Following a 95th minute winner in the first game of the MLS playoffs, Nashville SC met Inter Miami battling for a spot in this year’s MLS Cup. Controversy clouded the game as three Miami starters missed the game because of positive COVID-19 tests, including former Real Madrid and Juventus star Gonzalo Higuain. Miami travelled to Nashville without the players and felt the impact in the match. Nashville opened the scoring with a screamer from Randall Leal in the first half, before Hany Mukhtar added a second from the penalty spot. The game slowed down, but Miami could not find a way back into the game. Captain Dax McCarty sealed the deal with another goal from outside of the box in the second half. This tactical analysis will review Nashville’s offensive and defensive tactics. The analysis will diagnose Miami’s issues and evaluate their tactics.
Gary Smith set up Nashville in a 4-2-3-1 with Joe Willis in goal. MLS defender of the year Walker Zimmerman lined up with Dave Romney in the back-line in between Alistair Johnston at right-back and Daniel Lovitz at left-back. Dax McCarty partnered Anibal Godoy deeper in the midfield. Hany Mukhtar took up the number 10 role with Randall Leal on the right and Alex Muyl on the left. The lone striker for Nashville was Jhonder Cadiz.
Diego Alonso chose a 5-3-2 for Miami with backup keeper John McCarthy in between the sticks. Jorge Figal played in the middle of the back-line with A. J. DeLaGarza and Alvas Powell on the left and right, respectively. Mikey Ambrose lined up at left-back with Dylan Nealis at right-back. Will Trapp anchored the midfield along with former Serie A player Blaise Matuidi and Lewis Morgan. The forward duo comprised Juan Agudelo and Rodolfo Pizarro. The formation moved to a four-back system when Matias Pelligrini replaced Nealis in the first half. Powell moved to right-back and Pelligrini joined the midfield.
Nashville’s identity starts with its defence. During its inaugural season, Smith’s side let in a stingy 22 goals ranking third in the MLS.
Nashville’s 4-2-3-1 transformed into a 4-4-2 when out of possession illustrated in the image above. Mukhtar and Cadiz dropped into the same horizontal lane as the two defensive midfielders aligned with Leal and Muyl. Nashville lacked an aggressive pressing system, although the game did not require one. Either of the wide players pushed up when the opposing full-backs received the ball as the central midfielders cut off passes through their lines. The strikers bothered the Miami pivots while not pushing too far out of position.
Managers across the world trot out a 4-4-2 to shut down opposing offences, but there is more to the system than the shape. Players must be aware of their teammates’ movements to adjust accordingly and eliminate gaps in the defence. The image above captures a rotation emblematic of Nashville’s stout defence. Miami switched the ball quickly to the left flank, so Johnston stepped up to prevent further ball progression. Ambrose looked to capitalise on the space behind the Nashville right-back, but McCarty shifted out of midfield to track his run. McCarty recognized Johnston’s movement and covered the gap. These rotations came naturally to Nashville as they shut down Miami throughout the game.
Nashville felt comfortable to sit back and defend after securing the third goal, so they faced some dangerous attacks from Miami. The image above reinforces the organisation of Nashville’s defence. The entire back-line runs in a synchronised, narrow line to prevent a goal. The one runner for Miami near the goal mouth had no space to receive the ball as Nashville successfully thwarted the attack. This image underscores Nashville’s solidity and unity at the back.
Miami out of possession
Contrary to Nashville, inconsistency plagued Miami’s plan on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Miami started with a mild press before increasing the pace as the scoreline worsened.
The press came down to five players at the front of the formation, all in the image above. Pizarro and Agudelo sat deeper with a greater focus on the pivots. Agudelo here dropped to prevent a pass into Godoy. The wide midfielders stepped up to press the opponent full-backs should they receive a ball in the buildup. The back-line remained much deeper than other teams who use high presses, leaving room for Nashville forward to occupy. Both non-penalty goals came from runs in this midfield area leading to shots from outside the box. Nashville’s rotations connote precision and technicality while Miami appeared to have disregarded this one area of the field.
Moving into the second half, Miami heightened the press, committing full-backs forward and pushing the strikers higher up the field. This image shows the strikers positioned higher up as Pelligrini comes over to shut Johnston down. Their defence adapted to the situation, and Nashville lacked many organised attacks during the second half.
This image displays Miami’s advanced lines after falling to 3-0 down. Pizarro did a good job of curving his run toward the keeper, but there is a lack of awareness in the picture. One of the three midfielders stood in a position to cut out a passing option. Mukhtar stood in acres of space just beyond the Miami midfield line, ready to receive and progress the ball. Miami started the game without such a high press, so that excuses some disorganisation. However, Nashville found space in Miami’s defensive system too easily during the game.
