Wingback transitions can win Saturday’s match in Tennessee.
Despite Nashville SC being in the league since 2020, Saturday’s fixture with the Philadelphia Union will be the first clash between the two sides.
While little to no familiarity of Nashville leaves it tougher to scout this weekend’s opponents, Jim Curtin will have the ability to call upon Jose Martinez, who is returning from Copa America duties with Venezuela.
“He’ll be back and he’ll be available for the match against Nashville, which is important,” Curtin said of Martinez. “Obviously, when Jose is in our group, we have a very strong team.”
Martinez played on the wing with “La Vinotinto” for much of the South American championships, and impressed Curtin with his play on both sides of the ball. While typically operating centrally for the Union, Martinez’s role in the Copa America is the exact type of position that can be used to destroy Nashville.
The Tennessee club typically plays with four defenders, although teams have been known to switch their formations to attack Philadelphia’s diamond in the middle, which Martinez is usually part of.
Regardless of defensive formation, however, Nashville typically have one weakness: getting exposed on the counter attack via the wings.
Here is Toronto FC’s opening goal in a June 23 clash between the two sides. Jonathan Osorio’s tally is only made possible by the long ball that sprung Auro Jr. on the right flank. Nashville was even playing with a four-back system here, but both wing-backs got exposed: firstly, Daniel Lovitz isn’t in position and gets burned by eventual provider Auro, and then Alistair Johnston is caught ball watching at the back post, allowing Osorio to sneak behind him for an easy tap in.
— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) June 24, 2021
Here’s Atlanta’s second goal against Nashville on May 29. It was too easy for the Five Stripes to get in behind Nashville on the left flank, and once again, the defense was ball watching as Erik Lopez finished at the door step.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) May 29, 2021
It is unlikely that Curtin will have a change of heart and play with a flat midfield instead of a diamond, and nor should he. Success will come on Saturday via the full backs playing off Martinez, Jamiro Monteiro, and Kacper Przybyłko, something the Union is good at.
The tactical battle will revolve around Nashville’s wingbacks, which will most likely be Philly native Lovitz and Johnston once again. Curtin noted that the 4-4-2 diamond comes with significant shortcomings, such as defending against these players.
“It is trickier for us to get out and get pressure to the outside wingbacks when we are in our narrow diamond,” Curtin said. “We are the only [team in MLS] that really plays in a 4-4-2 diamond. They are always going to be tweaking things and trying to find a weakness, which is totally natural.”
The Union will be able to control the match if the diamond can get quick stops while Nashville’s wingbacks are out of position. And while the diamond typically plays centrally, Martinez’s ability on the wing could be used to link up with the Union wingbacks; after all, Lovitz and Johnston shouldn’t be too much of a hassle for the Venezuelan after he went toe-to-toe with Neymar.
The intriguing wingback battle will surely be an indicator of which side will exit the weekend with three points. The match will kick off at Nissan Stadium at 8 p.m. on PHL17 and PhiladelphiaUnion.com for fans in market and ESPN+ for out-of-market fans on Saturday.