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Anatomy of a Goal: Nemanja Nikolic’s Game Winner

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A look at how one pass and one shot beat Crew SC.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Anatomy of a Goal, where each week we dissect one goal (or near goal) from the previous week’s Columbus Crew SC match.

For Week Six of the 2017 MLS Season, we take a look at Nemanja Nikolic’s 22nd minute one-timer that gave the Chicago Fire its only goal in a 1-0 win over Crew-SC on Saturday.

Here’s a look at the finish from the Fire striker.

Columbus started this match in a new formation: A 4-3-3 with three central midfielder’s. Without the dynamic wide play of Harrison Afful, Crew SC defended much more narrowly than usual, here providing very little pressure on the Chicago offense.

Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp and right back Hector Jimenez had just broken up a Bastian Schweinsteiger led attack.

Keep note of the (many) players highlighted. The movement and positioning of these players lead to the Fire’s game winner. Here, Schweinsteiger’s pass to Fire winger David Accam is headed back to midfield by Hector Jimenez. Immediately after this ball is played back, and picked up by Fire center-back Joao Meira. All of Chicago’s players are in the Black & Gold half.

As soon as Meira picks up the ball, Accam heads out into a wide position, attracting the attention of a following Jimenez and opening up a channel between the fullback and Crew SC center-back Alex Crognale.

What these images will show is this goal is a result of Nikolic doing exactly what he is best at, running the channels. A channel, is any lane of space that exists between two defending players. In this circumstance, the channel that the Chicago goal scorer occupies is in the space between Crew SC’s right back, Jimenez, and center-back, Crognale.

Once he receives the ball, Fire midfielder Dax McCarty can immediately see that Nikolic is in the channel created by Jimenez heading out to cover Accam. Here we can see that the Crew SC right back is in a tight spot, with three men to mark. Winger Ethan Finlay went to pressure the ball, leaving Accam, Brandon Vincent, and Nikolic all under the responsibility of Jimenez. It’s tough to cast blame in this situation, but both Artur and Trapp stayed in the middle of the pitch rather than covering one of the three men left to the Crew SC right back. If Artur (or even Trapp) had attempted to track Vincent, then perhaps Jimenez has time to check Nikolic before he gets all the way in on goal.

The above image shows the channel between Jimenez and Crognale just after McCarty made his entry pass to Nikolic. In the middle of the ball’s journey to the Fire striker, this gap is about 12 yards wide. Jimenez has begun to chase Nikolic and Crognale is just now aware of the pass and the run by Chicago’s forward.

One second later, the channel is still 10 yards wide. Nikolic;s run beat Jimenez, and Crognale makes a slightly arced run to cut off the striker’s angle.

From this second angle, you can see just how much space Nikolic has and how much room Crognale has to cover. Though the Crew center back’s route to the ball is direct, he hesitates just long enough that Nikolic is able to get a few steps on him.

Nikolic is now in the Crew SC box and has yet to touch the ball. The Fire striker is in the process of taking his first-touch shot at goal. In this image, pay attention to the positioning of Crognale and Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Steffen, expecting his center back to cut off the far post, positions himself to protect the near post. Crognale now has to decide if he will attempt to get in front of the ball with a stab, a slide, or if he is able to get his body in front of Nikolic.

Here, you can see just how close Crognale is to the ball and to Nikolic. With the angle he has taken, the Crew SC center back should be able to slide and either clear the ball out before he touches Nikolic, or give fellow center-back Nicolai Naess (who is just to the right out of this image) time to step in front of the Chicago attacker.

Instead of sliding, Crognale decides to stay on his feet. However, the Crew SC center back is neither able to get a foot or his body in front of Nikolic’s shot.

Nikolic’s first-touch shot catches Steffen, who is protecting his near post, on the wrong foot. Steffen is able to get a hand on the ball but is ultimately unable to stop the game winner from hitting the back of the net.

Findings:

  1. This goal is a textbook example of running the channels. Nemanja Nikolic ran right into the huge space between Hector Jimenez and Alex Crognale, and was easily able to one-time the winner.
  2. Jimenez was beaten badly on this goal, but he was abandoned by his center midfielders. When Ethan Finlay went to stop the ball, a little too aggressively, neither Artur nor Wil Trapp stepped over to help, leaving Jimenez alone to cover three Fire players.
  3. Alex Crognale made the wrong defensive decision. He clearly did not have the pace to physically get in front of Nikolic, but his 6-foot-4 frame should have been able to slide in front of the ball.
  4. Zack Steffen was caught on the wrong foot, perhaps expecting college teammate Alex Crognale to cut off Nikolic’s angle to the far post. Nonetheless, Steffen was still in a good position to make this save but was unable to.