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Scratching the Chalkboard: Dallas finally found the winning formula against Nashville

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He didn’t score, but it was actually Ricardo Pepi who made a huge difference in the outcome

MLS: FC Dallas at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

FC Dallas finally got the monkey off their backs by not only scoring their first goal against Nashville SC in four tries, but also finally took a win from the expansion side too. The 1-0 win, courtesy of a Ryan Hollingshead winner on a classic FC Dallas counter attack, along with some other help around the league has Dallas now sitting in fourth place. A draw on Decision Day will be enough for Dallas to secure a home playoff game, a win could potentially open up second or third place too - pending on other results. For now, let’s just break down how Dallas finally got themselves a win against Nashville.

Everyone behind the ball

With the way Nashville tore apart Dallas’ defense the last time Dallas was in town, it wasn’t a surprise to see Dallas take a more conservative approach here. Rather than try to match Nashville’s possession and aggression on the ball, head coach Luchi Gonzalez opted have his team sit back in a lower block and get on the counter when they could.

Dallas’ basic defensive shape - everyone back

As you can see from the image above, Dallas set up their shape deep and rarely applied any pressure to the ball carrier. Generally this isn’t a bad idea when the opposition is on a 9 game streak without a loss at home.

Ricardo Pepi got the start up top as the lone striker, and he’d be the first point of defense with Ryan Hollingshead, Michael Barrios and Jesus Ferreira setting up a defensive line behind him. This front four’s staggered set up also freed up Thiago Santos to play what I’m calling “sweeper midfielder”.

Santos’ defensive actions vs NSH

With Andres Ricuarte also alongside him in the midfield, Santos got to do mock up duty while also being able to pick his spots when he needed to close down any passes into the midfield. The result was the chart above where Santos was able to roam sideline to sideline breaking up the attack without compromising Dallas defensive shape whatsoever.

The result was Nashville rarely got in behind the defense or got into any spots where the Dallas defense was stretched or isolated in any 1-on-1 situation.

Then hit on the counter

None of this would’ve worked without Ricardo Pepi starting up to. He’s the more athletic of the two strikers and his speed gave Dallas a legitimate counter attacking option up top. While I’m sure he would’ve wanted this scoring chances to find the back of the net, he did in fact have himself a very nice night overall.

Pepi’s offensive actions vs NSH

In time, Pepi will bury those chances he managed to generate but more importantly was his ability to generate them as a lone forward. Pepi didn’t get a lot of service or opportunities up top and when that happens, you’ve got to create them with your movement and take your chances when you get them.

One thing I watched very carefully for was how he’d set up Walker Zimmerman and whoever else was marking him. Could Pepi make the subtle movements, the tiny feints to create just enough separation to give him the better angle towards goal. From what I could see, yes but only half the time. Pepi was more reliant on his reaction and speed, but there were glimpses where he would make the tiniest of feints to wrong foot a defender and that’s the sign of an elite attacker.

With time and more game experience, I have no doubts Pepi will arrive at that elite level. If he can learn how to poach a goal or two like Franco Jara, he’d be unstoppable.