Back to back scoreless draws weren’t the most thrilling results for Nashville SC, but they were informative. Nashville’s zero-to-zero draws on the road in New England and at home against Minnesota raised plenty of questions and concerns about the team, as well as emphasizing their strengths. There are a few key points to take from the two matches.
The 4-3-3 is a legitimate option
Nashville’s attack is hamstrung. There’s no way around it. What was already a rather limp attack was softened by a string of injuries to their forwards. Dom Badji missed both matches with an apparent hamstring injury, and will be out a few weeks longer. Daniel Ríos was finally coming into form, scoring twice in as many matches, before hobbling off the field against Houston. Abu Danladi, more of a wide player who can do a job in the middle, was also on the injury report.
Adding to the selection headache was the absence of Aníbal Godoy. The midfielder had been a foundational piece of this expansion team, and arguable the team’s most consistent performer thus far.
A drastic change to personnel forced a drastic change in tactics. Head coach Gary Smith had stuck with a 4-4-1-1 formation for every match this season, but left without some fundamental building blocks, he opted for a change in tactics.
Against New England and Minnesota, the manager shifted to a 4-3-3 formation, playing Derrick Jones (naturally a central midfielder) as the focal point of the front three, and deploying Matt LaGrassa and Brian Anunga as shuttlers on either side of Dax McCarty.
Against New England, this formation heavily prioritized defending. Nashville clogged the midfield, put bodies behind the ball, and prioritized the clean sheet above all else. “We wanted to make the game as difficult [for New England] as possible,” Smith said after the match.
At home three days later, though, the same formation looked very different against Minnesota. In the first 30 minutes, Nashville took over twice as many shots as they did in the entire New England match. LaGrassa and Anunga both got on the ball in more advanced positions. Alex Muyl and Alistair Johnston were able to get behind Minnesota’s left back and pick out a handful of decent crosses into the box. The same overall system shifted slightly to become much more attack-minded.
Going forward, this could be an option. Once Godoy is back and fit, deploying a midfield trio of Godoy, McCarty and either LaGrassa or Anunga could give Nashville more bit in midfield, as well as allowing their central midfielders to push further forward into attack.
Another added benefit of the 4-3-3 is relying more on the fullbacks to provide width. Dan Lovitz has been excellent on the left, and Alistair Johnston has emerged as a reliable option on the right. In the typical 4-2-3-1, both players are involved in the attack. The 4-3-3 emphasizes their roles more heavily, though. It makes the fullbacks the primary outlet for width. A narrower midfield opens more space for Lovitz and Johnston to run the wide channels, and it also gives them more targets in the box.
The more fluid front three also gives Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal more freedom to find space in the attacking third, with all three attackers regularly rotating positions to open up space and keep the defense unbalanced.
With a fully fit squad, particularly a fully fit attack involving Ríos or Jhonder Cádiz (more on that later), the 4-3-3 could be an intriguing option, especially against some better attacking teams.
Nashville have found reliable contributors from USL
Seven of Nashville’s players spent all of 2019 in the USL Championship, the second division of American soccer. Their signings drew comparisons to FC Cincinnati’s disastrous expansion roster build, and not without cause.
The last run of matches has shown, though, that the players Nashville brought up from USL aren’t merely there to round out the squad, but are capable of contributing in key moments.
Six of the seven players brought up from USL have seen the field. They’ve combined for a total of 13% of Nashville’s minutes this season.
In both matches, Brian Anunga was a standout in midfield. Calm in possession and fierce in the tackle, the midfielder has displayed a passing range and an ability to cover ground that should push him into consideration, even with a fully fit squad.
Derrick Jones, especially, has been a standout. After some inconsistency early on, he’s found a good run of form. His ability to turn in tight spaces and draw a foul makes him a constant threat on the ball, especially when deployed behind a striker.
Asked to play out of position in both matches, his influence was muffled slightly, but his recent stretch of form will make him hard to drop.
After 15 matches in MLS, Nashville looks like they’ve found some reliable squad players from the lower levels. In a salary-cap league, that’s a big deal.
Goal scoring is still the biggest issue
This isn’t a plot twist. Everyone saw this coming. Scoring goals was always going to be the weak link in this team, at least at first. Gary Smith called it “the achilles heel” after the draw with Minnesota.
I was very much on the Daniel Ríos train before the season began, and I still am. I think he’s currently the best finisher on the roster, and he began to display that before picking up an injury 11 days ago. The fact that his two goals make him the team’s leading scorer, though, is a pretty damning indictment of how big the problem is.
Earlier in the re-started season, the problem seemed to be more about getting attackers on the same page, reading each others’ runs, and putting in the correct final ball.
While there have been a handful of bright spots (Ríos’s emergence and the 4-2 win over Atlanta among them), finishing remains an issue. Cohesion in the final third has improved, although it still needs improvement. While Nashville is able to create the occasional clear-cut chance, they don’t often put forwards in “can’t miss” positions. Their expected goals per game is fifth-worst in the league, and only FC Cincinnati have scored more.
Against Minnesota, Nashville was able to create much more, especially in the first half.
It’s a shame that those chances came in a match where Nashville didn’t have a recognized striker on the field. Derrick Jones saw a fantastic chance go wide from inside the six yard box, and Alex Muyl saw a pair of shots saved at close range.
I don’t want to be too harsh here. After all, Derrick Jones is not a striker. But in a season where Nashville have struggled to consistently create the chance he missed, seeing it go wide was frustrating.
The baseline is this: Nashville struggle to consistently create clear-cut chances, and haven’t consistently finished them when they do.
The signing of Jhonder Cádiz was made to address those issues. While he doesn’t have an elite scoring record, he’s played consistently at a high level, and should be an improvement. If Ríos can continue his form once he returns as well, Nashville will find themselves in a much better spot.
But can Nashville put those two in positions to score consistently? That’s the big question. Nashville currently has the third-lowest expected goals per shot. Basically, while they’re pretty average in chances created, the quality of those chances is typically poor.
Signing Cádiz should improve their baseline to some extent. But if Nashville are going to score more consistently, they’ll have to change how they’re creating chances, not just how they’re finishing them.