How does Rumba Munthali’s Nashville SC compare to Gary Smith’s?

After scraping out a 2-0 win against a short-handed Toronto FC team, Nashville SC’s long-time manager Gary Smith was removed from his position after seven years in charge. In the four games following his dismissal, interim manager Rumba Munthali has made some minor adjustments to help NSC stay competitive and work towards making the playoffs. Let’s dive into these changes.

Shooting and chance creation

The biggest issue for Gary Smith-led teams, clearly, was chance creation, both quantity, and quality of chances. Numerous times, Nashville missed a big chance to score, and an audible groan was heard from the crowd because fans knew that would be the Coyotes’ only chance to score. Munthali has attempted to solve the quantity issue by simply taking more shots. Under Smith, NSC averaged 10.1 shots per game, which has improved to 14.8 over the last four games under Munthali.

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Quantity and quality of chances are two sides of the same problem, and they must be solved together. To improve Nashville’s quantity of chances, the quality has fallen significantly. Shots are taken further away from the goal. They’re hitting the target at a lower rate (34% compared to 23%), and the expected goals (xG) produced per shot has fallen (0.11non-penalty xG per shot compared to 0.07).

In the first 12 games of the season, Nashville created 21 chances with an xG above 0.2. In the last 4 games Nashville has mustered only two. The attacking plan and chance creation haven’t been good enough under Munthali. But there are positive signs in the possession and passing categories that point to Munthali’s men as being a little unlucky.

Possession

While the shooting production has slipped under Munthali, the value of NSC’s possession has grown. Nashville has averaged 49.8% possession over their last four games, attempting 193 short passes per game compared to 47.8% and 162 short passes per game under Smith. It’s far from possession-based soccer or death by a thousand passes, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Smith-led teams often struggled to win in different ways. The game plan was similar no matter the opponent or situation. Under Munthali, fans have seen an excellent smash-and-grab win up in Cincinnati and a brutal loss to the New England Revolution, where the Boys In Gold had 63% possession and produced 2.0 non-penalty xG.

Since the start of 2023, in the 20 games when Nashville had more than 50% possession, they created 2.0 xG only four times. At the end of the day, a loss is a loss, but the level of production we saw when they were forced to possess the ball is something NSC rarely accomplished under Smith.

NSC has also become better at progressing the ball under Munthali, with 38 progressive passes per game compared to only 25 under Smith. Against the Revolution, the Coyotes completed 63 progressive passes, their highest total in a game since May 14, 2022.

This has greatly improved the quality of Nashville’s possession. Below is the percentage of team touches that occurred in each area, with a notable decrease in defensive third touches that translates to an increase of touches in the attacking third.

Pass maps

Finally, I want to break down some pass maps. As always, they were created by the fantastic @mlsstat on Twitter.

I want to point out the number of passes inside the box. Once the ball is entered into the box, Munthali-led NSC teams often attempt another pass instead of shooting it immediately, hoping to create higher-quality chances.  To pull this off, Nashville also needed to change the types of passes into the box. A cross from the end line is unlikely to lead to anything besides a shot or a clearance. 

Look at where passes into the box are coming from. Crosses originate from higher up the pitch, and more balls are played into the box from the middle third.  This allows NSC to create more touches in the box and, in theory, create higher quality chances. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, that last part hasn’t worked out.

What comes next?

Munthali deserves praise for the work he’s done this season, but it could be better. The return of Walker Zimmerman appears to have fixed the defense more than a managerial change, and there’s no reason to expect any regression under the next manager as long as the starters are available.

Whoever steps into the role next will likely continue the progress made under Munthali in chance creation and value of possession. This is arguably the most attacking talent NSC has ever had, but they have to get the ball in dangerous areas to be effective.

I’m not sure where Nashville will look to solve their problems, but there’s reason to be optimistic about.

Author: Jeff RemlingerJeff Remlinger, a data nerd from Chicago, IL, fell in love with MLS by watching the Chicago Fire. Some would say he threw his Fire jersey in the trash a little too quickly when Nashville joined MLS. Jeff has a passion for the statistical side of sports, and when he’s not writing about soccer, he can be found watching his beloved Arsenal or Iowa State Cyclones. Jeff can be found @MusicCitySCStat on X, where he shares his statistical analysis of Nashville SC.

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