Josh: Nashville SC has remained firmly in the playoff picture throughout the first roughly 2/3 of the season. But despite sitting as high as 2nd in the Eastern Conference at times, fans are not 100% bullish on this team’s prospects for the run in. Some have expressed concern that Nashville could even drop out of the playoff picture – and that’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
Ben, I’ll start by asking you: how do you like my idea for the headline of this piece:
Ben: Way to rip off Sound of Music. But I like it.
It’s not a secret. Nashville SC have been really good at home and really bad on the road. It’s especially concerning when you look at how the schedule is broken down. They’ve already played 13 of their 17 home matches, but have 10 of their road matches still to play. I certainly think Nashville have been one of the better sides in MLS through 21 matches, but it’s been skewed by the fact that they’ve been at home much more than any of the other sides in the conversation.
Chris: It is not just a back-loaded schedule with ten of the last fourteen matches on the road, the quality of opponents toughens up as well. October looks particularly daunting with away trips to NYCFC, DC United, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Orlando City. Four of those five opponents currently occupy playoff positions.
A jam-packed schedule will test Nashville’s depth. The late October gauntlet squeezes in five games in just fourteen days following the international break. It is a lot of miles on late-season legs that could result in a brutal run of dropped points.
Josh: All of this would be less daunting if we’d seen some balance between home and away form, but results at Nissan and on the road have been quite different. I think we can all see a difference in the quality of performance as well, not just the results. Nashville has simply been a different prospect for the opposition depending on where the match is contested.
I want to discuss Gary Smith’s tactics. How would we describe the approach at home versus on the road? Possession doesn’t always tell you much, but it feels like Nashville has so much less of the ball away from home. They sit a bit deeper on the road, don’t they?
Ben: I thought the same going into this conversation, but after looking into the data, I’m actually fairly perplexed. There’s clearly going to be a difference from home versus on the road, and as Josh already mentioned, Nashville possess the ball less on the road than at home. That’s not abnormal in MLS or any league around the world. But they’re not really getting the ball in worse places. Their shots come from roughly the same place regardless of venue, as do their touches. So I don’t think they actually do sit significantly deeper on the road.
Josh: Maybe shot location is similar, but they definitely take less of them off. Expected goals paint an even more stark disparity in chance creation home versus away.
Ben: Yeah, this is the key point. The quality of individual shots are similar, but the volume is less. It lines up with the possession numbers. Nashville have less of the ball, and thus less opportunities to shoot. It’s the “why” that’s the real issue.
Chris: I could only unearth one nugget that could signify a switch in philosophies. In away matches, Nashville plays a higher percentage of passes in the air:
|Ground Passes||Low Passes||High Passes|
This may help explain the reduced possession on the road. By nature, high passes are tougher to corral and can lead to a possession change. But I do not think this alone explains the dip in away form as it may be a reflection of the increased need to clear the ball from the defensive third as Nashville absorbs pressure.
Josh: Yeah, maybe some of that is clearances, given they come under more pressure on the road. They do just seem a bit less composed while advancing the ball out of their own half during away games. Sometimes it feels like they just can’t play through the home team’s press at all, and they end up doing a lot of defending because of it, dropping deeper and deeper.
I don’t think the improved performance at Nissan is because of keeping the ball on the ground that extra 8% of the time, though. Even at home, I always think they’re most successful when they attack directly. They use the creativity of guys like Leal and Lovitz to get the ball forward to Hany and CJ Sapong, and rely on some combination of the four to finish off the play.
Ben: Right. Think about the best attacking moments for Nashville this season. The ones that jump out to me are Jhonder Cadiz’s goal versus Cincinnati, CJ Sapong’s goals against Orlando and Philadelphia and Hany Mukhtar’s hat trick against Chicago. All of those goals came from quick transitions from defense to attack.
