Nashville SC came into this clash with a three-match unbeaten streak after drawing 0-0 against the New England Revolution. They have been a truly improved side after the restart and finds themselves at the 10th spot in Eastern Conference. On the other hand, Minnesota United were in fourth place in the West after breaking their four-game winless streak with a classy 2-0 win over FC Cincinnati last Saturday. Minnesota United went to Nissan Stadium in an attempt to try to end their opponent’s home unbeaten streak on Tuesday night.
Nashville SC played visiting Minnesota United was a first time meeting in MLS history, and the game is ended in a stalemate. The result kept Gary Smith’s men still unbeaten at their home while Adrian Heath’s players can relief a sigh as they still hold the playoff position in the West.
This tactical analysis article will delve into their tactics on how both teams created good chances in each half. This analysis also looks into their tactics during defensive plays that made this game very exciting to watch, albeit it ending 0-0.
Gary Smith decided to continue his 4-3-1-2 formation from his previous match, although sometimes will change into 4-3-2-1 during the match. Due to the injuries for Nashville’s original centre-forwards, this is the second time in consecutive for Derrick Jones started as centre-forward along with Alex Muyl. Both Jones and Muyl are usually playing as a centre-midfielder, hence it is interesting to see Smith playing a formation without a true striker. The midfield positions consist of Matt LaGrassa, Dax McCarty, and Brian Anunga, while Randall Leal plays as an attacking midfielder. Smith used David Romney and Walker Zimmerman as centre-back duo, while Daniel Lovitz and Alistair Johnston played as full-backs for this match. Joe Willis continued playing between the sticks for the home side.
Adrian Heath used a 4-2-3-1 formation in this match. Dayne St Clair continued his role as the goalkeeper for the Loons after kept his fourth clean sheets since his debut eight gameweeks ago. Bakaye Dibassy is a left-back after replaced the suspended Chase Gaspar. Romain Métanire played the full-back role at the opposite side of the pitch. Michael Boxall and José Aja completed the backline as centre-backs duo. In front of them was the pair of Jacori Hayes and Hassani Dotson, with Emanuel Reynoso played as attacking midfielder. The wingers for the Loons were Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay, with Aaron Schoenfeld completed the team as a lone centre-forward.
Nashville’s attacking approach
Nashville created five chances and a total of 1.28 xGoals in the first half only, one of the highest for The Boys in Gold this season. The reason why they were so good at creating good chances is the way they build their attacking approach from the back.
Basically, the main principle of Smith’s attacking gameplan is to recycle the possession until they can create good scoring chances. There are two phases in this attacking approach: bypassing opponents’ first defensive line and bringing the ball into opponents’ box by taking advantage of half-spaces. The purpose of this approach is to overcome Heath’s defensive set-up.
The image below shows a good example of how Nashville bypass the first defensive line. After winning the ball in the middle third area, Anunga back passed to the No.6 midfielder, McCarty, to recycle the possession. This is considered as a trigger to other players inside the middle third and final third to find spaces behind the opponents’ first line of defence. The green circles shown in the image indicates where is the first problem of Minnesota’s defence lies. Nashville’s players can take over these spaces easily because there is less pressure from the second line of defence.
Another example can be seen in the image above. David Romney is a good ball-playing defender and had the highest forward passes in this game, with 25 successful forward passes. In the image, he made a run into the centre line of the pitch to initiate the attacking move. He dribbled with no pressure from Minnesota and easily passed the ball to Muyl. This pass has initiated the second phase in their build-up into the final third.
As Muyl was dropping down to receive the pass, he has attracted Minnesota’s defender, leaving his original position. Notice how Lovitz recognizes the empty space, and ready to utilise it. He ran into that space (green circle) while Muyl passed the ball to him to proceed the attacking phase. If Muyl received the ball with a perfect touch, then this build-up will become successful as Lovitz can use that half-spaces to advance into the penalty box.
Another example of their attacks through half-spaces can be seen in the above image. Nashville used their full-backs to capitalise on the half-spaces as Minnesota seemed always to abandon these areas. As we can see, Minnesota players stayed very close to each other. Anunga held the ball at the central area and has a few options to pass into. Dakota Johnston, the right-back, ran to the empty space to receive the ball. Once he received it, he played it into Jones and crossed into the near post. This scenario ended with a great save from St Clair as Muyl shoot it in a six-yard box.
