With the MLS season edging towards the playoffs, Nashville SC took on Montreal Impact in a battle between two teams hoping to secure a spot in the postseason. The expansion team finds themselves in sixth place in the table while Montreal Impact lies three spots below at ninth. In the match, a lone goal from Randall Leal separated the sides and handed all three points for Gary Smith’s Nashville. Former Arsenal player Thierry Henry managed the opposing side but could not transfer his offensive talents to those of his team who put up .31 xG in the match. This tactical analysis will explore the defensive and offensive tactics used by Nashville. The analysis will touch upon Montreal’s struggles in possession.
Henry chose a 4-3-2-1 for Montreal with Clement Diop in goal. Joel Waterman and Luis Binks made the centre-back pairing beside Jukka Raitala at right-back and Jorge Corrales at left-back. Former Tottenham player Victor Wanyama anchored the midfield with the help of Emanuel Maciel and Samuel Piette. Bojan Krkic occupied the attacking midfielder role behind the striker duo of Maximiliano Urruti and Romell Quioto.
Smith opted for a 4-4-1-1 for Nashville, with Joe Willis in between the sticks. Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney played between left-back Daniel Lovitz and right-back Alistair Johnston in the back-line. Captain Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy took up centre-midfield positions, while Randall Leal and Alex Muyl played on the wide right and left, respectively. Daniel Rios led the front line ahead of Derrick Jones.
Nashville defensive masterclass
Nashville conceded 52% of the possession in the game, but Montreal shot a meager five times with two of those on target. Nashville’s defensive solidity frustrated their opponents throughout the game.
In the defensive phases, Nashville set up in a 4-4-2 as seen in the picture above. Although teams like Atletico Madrid use the formation to great success, each player must coordinate defensive movements to avoid any open spaces in the formation. Nashville players constantly shifted together to maintain defensive organization throughout the match.
In the first half, Nashville pressed higher on occasions like the one in the image above. Each striker pressed the centre-backs while the wide players match their opposite. McCarty and Godoy ran from their deeper positions to pressure either Maciel or Wanyama. More often the team would sit back slightly with the strikers marking the pivots directly or with their cover shadow.
What made the defence so solid were the rotations and movement in the formation that eliminated any gaps in the system. Here, Leal stepped up to press Corrales on the ball. As he does this, McCarty steps out of his position to guard a runner in behind. Rios fills in for McCarty by picking up Maciel. Each player knew where to be and when to move. These rotations forced Montreal to try long balls or riskier through balls, both of which Nashville often intercepted.
When Montreal moved closer to the goal, Nashville fell into a mid-block 4-4-2 as seen in the image above. They wanted to prevent central passing options while conceding space on either wing. Montreal Impact registered less than .01 xG from 11 central attacks, a sign of Nashville’s defensive strength in central areas.
When the ball reached the wing, the players shifted accordingly like in this image. The box of players on the right side moved in unison to meet the defensive needs of that wing. Leal and Johnston matched Corrales and Quioto while Godoy monitored Piette’s movement. Only through unified rotations and an understanding of the defensive system can a team implement a successful plan. Nashville’s players always knew where they needed to be and thus played compact defence throughout the match.
One last example of the defensive understanding between players comes in the image above. Although only a minor exchange early in the match, the defensive switch here is emblematic of the system. Krkic received the ball in a pocket of space on the left side of Nashville’s defence. Zimmerman stepped up out of position to stall ball progression until McCarty recovered to his position. The fluid trade between players to mark the ball-carrier made this play seem insignificant. A team less organized would allow Krkic more time on the ball while unmarked. Nashville executed their defensive plan in different areas of the field through their understanding between teammates and strict organization.
In the buildup phases of the match, Nashville used their two pivots to help progress the ball through a loose Montreal press.
In the 4-4-1-1/4-4-2, both central midfielders assisted in the buildup and dropped deeper toward the defensive line. They created two triangles on either side of the field with which to play through the Montreal defence. The shapes stretched the front of their opponent’s defence, leaving either of the full-backs or midfielders available. Nashville’s centre-backs did not rely on the long ball much to progress the ball, however, the full-backs would often play sweeping crosses to the opposite flank to open space, a dynamic explored later. The triangles provided a solid base for which to start attacks.
