Tactics Notebook: Dax McCarty against Columbus

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re excited to announce Josh Young as a contributor at Broadway Sports! Josh is the co-host of Paradise Pod, bringing a unique and entertaining angle to the Nashville SC media landscape. We’ve been fans of his work for a while and are happy to have him on board.

After dropping important points at Nissan Stadium early in the season, Nashville SC has found a string of home form that now sees them near the top of the Eastern Conference. For the match-going fan, NSC’s front-loaded home schedule has provided an entertaining and busy start to the team’s second year in MLS.

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Away matches provide a different lens through which to view a match. I often find I’m able to view proceedings a bit less emotionally, with a more keen eye on tactics, watching from home on a screen. So it was surprising for me to hear manager Gary Smith and club captain Dax McCarty’s post-match comments after the recent 0-0 draw away at Columbus crew. They revealed that McCarty had been fielded that night as part of a back three, alongside center backs Dave Romney and Jalil Anibaba, rather than in front of them in a more traditional midfield role.

This was known to many and commented upon pre-match by the excellent Nashville SC broadcast team of Tony Husband and Jamie Watson, as I would later learn. I was watching Columbus’ home broadcast during my live viewing, though, and this positional change completely eluded me. 

Sure, NSC spent much of the match deep in its own half, defending the road point in scrappy, workmanlike fashion. But McCarty’s usual role in a defensive midfield two would see him taking up deep positions frequently, regardless of where he was positioned nominally. Did he really play this match as a traditional center back? 

The question stuck with me, prompting a rewatch of a midweek MLS match that finished 0-0. Yes, I need help, but perhaps my suffering will be your gain as we analyze the Boys In Gold’s tactics from that night together.

Dax McCarty is a diminutive midfielder, seemingly most at home orchestrating deep build-up play and working with a midfield partner to break up opponents’ attacks. So the thought of him playing as an out-and-out defender would have never crossed most Nashville fans’ minds.

One reason I hypothesized that head coach Gary Smith may have positioned McCarty this way was to nullify the threat of Columbus star Lucas Zelarayán, diminishing his influence arriving in and around Nashville’s box by having McCarty perform a sort of man-marking job on him.

We immediately see evidence opposed to this theory, though, during one of the Crew’s first possessions in NSC territory. Zelarayán comes deeper to receive a throw-in, but McCarty remains positioned between his centerback partners Anibaba and Romney, leaving the responsibility of picking up Zelarayán to midfielder Brian Anunga.

Later in Columbus’ possession, Crew left winger (and doppelgänger to Broadway Sports’ own Ben Wright) Pedro Santos gets into crossing position. McCarty recognizes the danger and positions himself to defend his team’s near post – typical center back behavior in these scenarios.

Seconds later, McCarty can be seen with both arms out, quarterbacking the defense, encouraging the defenders either side of him to push forward and help snuff out the Columbus move before it gains momentum.

As evidenced above, Smith appears to have wanted to maintain a back five when his side were defending deep, with McCarty helping to maintain that shape. 

Dax was also tasked with helping maintain a back line of four when Romney and Anibaba vacated defense and pushed into midfield positions during moments of transition for Columbus. This was a key feature of Nashville’s tactics throughout the match. Below, Dave Romney goes ball-hunting at the halfway line early on…

…and Jalil Anibaba does the same on the opposite, right-hand side of the field:

McCarty is nowhere to be seen in either screenshot. The reason is that he’s filled into the position each center back has vacated in defense, helping to maintain a solid line of four to protect Nashville’s defensive third. A sequence a few minutes later allows us to see him filling that vacated space in defense. First we see Romney, once again ball-hunting beyond the halfway line, and working to prevent Zelarayan from receiving the ball with time to turn. Columbus right back Harrison Afful is about to play a ball over the top, into the space he believes Romney just left unguarded…

…only the space in behind is covered, by none other than makeshift center back McCarty, who shepherds the ball safely towards ‘keeper Joe Willis to end the Columbus threat and restart possession for Nashville.

It doesn’t appear that McCarty was instructed to constantly remain in central defense. See this scenario, which occurred repeatedly throughout the match. Willis sends the ball long from a goal kick towards one of the forwards, this time CJ Sapong. McCarty can be seen positioned in central midfield; much more alongside Anunga and Matt LaGrassa rather than behind them in defense.