Despite the penalty, Nashville built upon its defensive effort to turn its three shots on target into goals.
The image above provides a snapshot of Nashville’s basic shape during the match. The back four spread wide with McCarty, Godoy, or both dropping into the pivot positions. The pivots played more functional roles than that of other sides. Instead of turning with the ball to play passes into the attackers, McCarty and Godoy pushed the ball to the full-backs who connected with attackers down either flank. They stayed central for the most part, drifting between the first two Miami defensive lines rather than taking up wide roles.
Nashville’s progression into the final third started with the full-backs. Once the ball made it to either side, some combination between midfielders and forwards provided an outlet for moving the ball forward. This image captures one of these movements. Godoy ran into the wide right channel just ahead of Johnston, dragging Matuidi with him. Leal entered the space Godoy left and received the ball in a pocket within the Miami defence. Off-ball runs facilitated the availability of other attackers for progression throughout the match for Nashville.
The assistance of attackers early in possessions was another key component of Nashville’s buildup. Here, Mukhtar stepped out of the centre of the field to receive a ball from Lovitz. Mukhtar’s presence draws defenders immediately to prevent any dangerous balls into the final third. Nashville involved their creative players early to manipulate the defenders and transition into the attacking third quickly.
The two attackers in the middle area of the field for Nashville, Cadiz and Mukhtar to start, drifted to either side to create overloads when possession moved either flank. The image above provides an example of this dynamic as Johnston and Leal join the previously mentioned players on the right-wing. Although Nashville progressed the ball well in wide and central areas, they failed to turn many of these situations into shots. With only six during the entire match, Nashville possessed strong methods to progress the ball but not turn those moments into goal-scoring opportunities.
During the second half, Nashville resorted to counter attacks more than meticulously crafted possessions. The home-side found open space on the counter as Miami committed more players forward in search of a goal. This image displays the continuity of ideas when Nashville possessed the ball during the final minutes of the game. Substitute Daniel Rios dropped deep to receive a ball from a wide player in the buildup of an attack. Nashville attacked with the same ideas throughout the game, reflecting a commitment to a plan that guided them to victory on either side of the ball.
Miami’s attacking moments
Miami held the ball for 53% of the match with nine shots, but they failed to get on the scoresheet in its first-ever playoff game.
This picture reveals Miami’s basic buildup shape and dynamic. They started with five at the back, but this shifted quickly to only four as mentioned earlier. In this image, Matuidi dropped into the place the left-back should be, allowing Ambrose to push up in attack. Trapp positioned further forward here, but he similarly dropped deep as a pivot or into the full-back areas to allow for the wide defenders to move up in the attack.
Wide areas proved the place Miami looked to exploit during the match. As seen in the image, the means of getting a Miami player open in a wide area started in the centre of the field. One midfielder, here it is Morgan, got the ball in a central area, sucking the defence toward the central channel. The midfielder then plays out wide to one of the full-backs galloping into the space on either wing. Nashville’s defence adjusted well to this dynamic, and it provided few real scoring opportunities for Miami.
Matuidi was immense on the ball for Miami, and he often facilitated possession. In this image, he played a ball across the field into the open wide area to Powell. Miami found open space when they quickly switched the ball, but Nashville’s defence was too solid to play through in areas at the front of goal.
Pizarro was another important part of Miami’s offensive strategy. He started as a striker, but he had the freedom to drift into open spaces around the field. Miami looked to leverage Pizarro’s creativity in the wake of three missing starters. In the image above, the striker found open space to receive directly from the centre-backs. Finding that open space in Nashville’s defence is difficult to work through, so Pizarro ran all over to help his side score a goal.
Pizarro dropped deep into the areas usually occupied by the full-backs as his side worked through their opponents’ staunch defensive lines. In this image, Pizarro allowed Powell to advance further up the field by taking up the deep position. As he played such an important in the buildup, Pizarro lacked many opportunities in front of goal. Substitutes in the second half failed to affect the result of the game as Miami’s three shots on target missed the back of the net.
Miami felt the impact of COVID-19 during their first-ever MLS playoffs game. However, there was a stark contrast between Nashville’s game plan and its opponents. The home side’s defence was well organised and their attack efficient. Miami struggled to find opportunities in possession and conceded three goals on the other end. Nashville looks ahead to Toronto FC on Wednesday while Miami heads to the offseason building upon their first MLS season.