Often one of the advanced players would drop deeper to create a diamond shape seen above. Whether it be Jones, Muyl, or Leal, the forwards provided another option to break through the opposing defence and force adjustments. Here, Jones ran to the ball-side to provide an option for Lovitz. Jones did not receive the pass in this situation, but the tip of the diamond linked the triangular buildup to the wide attack on either side.
This image provides one example of how the triangular shape opened spaces deeper in the field. Although Nashville preferred playing into the midfielder or full-back first, the positioning opened a passing lane for the centre-back to bypass that phase. Here, Zimmerman jumpstarted an attack by passing in between Johnston and Godoy. These passes are less accurate and more difficult to execute, but the variety in the buildup is necessary for a successful attack.
Nashville: exploiting wide areas
Although only holding 48% of possession, Nashville fired 14 shots, half on-target. They targeted the wide areas either directly from their defence or midfield diagonals.
This situation in the image above provides some background for Nashville’s attacks. They liked to get their full-backs involved, as Lovitz drove forward in the image above. He dribbled into central areas before Nashville worked the ball into space on the opposite side. Many attacks started from either dribbling or space found on either wing before moving the ball back across the field into space on the opposite wing. If the full-back did not have the space to push forward with the ball at their feet, the midfielders could get the ball into those spaces.
In this image, Godoy plays a ball over the top to Rios on the left-wing who receives without pressure. Montreal left open space on the wings and invited crosses into the box. Nashville only completed six crosses out of 24, but the lack of pressure also allowed Nashville’s attackers to dribble at defenders in dangerous areas. Either of Nashville’s pivots found space in between Montreal’s press to facilitate possession out to the wide areas.
Here, Jones played the cross-field switch into open space on the opposite flank. While Jones drifted to the spot here, it was usually one of Godoy and McCarty with that role. Just after concentrating possession on the right side, Nashville quickly swung the ball across the field to exploit the open space. Nashville, while defensively solid, committed numbers forward in attacking situations like the one above, leaving them vulnerable to the counter. Montreal failed to capitalize on any counterattacking opportunities, but that is a notable result of incorporating both full-backs and defensive midfielders in the attack.
The last image highlights the space Montreal allowed on either wing. Nashville moved the ball well, but their opponents could have shut down space more effectively. If Nashville connected on a fraction more of their crosses or their attackers been more clinical, they easily could have scored more. This picture highlights the stark contrast between Montreal’s and Nashville’s defensive plans. No Montreal player found this amount of open space through their buildup at any point in this game. Nashville’s attack focused on wide areas which they reached through full-back and midfield play.
Montreal buildup woes
Montreal kept possession for over half the game and had 24 possessions for 20 seconds or longer. However, they turned these possessions into little result in terms of big chances.
Montreal’s basic buildup shape changed from the 4-3-2-1 described above. Piette preferred a more advanced position while Wanyama and Maciel stuck deeper to create a midfield line of two. In this image, Wanyama dropped behind Raitala to receive the ball. Wanyama and Maciel received the ball to play into advanced full-backs or to pick out an attacker in between the Nashville lines. They struggled to do this often, as Nashville’s defensive structure prevented easy access to forward players.
The brightest moments for Montreal in terms of ball progression when they made these passes in between lines. In the image above, Krkic occupied a pocket of space between defensive players, allowing him to receive a pass directly from Binks. Krkic caused the defence to adjust and immediately run toward him, so Maciel had more space further up than where Wanyama was in the previous picture. Little interchanges like the one above allowed for better ball progression while also getting the pivots more involved in creation closer to the goal.
In the last image, Waterman found Krkic just in front of the Nashville defensive line. He took one dribble, drawing the attention of Zimmerman to mark him and Johnston to step inside for cover. This action opened space on the wing for the full-back to run into. When breaking down a compact 4-4-2, creative offensive runs and movements manipulate the defence into conceding space somewhere. These interchanges were few and far between for Montreal during the match, and thus they failed to score. The highest xG chance came on a counterattack which speaks to the offensive struggles.
In a clash between two teams in the playoff hunt for the Eastern Conference of the MLS, Nashville SC came out clear victors against Montreal Impact. Smith set up his side in a compact 4-4-2 defensively while also providing stable buildup shapes for his teams to progress the ball. Nashville took advantage of space on the wings to launch attacks throughout the match. Montreal created no truly dangerous opportunities throughout the match as their offensive structure could not penetrate Nashville’s defence.