Transitional moments aside, though, Dax truly remained positioned as a central defender. See below a spell of unpressured Nashville possession; McCarty remains deep, splitting the central defenders either side of him and allowing wingbacks Eric Miller and Taylor Washington to bomb on. 

Although Nashville created few chances overall on the night, Washington in particular looked comfortable in his attacking left wingback role. While Alex Muyl regularly pushed on from his role in the right of the midfield three to provide forward running and width on the right, Washington was able to use his speed to advance the ball down the left numerous times. 

One reason that Nashville SC have begun to utilize wingbacks recently is the excellent play of Dan Lovitz. Even when he’s started on the left of a back four, with more defensive responsibility, Lovitz is the primary source of chance creation down the left for Nashville. Setting up with three central defenders behind them allows both Lovitz and Washington, an increasingly reliable understudy to Lovitz, to get even further forward in attack. Playing McCarty as a third central defender allowed Smith to continue with this shape, despite the forced absence of Lovitz and Jack Maher on the evening.

It would be harsh to expect a flawless performance from McCarty in this new position, and he did give away a free kick just outside of the box early in the first half when stepping up to engage Zelarayan:

He also struggled to match Columbus striker Erik Hurtado’s athleticism at times. Despite losing possession on an earlier long pass attempt, later in the first half Afful was able to spot Hurtado running in behind McCarty:

Hurtado was able to out-muscle Dax and get goal-side of him, but his touch to bring down the ball took him wide, and he scuppered the ensuing shot.

Hiccups aside, Dax McCarty had one of his best performances in recent memory. Over the course of 90 minutes, in a new position with a lot of responsibility, against one of the top teams in the league, he managed to contribute in an important way. He played the center back role as you might expect a 5’6” midfielder to, emphasizing constant defensive awareness and discipline in filling in for his more aggressive center back partners.

Because McCarty reads the game so well, he was able to flourish in the role and lead his side to a clean sheet they can be proud of. The Crew would have expected three points in this one, and their disappointment with the dropped points was evident at the final whistle.

The McCarty-fueled back five flummoxed the Columbus Crew throughout the night, and it’s fair to say that Nashville manager Gary Smith got the better of his highly regarded counterpart, Columbus manager Caleb Porter. 

From his USL teams to his current MLS side, we’ve seen tactical flexibility from Gary Smith. His tweaks were never ground-breaking, and major changes in playstyle have been infrequent. He will, however, make changes to adjust to challenges presented by a run of away matches, a series of poor results, or missing personnel.

It usually feels his strengths as a manager lie more in his man-management than in the Xs and O, though. For example, the team has exploded offensively in recent matches, but the improvement seems to have come from giving CJ Sapong a run of games in front of Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal, and allowing a chemistry to develop between those three, rather than any major overhauls in his system. Of course, Mukhtar chipping in with the odd league-record hat trick here and there doesn’t hurt, either.

We’ve also seen a willingness to switch between a four at the back and a three/five at the back, depending on the form and availability of certain players. On the whole, though, Smith’s major tactical principles remain constant: a midfield two that shield the backline; an organized, aggressive defense that typically sits no higher than a mid-block; and quick counter-attacks that aim to hit the opposition quickly without committing too many bodies forward. 

But slotting McCarty into the backline was quite an innovation. It speaks to the manager’s familiarity with his squad, as well as his prioritization of maintaining a shape that’s working for the team during a period when important players are missing. It all resulted in a massive clean sheet on the road to keep the club’s position in the table trending upwards.

Make sure to follow Josh on Twitter (@YoshJoung), and check out his Nashville SC podcast Paradise Pod (@ParadisePod615) on your favorite podcast app.

Author: Josh Youngis a soccer obsessive and cohost of the very unserious Nashville SC fan podcast Paradise Pod. He will try to keep the silliness in podcast form and write more analytically here, but we can’t promise anything. Josh attended Middle Tennessee State University before making his way up to Nashville. He’s a snowboarder, hobbyist musician, decent tennis player, and extremely amateur home bartender. He is atoning for sins in a past life by suffering through Tottenham Hotspur fandom in this one. There’s a good chance that as you’re reading this he’s starting a rewatch of The Sopranos.

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