If you haven’t heard, Nashville SC made waves around MLS with the signing of striker Aké Loba for a reported $6.8 million from Liga MX powerhouse C.F. Monterrey. We’ve previously looked at what kind of player Loba is. Now it’s time to play armchair manager and imagine how he could fit into a Nashville SC side with an established identity.
For starters, the premise of this piece may be misleading in and of itself. Gary Smith shouldn’t have to overhaul his system to include Loba. Nashville identified him long ago as a player that fit their philosophy, and part of the reason they broke their transfer record to acquire him is because if his natural fit with how they wish to play.
Loba is slated to make his Nashville SC debut on Saturday evening against Chicago Fire. Whether or not that’s from the start (an appearance off the bench may be more likely), Nashville are eager to get him on the field as soon as possible. We’ve already talked about how he’s a tactically versatile player, but there are a number of systems Smith could utilize to bring the best out of his new attacker.
If you want to get into the weeds, this is typically referred to as a 4-2-3-1. While there’s not a huge difference between the two, the no. 10 shifts up to a forward position out of possession, and the team defends in a 4-4-2. This is probably nitpicking on my end, but whatever…
The clear option in this system seems to be playing Loba as the lone striker. He would change the look of the system, though. Jhonder Cádiz is a much more traditional target man, who will occasionally look to get in behind the defense, but is at his best in front of the centerbacks. Loba would stretch the field more and keep the defenders checking over their shoulders.
While Loba is primarily a striker, he can play on the wings as well. In fact, one of his best performances for Monterrey came against Columbus Crew in Concacaf Champions League playing on the right wing. Moving Loba wide would allow Smith to get Mukhtar, Leal, Cádiz and Loba on the field at the same time, but would also force Alex Muyl out of the eleven. Muyl’s defensive prowess and workrate has made him a favorite of Smith and fans alike, and replacing him with Loba would be an incredibly aggressive look from Smith. This could be an effective option as a mid-match adjustment.
We’ve seen Smith use this before this season. CJ Sapong and Dom Badji started in their 2-0 win over New England and the 0-0 draw in Salt Lake.
Using this shape would give Loba the benefit of a target striker to play off of. Here’s what we discussed in our player profile:
Loba’s best moments for Monterrey came when he was partnered with a more traditional target forward. Rayados‘ wealth of class strikers both benefited Loba when he got on the field and limited his time on it. Playing off of Rogelio Funes Mori and Vincent Janssen.
Pairing Loba with a more traditional back-to-goal forward occupies the centerbacks on balls over the top and allows Loba to drift in behind.
While Cádiz isn’t quite at the same level as Funes Mori or Janssen (that’s not a slight to him, either), he’s very effective with his back to goal and commands the attention of defenders. We’ve seen how he draws centerbacks towards himself and opens up space for Mukhtar underneath. Pairing him with Loba should have a similar effect and allow Loba to play off of him. Cádiz is dominant in the air, and is well suited to either flick the ball on or knock it back. This system would in theory allow both Loba space to run behind, as well as letting Mukhtar and Leal cut in to operate underneath.
Smith used a back three system heavily in USL, and he’s returned to that in recent weeks. While I don’t think it’s a long-term shift, this system has intrigued me for a while. Nashville has plenty of wide players who make a lot of sense as wingbacks. Dan Lovitz and Alistair Johnston have both played in more advanced roles in the past, while both Alex Muyl and Luke Haakenson have the workrate to get up and down the flanks.
The front three would be able to be especially fluid in this system. With the overlapping wingbacks providing the width, Leal and Mukhtar could tuck in more centrally, allowing them to interchange quick passes and rotate positions. Loba is able to play those quick passes and move fluidly across the front line, while Leal and Mukhtar’s best moments come when they’re near each other.
This system also allows Nashville to keep Jack Maher on the field. The young defender has impressed in his few minutes on the pitch, and getting meaningful game time is absolutely crucial to his development. The back three allows Maher to get on the field next to Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney, two of the clubs most consistent performers.
This formation has all the benefits of a back three, but has a designated no. 10 and allows Loba and Cádiz to partner each other up top. Nashville used this somewhat frequently in USL, and it’s a great mid-game adjustment from a 3-4-3. As stated earlier, Loba thrives in a partnership with a target forward, and I believe Cádiz is at his best off the bench. Putting the two of them together up top late in matches is an exciting option.
While it’s fun to discuss what shape Nashville could or should play in, a formation isn’t the be all end all. Nashville’s fundamental building blocks remain the same across formations; their defensive discipline, mid block, pressing triggers, and their use of the ball in wide areas. While the formation is important, it’s not the most important.
For example, the graphic on the left shows the formation from last week’s 2-2 draw with Chicago. The graphic on the right shows the average position of each player. They’re quite different.
Formations provide players a starting point in possession, and they generally inform the team shape out of possession. But the team tactics and style of play are different from and more important than the actual formation. (For more on how important formations are, I recommend this excellent piece from CrossBar).
Smith has also used various hybrid systems that change in and out of possession. Formations aren’t set in stone, but are general indicators to help understand what role a player is playing. Players will have specific tasks for each game, and a lot of times that muddies our idea of formation.
The most important part of this entire discussion is that Nashville have options. They had options before signing Aké Loba, and his versatility means that they have even more options now that he’s here. Seeing how Gary Smith decides to utilize him will be fascinating.