Notes from Florida

Five things we liked in group stage, and five things we never want to see again.

Two teams dropped out of MLS is Back before it even started, and there were times in group stage when it looked like NYCFC had made it three. But things weren’t all bad—outside of the disastrous start against Orlando, Ronny Deila’s men have been the better team more often than not—so we went around the table to talk about what’s working and what’s not.

Justin Egan

What to Build On: Although I still think that this tournament should not have been held, it does seem that since FC Dallas and Nashville were sent home, and despite some questionable safety practices, Covid-19 has been contained so far in the Disney bubble. All of the positive tests have come from faulty testing or players who contracted the virus before entering the bubble. That’s good news. But the fact that MLS and the NBA are burning through thousands of tests every week and getting results in a couple hours while the public health system is struggling to provide regular people access to timely testing is morally reprehensible.

What to Learn From: The 3-5-2 that Ronny Deila brought out for the first half hour of Orlando made me so mad I think my hairline receded a couple of inches. I can’t decide which was worse, the shape or the names on the teamsheet. The lineup featured seven players whose best position is in defense or defensive midfield, plus two attackers and whatever Jesús Medina is these days. Ronny’s selection of Gudi over Keaton Parks makes me wonder if he really did finally get around to watching NYCFC’s games from last year. When Maxi Moralez is out, Keaton is the only midfielder with the passing skills to link defensive and offensive phases in transition.  He may not be a No. 10, but neither is Gudi. The formation, which inexplicably flipped the traditional 3-5-2 midfield triangle and left NYCFC’s buildup in shambles, was also questionable. What was the point of going three at the back against Oscar Pareja’s generic 4-2-3-1? Whatever it was, it didn’t work, and the team played better after changing shape at the water break.

NYCFC’s passmap before and after the water break against Orlando.

John Muller

What to Build On: Coming into this tournament I still wasn’t sure what James Sands is, and the way Ronny Deila used him in group stage didn’t seem designed to clear that up. Sands started as a center back in a back four against Philadelphia, a right center back in a back three against Orlando, and a midfielder playing sometimes behind, sometimes ahead of Alex Ring against Inter Miami. There was a moment in the Miami game where he carried an intercepted clearance out to the wing, put the moves on the defender, and set up a Medina cross. There was a moment in the mess against Orlando when I remember typing in the chat “jimmy sands shooting from the six yard box everything is normal everything is fine.” But the performance that stuck with me was his lockdown shift against Philadelphia, when Sands’ stolidity looked like the perfect complement to Callens’ more adventurous play in a center back pair. More of that, please.

What to Learn From: The Orlando City goat rodeo aside, Ronny seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Time will tell how his vision of a simpler, more structured NYCFC will shape up, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt so far by explaining himself plainly and learning from mistakes. And yet one mistake just won’t go away: Jesús Medina has appeared in all eight competitive matches under Deila, starting six of them. Which, look, the first few games? I get it. You’ve got this high-dollar hole in your roster, the kid’s still youngish, he’s got some skills, maybe all he needs is a little time and trust to be the talent he looked like he was becoming before his sudden implosion two years ago. But even after Deila conceded that Medina’s not a winger and brought him into a more natural attacking mid role, Medina has kept being Medina, drifting in and out of games (mostly out), getting bullied off the ball any time a defender looks at him in a way that hurts his feelings, and just generally being the worst player on the team. Yeah, it sucks that City Football Group won’t buy the team three functioning DPs, but don’t force the issue. There’s talent on that bench. Use it.

Chris Campbell

What to Build On: Ronny Deila still has work to do learning the squad, who his best options are, and what combinations do and don’t work (see above re Medina, Jesús). But it appears in his quarantine-induced film study, he noticed how productive the Heber-Taty partnership was in 2019. The two South American strikers may not have brought their finishing boots to Orlando, but they’ve combined for 2.15 expected goals on 20 total shots in the two matches they’ve played together. It’s still up for debate how they best fit together, and Ronny is feeling his way through that as he tried Taty as a box-crashing left winger against Philly and a second striker against Orlando. When the partnership was broken in the third game due to a mysterious Héber injury, NYCFC only mustered 0.71 xG and Taty didn’t get a shot on target.

