After a good run of form since their Week 2 loss to Saint Louis, Nashville went into Charleston with high expectations. The Boys In Gold were handed a reality check, losing 3-1 to a side who have quietly had a good start to the season. Gary Smith was not happy after the loss, and rightly so. Let's look at the stats and tactics to try and figure out what went wrong.
Only looking at the stats, the game appears like it was pretty even. Nashville held their own in terms of shots and chance creation, although their total xG was skewed by the late penalty kick.
After rewatching the game, Nashville got the ball in dangerous areas, and had their fair share of chances. Even without the penalty kick, the xG split was pretty even. Nashville's attackers had 15 touches in the penalty area compared to Charleston's 5. That's a pretty shocking number, especially when the scoreline was so tilted the other way.
Nashville created some decent chances. It wasn't great (I'll talk more about that later on), but they had chances. It is really worrying, though, that Nashville only took two shots on target in the entire second half, and one of those was a penalty kick. That's not good enough.
In all fairness, Charleston finished REALLY well. Both of van Schaik's goals were world class finishes, especially his free kick. But Nashville could and should have done a lot more to prevent those finishes. Charleston took their chances really well, but two of the three goals were caused in part by really poor lapses from Nashville.
Charleston's opener started with a really poor giveaway from Lebo Moloto, who held onto the ball WAY too long. Charleston did well to pressure him and limit his passing options, but a player of his quality and experience has to know to get rid of the ball in that situation. van Schaik made a really good late run into the box, but Kharlton Belmar didn't track with him. Belmar was stride for stride with him initially, but got caught ball watching and gave van Schaik three yards of space. It was a great strike, but by the time the ball got to him, he had the entire goal to aim at and no defenders in touching distance.
On Charleston's second, Nashville clearly tried to step up and catch Charleston offside. Bourgeois was marking Lewis, and the offside trap did catch Lewis offside. You can see in the top left frame that Darnell King was closest Arthur Bosua, and he stepped up at the last minute. I don't think King even knew that Bosua was on his shoulder - he's looking across the line at Lewis. But King was completely unaware that the Charleston attacked was right on his shoulder. Lewis stopped when he was ruled offside, and so did every Nashville defender, allowing Bosua to continue his run and have one of the easiest finishes he'll get. It was really, really sloppy, especially considering the amount of experience on the backline.
Not a lot to say about Charleston's third. Doyle fouled Bosua outside the box. It was a little unnecessary, but it was a pretty routine foul. Credit to van Schaik for putting in a truly world class free kick from ~30 yards out. That would beat just about any keeper on the planet.
I've seen some specific criticism of Bradley Bourgeois. It was definitely surprising to see him get the start, especially how good Charleston had been at home (7 points, 5 goals for, 2 goals against in three prior home games). After rewatching, Bourgeois wasn't specifically at fault for any of Charleston's goals, and we saw last year what a good player he can be.
That being said, the center back partnership is arguably the most important partnership on the pitch. Liam Doyle and Ken Tribbett had played every minute of the season so far, and are pretty well established as two of the best center backs in the league. I get that Smith wants to give everyone minutes, and he should. But was this really the game to try it? Away against a team who's notoriously strong at home? It was an odd choice, to say the least. With home games coming up in the league against Swope Park and Charlotte, and an Open Cup match against a lower-league opponent, it seems from the outside like a strange time to make such a major change.
Nashville had plenty of possession, up to 69% at points in the second half. But in the words of Gary Smith, "possession is worthless unless it's actually productive." All that possession resulted in two shots on goal in the second half.
After rewatching the match, it's noticeable how often there's a huge gap between the central midfield and the forwards. A downside to the flat 4-4-2 Nashville have played with is the lack of a true central creator. Smith used Moloto in that role earlier, but only used one striker and pushed Lancaster out wide. Moloto was one of Nashville's most important players last season, but he's started really slow this season. It may be that he's still recovering from injury. It may be that he's just in a poor run of form. He's also playing on the left, in a position that probably isn't his best. I think it's time to see how the team looks with Moloto on the bench. Alan Winn had a fantastic preseason, and since his return from injury, he's been bright off the bench. Give him a start in Pittsburgh and see what happens.
The flat four man midfield works against certain opponents, but against a solid opponent it makes it really hard to link the forward and midfield lines.
The above graph shows how little production Nashville got from the center of the pitch. It was telling that Nashville attempted 32 (!!) crosses against Charleston. Too often, the central midfielders pushed the ball wide instead of getting forward and trying to create from zone 14 (the central area just outside the penalty box). If Nashville want to take the next step and really push to be one of the top sides in the east, they have to figure out how to create from the center of the pitch and become less reliant on crosses into the box, which is a pretty low-percentage method of chance creation.
This weekend's match against Pittsburgh is a great opportunity to try something new. They're a strong defensive team, but haven't had a great start to the season. In two home matches, they've scored 3 (against an abjectly poor Hartford side) and given up one (also against Hartford), as well as managing an impressive 0-0 draw against Saint Louis. Nashville should be able to limit their attack, but may have trouble breaking them down in the final third.
Gary Smith hinted at significant changes on Saturday. “I would expect as a player anyone that played today should be concerned about their place in the team”, he said. The above lineup rests some players who have been underwhelming, and could give Nashville a boost in the center of the pitch. With Akinyode sitting deep as a true no. 6, LaGrassa could push up more and link the forward and midfield lines. He's been one of Nashville's most productive players thus far, and giving him more of a free role could unlock him in the final third.
Playing Alan Winn and Kharlton Belmar on the wings gives Nashville plenty of pace and craft in the final third. Both players can take on defenders and create around the box, and they both have the speed to track back defensively. The same can be said of Taylor Washington and Darnell King at fullback.
This may not be the answer, and hopefully Charleston was a one-off. Either way, Nashville cannot afford to put in performances like that on a regular basis, especially with the vast array of talent available to them. The next three matches (away to Pittsburgh and Atlanta, home to Tampa Bay) will be a tough test of where this team actually stands.
Once teams have played 8-10 games and we have a larger sample size to draw from, I'll start including stats like marginal points contributed and a projected table in my Power Rankings column. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with any questions or comments.