Squabble: Should NYCFC Play a Front Two or Three?

On how to get the most out of an attack stacked with talent.

With Héber returning to the lineup and Taty Castellanos in impressive form, NYCFC’s got arguably the deadliest striker combo in the league heading into the playoffs. But do they have to play as a central pair? We put it to a Squabble: Should NYCFC play a front two or three?

The Arguments

Christopher Jee: At this point one thing should be clear: when they’re both available, Héber and Taty are in ridiculous form together. Just a glance at the top ten goal producers list that’s been going around should make it self evident that NYCFC is best with a front two. After the Cincinnati match, when we first saw the Pigeons in their latest tactical incarnation, Dome Torrent said it himself: “When you have two players that can score goals—twelve Héber, nine Taty—it’s better to play with them. It’s simply like that.”

I know what you’re going to say: this isn’t about a front two so much as the chemistry between Héber and Taty, regardless of their configuration. But here’s Héber after that same Cincinnati game, weighing in on the tactical shift that swung the match: “The first half I played like a winger; [the second half] I played close to the 18-yard box. We played with two strikers and I think this helped.”

We’ve had to resort to different looks to cover for Héber’s injury during the run in to the playoffs, but as he returns to training we should have our fingers crossed it won’t bring a return to a front three. True, when we shifted to the 3-4-3 back in April it almost immediately turned the season around. At the time it was a necessary adjustment against opponents who’d gotten savvy to the way we built out of the back in a 4-3-3. Nothing lasts forever, though, and teams eventually adapted to our buildup in the 3-4-3, too. The latest shift—to a 4-2-2-2—allows NYCFC to maintain the four-man midfield overload from the 3-4-3 but takes a man off the defensive line in favor of another outlet up front. With or without Héber, it could be Dome’s recipe for postseason success.

NYCFC Tactics: Héber is who we thought he was—or at least I did. But Taty’s emergence as a legit second striker moonlighting as a solo center forward has been the revelation of the season (outside of Hawaiian shirt night). Should both South Americans be in the starting lineup? The way they’ve been playing, I don’t think anyone would say no. But that doesn’t mean a front three isn’t the best shape for NYCFC.

With a roster this deep, the tricky part is figuring out how to get NYCFC’s best players on the field. Facts: Maxi Moralez needs to be in a playmaking role, Alexander Ring needs to be a defensive midfielder, and Héber and Taty need to be on the field.

Here’s where things get contentious: I don’t think Alexandru Mitriţǎ should be starting. His hero shift against Atlanta notwithstanding, his open play expected goals and expected assists per 96 minutes this season rank below Héber, Taty, Maxi—even Gary Mackay-Steven and Jesús Medina. Given how much the Pineapple Professor loves positional fluidity, Mitri’s limited versatility leaves him the odd man out.

When the chips are down, give me a midfield of Ring, Keaton Parks, and James Sands or Ebenezer Ofori. Defense wins championships, and those are the guys who’ll keep NYCFC’s stellar defensive record (second best in the league at 1.10 home-adjusted expected goals allowed per game) intact come playoff time. With the team’s best back four set in stone, that leaves three spots up front for Maxi, Héber, and Taty to rotate through the attacking roles in a 4-3-3.

Christopher Jee: If you flipped the calendar back to August, I’d be totally with you, but lately a couple things have changed. First and foremost, of course, is Héber’s injury, which will still have him working his way back to peak fitness as we enter the postseason. The good news is that Alexandru Mitriţǎ has finally caught fire, with superstar turns against New England and Atlanta. His expected goalchain per 96, which counts the xG value of all possessions a player is involved in, is up 22% since the start of July (and that’s not even counting the Atlanta masterpiece). He’s also turned himself into a filthy little nutmeg king:

A big part of Mitri’s growth has been our experimentation with the 4-2-2-2, which lines him and Maxi up behind two strikers, backed by a double pivot of Ring and Parks. Crucially, it gets Mitriţǎ off the left sideline more often, where he’s prone to dribbling into dead ends, and into more central areas where he can link up more effectively between the lines. It also gives NYCFC a four-man overload in central midfield, making it easier to control the game the way Dome wants. It’s the shape we were playing when Héber nutmegged Luis Robles to seal the Hudson River Derby, and it’s the system that produced Medina’s first goal against New England, when he was one of three (!) attackers streaking into the box to put home Anton Tinnerholm’s cross. It doesn’t hurt that most MLS defenses are used to training and playing against three-man forward lines, which makes the 4-2-2-2 a particularly tricky proposition to defend against.

NYCFC Tactics: Glad we agree that Mitriţǎ’s best position isn’t isolated on the left wing. Even his hat trick explosion against Atlanta United felt a little like getting a Sunday morning payout from a loose slot in Atlantic City after spending all weekend getting dispossessed of your chips at the blackjack tables.

It’s still my belief that NYCFC’s best lineup involves Maxi, Héber, and Taty as a flexible attacking trio that defend in a classic 4-3-3 shape. Instead of playing deeper where his production might suffer, Maxi can check into space to provide midfield superiority and the vertical passing that’s made him the league’s assist leader.

The bottom line for the front three argument is that Taty and Héber need to be in any lineup, Maxi is greater than Mitriţǎ, and Maxi is not a defensive midfielder—give me Ring and Parks in midfield for tactical flexibility come playoff time. For a team whose best weapon is possession, width and positional versatility should guide our choice of players and shapes, and we’ll get more of both with a three-man front.


Chris Campbell: Both of you make compelling arguments. No matter which way you shake it, if everyone’s healthy a very talented attacker will be left on the bench for critical games. But I have to give the edge to Jee on this one, and the main reason is Maxi Moralez. He’s been more effective playing as a true midfielder than a winger dropping back to facilitate offense. Either way, please please please give me more Taty and Héber together. Vote: Christopher Jee

Justin Egan: The truth is that the formation doesn’t matter as long as NYCFC can start both Taty and Héber. We’ve seen them combine successfully in both two- and three-man fronts.  While I do believe our best formation is a 4-3-3 when we can start a midfield of Maxi-Parks-Ring, I can’t get behind any suggestion that Maxi should be playing the wing on the regular. Shame on you, Tactics! Vote: Christopher Jee

Dummy Run: Actually think both sides wound up suggesting that Maxi should play a wide position, although Maxi on the wing in a 4-3-3 would inevitably turn into Maxi tucking inside, so it sort of feels like you’re both arguing for a front two. Still, I agree with NYCFC Tactics that a wide front line will help the possession game come playoff time—I think our best bet right now is a Maxi-Ring-Parks midfield and Mitri-Héber-Taty up top. That’s three, right? Vote: NYCFC Tactics

Image: Barbara Hepworth, Three Forms