What to Learn From: As Maxi Moralez goes, so goes NYCFC. The last two matches have exposed the roster’s biggest weakness, the absence of a capable attacking midfielder to spell the aging Argentine. With so little turnover from last year’s Eastern Conference-winning squad, there weren’t many holes to fill and you might have thought finding a capable backup for Maxi would have topped David Lee’s agenda. Instead, Ronny’s been stuck between a marshmallow and a soft place trying to patch the No. 10 hole with Jesús Medina or the ghost of Gedion Zelalem. The ugly results speak for themselves.

Kevin Nelson

What to Build On: Ronny Deila’s defensive press continued to prioritize funneling possession into the midfield halfspaces in Orlando, a tactic that has proven to be high risk, high reward. It’s allowed NYCFC to launch quick counters off turnovers and attack with a numerical advantage, but the lack of ball pressure on opposing center backs can be invitation to slice through the defense. Inter Miami put together two dangerous buildups in the opening ten minutes when the press was activated, and Deila seemed to have a come to Jesus moment where his defense shifted to cutting off central passing lanes and forcing long balls. It remains to be seen whether the adjustment was evidence of Deila’s tactical acumen, but it’s a promising indicator that he can identify problems and change his plans accordingly. 

What to Learn From: Héber is one of the best strikers in MLS at dropping in to link up during the buildout. His movement and connectivity naturally distort opponent defenses, making room for all kinds of creative off ball runs. Unfortunately, NYCFC rarely took advantage of that during group stage, offering poor off ball movement in every stage of the attack. Each time Héber drops in to save the buildup, his only teammates interested in making short runs to offer layoff options are the fullbacks. The wingers, Alexandru Mitriță and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, like to come short and carry on the dribble instead of looking for runs into the space exposed as Héber pulls a backline apart. And things get even worse when you remove Héber from the equation, as we saw against Inter Miami. Considering this same roster didn’t have this problem last year, it’s not unreasonable to pin some of this on the new coach, though injuries and the general weirdness of the circumstances have probably played a part. Maybe Tajouri-Shradi’s goal against Miami, a rare example of good off ball movement, will remind the team what it’s been missing. 

NYCFC Tactics

What to Build On: Like Chris said, NYCFC has a Maxi understudy problem. But hark, the solution is on the bench: the Big Bird himself, Keaton Parks. In the Texan’s limited minutes so far in 2020, he’s been dynamic, looking to switch the field and attack the final third vertically instead of doing Medina’s shiftless sashay. If Maxi’s still not ready to start against Toronto, it’s time to give Keaton the microphone and let that bird sing.

What to Learn From: Taty’s scoring ability is stifled by his current responsibilities (or maybe regression to the mean is real). [Editor’s note: Our writer got sidetracked and the draft ends here. Seems that like Castellanos, who led NYCFC in group stage xG but came away scoreless, The Outfield just can’t finish.] ❧

Image: Henri Rousseau, The Repast of the Lion

Previously, on New York City Football Club

MLS should cancel the Orlando tournament. We at The Outfield spend more time watching soccer than ought to be legally allowed, but we’ll be the first to tell you there’s nothing essential about playing fan-free preseason games at Disney World in the middle of a pandemic. What does matter is the wellbeing of players, coaches, staff, their families, and the Floridians who’ll come into contact with them. Please support players like our own Brad Stuver who chose to stay home, and urge the league to let everyone do the same without penalties. —John Muller

We’ve got a boss called Ronny Deila. Remember him?