Sure, Nashville has the ball more at home. But they’re not typically breaking teams down in possession, a la Manchester City, Barcelona or NYCFC. Nashville is best when guys like Mukhtar, Sapong and Leal get the ball in space. In theory, that should lend itself to playing with less of the ball on the road…
Chris’s stat about pass height paired with the above quote from Gary Smith is interesting to me. This is just a theory, and even if true may not be drastic enough to be the difference. But I almost wonder if Nashville is too focused on getting behind the defense on the road that they try to play balls through the lines or over the top. Almost like the solution has been emphasized so much that it turned into a problem.
Josh: Gary doesn’t always make drastic changes to our tactics and approach throughout the season, but he will definitely try to switch things up by swapping personnel. Could using certain players more, or in a different way, on the road solve some of these problems?
I think that two players in particular can help prevent them from getting pinned back so much on the road: Invader Zim and Alex Muyl. Earlier in the season we saw Walker Zimmerman playing in the middle of a back three and stepping into midfield aggressively. Alex Muyl is a similar type of tempo-setter; he’s so aggressive, we’ve seen him look like a one-man wrecking crew at times in midfield. Both of those guys relish being that brick wall, intercepting or contesting 50-50 balls, and when they can’t win the ball first-time, sticking with the duel, getting a body on the opposing ball carrier and stopping the play with a tackle, or at least with a foul.
Incredibly, I also think that this is an area of Dave Romney’s game that he’s managed to improve this season (I thought he was already perfect – I just love Handsome Dave). Romney pushing up and contesting for the ball closer to the halfway line was an effective feature of NSC’s tactics in one of NSC’s better road performances this season, the 0-0 draw at Columbus).
I suppose the risk of just having your aggressive guys be super aggressive is that that approach leaves space in behind. Joe Willis is an excellent shot stopper, but assuredly is not a skilled sweeper-keeper. Fullbacks Dan Lovitz, Alistair Johnston and Taylor Washington are excellent at sweeping up behind, but making last ditch tackles a feature of your defending feels unwise. Maybe Jack Maher becomes that last man? It feels like he might work his way out of the starting XI though – I think we’ll gradually move back to the 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 over the rest of the regular season, in time for the playoffs.
Ben: I actually disagree a bit on the formation point. I think the personnel in the squad makes the back three a better fit. Sure, there are plenty of wingers on the roster, but how many have been significant contributors? Handwalla Bwana hasn’t been in a matchday squad since early June. Same with Rodrigo Piñeiro. The guys currently in the squad all fit either in the front three or as wingbacks.
I think if anything, the back three allows the midfield to be more aggressive with passing and positioning. If Nashville goes pragmatic (spoiler alert: they should), the back five absorbs more pressure and provides more cover if entry passes fail.
Chris: If Nashville does indeed go more pragmatic, I wonder if a return to a 4-2-3-1 is the move.
I know that sounds a little counterintuitive on the surface since you add an attacker, but it is the base formation Gary Smith used throughout last year. It would be a return to the basics that Nashville was built on.
But I do agree with Ben’s concern, the attacking wing play would become a depth concern. Smith can only rely on Leal, Muyl, Loba, and Mukhtar for so many minutes on that attacking line of three. With a heavy travel schedule ahead, Nashville would need a couple of the down-the-depth-chart options to step up in a big way.
Josh: Weren’t they missing Aníbal Godoy for a lot of their away matches so far?
Ben: He’s started three of seven, and came off the bench in New England.
Josh: He’s the most press-resistant midfielder in the squad, so maybe his permanent return to the XI helps them play through that initial counter-press home teams often utilize to keep us pegged back. He’ll turn someone or win a foul where other central midfield options will cough up the ball, or fall back on launching it forward to relieve pressure.
Ben: Also, and isn’t just a road issue, but set piece defending has to improve. In 26 matches last season, Nashville conceded twice from set pieces. In 21 games this season, they’ve conceded eight.