Defensive tactics issue in Minnesota’s half
It is clear in the first half that The Loons got in some trouble in defending their half. The reason behind this lies in the tactics itself. Adrian Heath prefers to pressing the opponents inside the opponents’ half. When the opponents can break into their own half, he prefers his team to sit back and closing on their penalty box.
The problem with this tactics is there is a big gap between attacking players who were pressing and defenders who sit tight at the back. In the image below, we can analyse the gap between the last line and the front line of defence. Heath also asked his forwards to stay in opponents half and no need to trackback. This creates a problem where Nashville can recycle possession in the green area. They even can utilise the yellow area to greater effect as it is much nearer to the goal. In this situation, Leal has many options he can play the ball. A good action is to pass the ball to Johnston and he can do more damage inside the box. Instead, he chose to shoot at the goalkeeper.
There is another good example of this match where Minnesota did not defend their half-spaces very well. Smith’s tactics capitalise on this issue by putting both of his forward-by-trade, Jones and Muyl, each side of half-spaces.
This time, LaGrassa won the ball after McCarty’s tackle near the centre circle. He saw Jones unmarked in the half-space territory and proceed to do a splitting pass to him. This scenario happened a few times in this game because of Minnesota men focused on defending the box compared to these half-space territories.
Nashville’s pressing and how Minnesota counter it
In the second half of this match, it is a different story for this match analysis. The Loons recorded 0.64 xGoals compared to Boys in Gold, only 0.02. Minnesota’s attack per minute also more improved with 0.53 compared to 0.46 in the first half. Based on this data analysis, it shows Heath’s men played better in the next 45 minutes. Minnesota struggled with Nashville’s pressing in the first half but they found a way to overcome this and improve their attacking build-up.
First, we look into how Nashville press their opponent. Smith’s men recorded 8.1 PPDA in this match. We could say that their pressing gameplay is similar to Liverpool‘s gegenpress. A great example can be seen in the image below. Reynoso received an aerial ball from his teammate, Aaron Schoenfeld. Before he can decide to pass back to Schoenfeld, four Nashville players were onto him within a second. Nashville pressed down enough to steal the ball from him but the referee whistled it as a foul.
Take note to each of Nashville players in Reynoso’s radius, each of them already man-marked Minnesota players. This is also a good tactic to interrupt Reynoso’s pass given he had enough time to pass.
To counter Nashville’s pressing, Minnesota’s head coach has adapted a new style of play in the second half. Minnesota decided to play ‘two touches’ style before passing to a free teammate. This is easy to understand but it is hard to implement as they need to understand the rotational play when utilising it. This style affected their passing accuracy in the second half (79% compared to 87% in the first half), but it brought great success in creating chances.
An example above explains a simple ‘two touches’ and rotational play between Dibassy, Molino, and Hayes. In this scenario, Molino just received the pass from Dibassy. There are three Nashville players already closing down on him. Dibassy knew he needs to position himself behind his marker to catch off the glance. When he placed himself between the markers, Molino already done with two touches and passed to him. Then, Dibassy passed to Hayes, who is making a run behind the third marker. In five seconds, Minnesota bypassed the pressing from Nashville without losing the ball.
This impressive tactics also can be seen in the footage above. This image shows there is a disadvantage of applying press with numerical superiority. On the far right, Reynoso and Métanire were unmarked. Hence, Minnesota capitalising this opportunity with ‘two touches’ gameplan. Dibassy started the chain with a forward pass to Schoenfeld, who then passed to Hayes. Hayes saw Reynoso is free so he passed with one touch and Reynoso also applied the same pass to Métanire.
Minnesota United changed to other sides without playing a risky long ball, while counter Nashville’s pressing tactics with precision passing. Adrian Heath has solved these issues with simple gameplay. In certain moments, they played like the Barcelona 2012/13 team.
Based on this tactical analysis, there are many good things and bad things for both teams to consider. Both teams played well in each half, but if it is not for goalkeepers heroic actions, they might want to look back at things can be improved upon. Nashville SC will head back on road against Sporting KC, while Minnesota United will battle out with FC Dallas for next gameweek.