MLS is back, sort of, at least for now, and if there’s a bright side to this utterly stupid tournament it’s that we’ll get a better look at NYCFC under Ronny Deila. Early returns from the Norwegian manager have been decidedly mixed, even if you throw out the Columbus match played pretty much entirely with ten men. If we’re being honest 362 minutes of full-strength soccer is nowhere close to an adequate sample size to evaluate Deila, but since the last time this team played feels like a lifetime ago it’s probably worth reviewing what we know.

What has Deila’s NYCFC looked like so far? The short answer is: not all that different from last season.  

Ronny declared upon arrival that he had no plans to make sweeping changes to the tactical profile of the best team in the Eastern Conference in 2019, whose stacked roster is mostly unchanged. The build-from-the-back possession principles that defined the Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent eras are alive and well under Deila, who recently told The Outfield that he thinks “the best formation that suits us is 4-3-3, and maybe 3-4-3.” How do you say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in Norwegian?

It’s clear that Deila does not view those two formations as mutually exclusive, and we’ve already seen him exploit the versatility of James Sands and Alexander Ring (and soon likely Cacha Acevedo, too) to move fluidly from one to the other on both sides of the ball. From a base 4-3-3, NYCFC likes to send the center backs wide when building out from Sean Johnson and drop the defensive midfielder in the middle to evade a two-man press. A rotating cast of NYCFC players will then take turns moving into the vacated midfield space to offer passing options to the makeshift back three. 

The defensive midfielder has a fluid role out of possession as well, alternately protecting the back line and joining it. Having an auxiliary center back on standby gives Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens freedom to pursue opponent attacks that drift wide, as we saw them do to try and contain elite attacking threats like Tigres’ Simon-Pierre Gignac and Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo.

In the attacking half, Deila appears to have loosened the positional rules for his front three, encouraging wingers to tuck inside, link up with the midfield, and interchange freely. That’s not to say he wouldn’t like to have more wingers who can play wide and offer a threat on the dribble. Like Torrent before him, Deila gave Jesús Medina an early run of starts before deciding the hapless young DP’s future isn’t on the wing “because he’s not the guy to go past people and go outside. He goes a lot of inside, so I think Isi [Tajouri-Shradi], Gary [Mackay-Steven], and Mitriță are more wingers suited for going outside.”

The unpredictability of the wingers’ positions and movements puts the burden on NYCFC’s fullbacks to read the situation in front of them and choose the right overlapping or underlapping run to facilitate progression. Luckily, Deila has two of the best outside backs in the league in Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm, who’ve been successful in using middle third combination play to launch breaks towards goal, though by the coach’s own admission those attacks can sometimes be so direct as to veer toward chaos.

One thing that’s definitely looked new under Deila is the structure of the press. Previous versions have functioned as a wedge, applying ball pressure high upfield to push opponents towards the sideline, but Deila’s press has been interested in funneling passes a little more inside, into the midfield halfspaces, where multiple players can collapse on the receiver. This press is activated when Héber spots an opportunity to shepherd a possessing center back wide. NYCFC’s strong side winger cuts off the outlet pass to the fullback, forcing the opposing ballcarrier to play up a central channel, where an NYCFC midfielder is ready to apply aggressive pressure before the pass even arrives.

Ronny’s press has created some counterattacking chances for NYCFC, but it’s also left them vulerable to center backs who are comfortable driving forward into the gap without direct ball pressure from a forward. We’ll see whether Deila sticks with the tactic in Orlando or if it was more of an early season experiment.

Deila’s tenure so far has been marked by a conscientious commitment to the status quo with some minor tactical tweaks around the edges. That’s not a bad thing given the success he inherited. The fun part will be seeing how things change now that Deila, whose hiring was announced just a week before preseason, has had time to actually watch video of his team. The chaos of the MLS is Back tournament may not be the best setting to get a feel for a coach, but it’s the best we have to work with for now. ❧

Image: Walt Disney, Steamboat Willie

Let’s Talk About the Salida Lavolpiana

Ronny Deila’s fledgling romance with a buildup known as the “lovers’ outing.”