It’s not quite the point of this conversation, but I think it’s relevant. It’s arguably Nashville’s biggest weakness, and no team in MLS has given up more goals from dead ball situations. It’s a stark change from last year. With better set piece defending, Nashville could easily be six or seven points ahead in the table, potentially a lot more. That would completely change this conversation.
Tightening up defending from dead ball situations is the primary way they can improve, home and away.
Josh: So let’s just go for it, full unabashed hubris; you’re Gary Smith, how are you fixing the road form?
Whatever the tactics that contribute to the more free-flowing, back and forth, open matches at home, I’d like to see them applied to away matches. Maybe some added pressing triggers, maybe an extra man in midfield instead of a center back to contest in the center of the park a bit more. I’d like to see more runners than just the two forwards trying to break down the defense quickly by themselves. The center back-goalkeeper triad of Romney-Zimmerman-Willis is probably the best in the league. Let more actions fall to them, trust them and give them more responsibility, see how it goes.
Yes, this leaves Nashville more open. Maybe they’ll take a real whooping at some point on the road. But while there’s more risk, there’s much more potential reward. A loss and a win yield more points than two draws, and a single point in most road matches has less and less value, in my mind, as the season goes on.
Hell, right now I think I’d be more pleased by three points via a road win and two road losses, than I would by three road draws. These players have to know the feeling of a road victory this season before the playoffs begin.
Ben: I’ve gone back and forth with this a good bit. On one hand, I think Nashville has shown they can be a legitimately excellent attacking team. On the other hand, I think that focus on attack has maybe taken the focus off of defending.
I’m not advocating that Nashville park the bus on the road, but I don’t think increased pragmatism would hurt. Especially, like Chris pointed out, the tough slate of teams they’re set to play on the road. Nashville can’t afford to give up many more of the sloppy goals we’ve seen from them already this season.
It feels a bit funny to say that, since only four teams in all of MLS have conceded less than Nashville. And not to harp on the set piece goals, because mistakes do happen. But I don’t think you can point to a single one and say that Nashville didn’t make a mistake that lead to a goal.
I think defending has to be the priority. I think Nashville can clean up their defense and still maintain the style of play we’ve seen at home. But I also think if that proves to be impossible, the easiest way to get points on the road isn’t to outscore your opponent, but to keep them from scoring. Davey Shepherd would be proud of this thought process. I feel a bit dirty saying it. But maybe prioritize pragmatism?
Chris: I was going to agree with Ben, but where is the fun in that? My unabashed hubris is to not change a single thing. K-I-S-S. Keep it Simple Stupid. Do not change tactics just to mix things up in hopes it will lead to different results.
The backline has not been the problem on the road. The defense gives up only 1.0 goal per game on the road and 0.9 goals per game at home. Reverting to a more defensive setup and changing tactics is not my answer.
Nashville certainly needs to do a better job of breaking the home team’s press to retain possession and generate more attacking chances. But, that emphasis does not require a wholesale change of philosophy. The return of key players really could be all this team needs. In the last road match, Nashville was still missing Walker Zimmerman and Alistair Johnston. Their passing contribution is vitally important in the squad’s ability to play through an opposition’s high defensive line.
I would also caution against making any drastic changes as poor finishing paints a gloomier picture than reality. A Jhonder Cádiz missed header against Inter Miami is the three-point difference between us having this discussion regarding road woes versus us dunking on the rest of the league as Nashville sits in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference.
Keep it simple, do not make any drastic changes, and hope that your attackers bury the chances that arise. Put the trust in your players to go out and grab all three points on the road playing the same brand of soccer that they would in Nissan Stadium.
Ben: So after all this, it feels like the general consensus among us three is that the solution is to play better?
Josh: All I’m taking away from this exercise is that the three-headed hydra of Josh, Ben and Chris would struggle to manage Nashville Soccer Club. I think we’ll have to trust Gary Smith to find the answers.
Ben: Yeah, The Office taught us that co-managers never work, anyway.