Updated: Apr 8, 2019
In their first real test of 2019, Nashville was stifled by a well organized Saint Louis defense. Despite having possibly the best on-paper attack in USL, the Boys In Gold were unable to create and real chances. Let's look at some stats and tactics to try and figure out what went wrong.
Neither team had more than a couple really strong chances. STL's Caleb Calvert drew a spectacular save from Matt Pickens in the 37th minute, but it wasn't a high percentage chance, worth only 0.112 xG. Likewise, Matt LaGrassa saw a header saved from nearly an identical position in the 81st minute, and it too was worth 0.112 xG. Saint Louis's goal came from a corner kick, another low percentage opportunity. It's worth noting that Saint Louis are a good set piece team - 2 of their 3 goals this year have come from dead ball opportunities. Still, the shot was worth 0.057 xG. Overall, it was a tense match, devoid of any consistent chance creation, from either side.
Nashville was able to get a lot of shots off in Saint Louis's penalty area, but most of them were low percentage chances. 6 of their 9 shots came from headers, either off of set pieces or crosses.
The below graph shows a couple important stats.
Nashville had no significant attack in the first half, going 43 minutes without a shot.
Nashville took mostly low-percentage shots. Their best chance in xG terms came in the 74th minute, when Lancaster put a shot just wide of the far post following a short set piece routine (which should have been called a penalty kick).
Nashville improved slightly after halftime (more on that later).
DEALING WITH THE PRESS
Against Loudoun, Nashville was able to push high up the field and didn't encounter much pressure until the ball was well inside Loudoun's half. Saint Louis, however, was a different story.
Saint Louis rolled out a high press against Nashville early. STL worked out of a 4-4-2, with Calvert and Dikwa covering lots of ground to press Nashville's center backs. Their midfield and defense sat in two lines of four, and used a high block to limit space in the middle third of the field. This left Ríos often isolated against two center backs, with Moloto drifting to find pockets of space. Saint Louis did a great job positioning their defense to press without leaving too much space behind. Nashville had a decent opportunity to play a ball over the top in the 12th minute, but Moloto's ball took an unfortunate bounce and Belmar couldn't get on the end of it.
As a result of the press, combined with LaGrassa pushing higher up the field to get in space, Bolu Akinyode was often isolated without a forward passing option. He wasn't bad (completed 88% of his passes and made a few decent tackles), but he didn't offer enough forward passing to try and break down Saint Louis, especially without a true winger on one side. Michael Reed came on in the 64th minute, and he attempted some more ambitious balls into the box, one of which started the move leading to LaGrassa's header. Even with Reed, LaGrassa, and Moloto in midfield, Nashville were still unable to pick out any quality balls into the box from zone 14, opting to dump the ball wide before hitting in a cross. Nashville had 75% possession in the second half, but wasn't able to do anything with it from zone 14. Something needs to change there.
Crossing is a relatively easy way to get the ball into a dangerous area, but it is also a low-percentage chance. Nashville attempted 26 against Saint Louis. Only one of them was completed (LaGrassa's header came off of a good ball in from Kimura).
I'm not saying Nashville should never attempt another cross, but when the team relies on crossing as their primary method of chance creation, it's a problem. It's even more of a problem when playing a single-striker system.
Once again, Cameron Lancaster started on the right of a 4-2-3-1. Once again he was pretty quiet in the first half. And once again, he switched to a more central role after halftime and looked much better.
This is Lancaster in the first half, hugging the touchline.
In the second half, Lancaster and Ríos played centrally together, with Belmar and Moloto taking turns on either wing. It's surprising to see a player like Lancaster utilized so far out of his natural position. In Louisville, he was the definition of a poacher, hanging on the back shoulder of a center back and waiting on a ball through to break the lines. He is at his most dangerous in the penalty area - 69% of his 26 goals last year came from inside the box. Nashville has also been much better when he and Ríos are played up front together. It's surprising, then, that he continues to be put in a position that negates so many of his best qualities.
So where does Gary Smith go from here? He could opt to continue using this 4-2-3-1 system and hope that the attack improves as players build chemistry, and it might. Saint Louis is a good team who caused Indy Eleven to struggle in many of the same areas as Nashville did. However, a tactical and formational change may be necessary to see improvement. Nashville look better with and Ríos and Lancaster partnered centrally, but that doesn't leave a natural spot for Lebo Moloto. Granted, Moloto hasn't lived up to expectations yet this season, and it may take him some time to find form, but he's still one of the primary creators on this team.
A somewhat drastic option would be returning to a back 5, playing Washington and Kimura as wingbacks. This would allow Smith to use the same central midfield shape of Akinyode, LaGrassa and Moloto, while playing his two marquee strikers centrally. The downside to this is that there's no natural role for Belmar, who's arguably been Nashville's best player through the first two weeks.
A more realistic option would be starting in a 4-4-2. This is complicated by the fact that Alan Winn has been out with a concussion, but it's a viable option. If Winn is healthy, he could play opposite Kharlton Belmar on the wings. Ropapa Mensah could start out wide, but all indications are that he's not fit enough to play 90 minutes. Still, with Washington pushing forward from left back, Moloto could operate in a more free role on the left and cut inside to pick up the ball.
Nashville has significant talent on the roster, enough to be one of the best in the league. It's Gary Smith's job to make it work. That may mean leaving out players who probably deserve to start. What it shouldn't mean is playing your most dangerous player out of position and far away from goal.
One note of encouragement: In 2018, FC Cincinnati scored 72 goals, the most ever in a single USL season. In their first two matches, they too only scored two goals. It wasn't until their fifth match that they managed to score multiple goals. How is this relevant? Because attack takes time to build. With the talent on the roster and the experience in the coaching staff, there's reason for optimism. Nashville's attack should click eventually.
Once Nashville has played a few more matches and we have a larger sample size, I'll start including stats like marginal points contributed and a projected table. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with any questions or comments.