recover the ball, and punish the opposition for committing too many men forward. The idea is to catch them outside of their defensive structure.

It’s a low risk, low reward style of play that can be plodding at times, but is proven to be effective for inferior squads. Think of it in a sense as the “prevent defense.”

Gary Smith is known to be a defensive-minded head coach, and that’s the way Nashville are going to play things for now. It’s a style of play that works well when you take a lead, but it’s not so great when you fall behind. It certainly isn’t the most visually pleasing brand of soccer to play, but I would urge any new fans to stick with the team as they figure it out.

Professional soccer has arrived in Nashville, and it’s going to be an exciting journey.

I’m personally a fan of this formation, especially when taking into consideration that Nashville will be the underdog in most of their games. As they gain more experience and start to add more talent to the roster, they can think about a formation change to a more common 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.

But for now, Nashville is playing the right formation given their situation.

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