During the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, a Spanish newspaper columnist who’d spent that spring playing soccer in Mexico reported something he’d heard about El Tri’s manager, Ricardo La Volpe. For 30 minutes of every training session La Volpe made his center backs practice advancing the ball over and over, coaching their every pass, every decision, until after hundreds of repetitions defenders and ball fell in love. Led by their captain, Rafa Márquez, Mexico’s back three didn’t just start play. That was the phrase people used for shuffling the ball around the back and then booting it long. La Volpe’s center backs salieron jugando, went out with the play. Como novios. Like lovers.

The column’s author was one Josep Guardiola, who was just two years away from taking charge of FC Barcelona and changing the whole world’s ideas about building from the back. But Pep’s hope to emulate La Volpe’s lovers-going-out buildup had one little hitch. Barcelona didn’t like to waste bodies behind the ball when it could have numbers in midfield instead. That meant lining up in a 4-3-3 instead of a three-back system like La Volpe’s. But during the first phase of Barça’s buildup, a lot of opponents pressed with two forwards, one for each center back. How could Guardiola’s defenders drive the play forward without the numerical superiority they needed to find space?

His solution was to drop his defensive midfielder, Sergio Busquets, between the center backs to form a temporary back three. Two opponents couldn’t mark all of them, which meant at least one center back—or, more dangerously, Busquets in the middle—would be free to bypass the first line of pressure and pick the pass that would get Barcelona out of its defensive third in a controlled, purposeful way. The tactic, meant to approximate the Mexican buildup that Guardiola admired, became known as the salida lavolpiana, the La Volpean going-out.

Twelve years into the Pep revolution it’s become commonplace for any coach who aspires to play possession-based juego de posición (which if you’re going off hiring-day press conferences is pretty much all of them) to turn a center back pair into a back three during certain buildup situations. Sometimes that’s done by nudging one fullback toward the middle, although the evolutionary triumph of attacking fullbacks has produced a generation of overlapping whippets who might not be at their best when hanging around at the back. Sometimes a midfielder drops off to one side of the center backs, like Frenkie de Jong loved to do at Ajax. But the salida lavolpiana is still a classic: a defensive midfielder retreats into the middle of the back line, the center backs split wide, and a two-man press watches helplessly as one unmarked defender or another doesn’t just start the play, he goes out with it.

Ronny Deila is (Perhaps) for Lovers

Like everyone, Ronny Deila says he wants to play attacking, possession-based soccer. Unlike everyone, Deila has a squad that’s talented enough, in MLS terms, to pull it off. They’ve been doing it for years. The way New York City FC lined up for its first competitive game under Deila—a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers, overlapping fullbacks, and ball-playing center backs—has been a favorite for this team ever since Patrick Vieira gave up trying to resurrect the W-M.

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise in the ninth minute of the CONCACAF Champions League game against San Carlos to see James Sands, whose hybrid position makes him perfect for this kind of thing, relieve pressure on NYCFC’s buildup by dropping from the defensive midfield line into the salida lavolpiana. For a moment he was back in the middle center back role where he got his big break in last spring’s 3-4-3. It felt familiar.

If you looked closely, though, Deila’s first draft of the salida lavolpiana had some peculiar features. Unlike Gregg Berhalter’s version at Columbus, the goal wasn’t for Sands to become a Wil Trapp-style pocket passer but rather to free an outside center back, ideally Alexander Callens, to dribble toward the halfway line and pick a linebreaking pass. Counter to conventional wisdom, one or both of NYCFC’s central midfielders didn’t drop to support the buildup by showing for the ball in the space Sands vacated; instead Alex Ring and Keaton Parks pushed up between the two banks of four in San Carlos’s standard-issue 4-4-2 medium block. And unlike Guardiola, who likes his wingers to provide width, Deila let Alexandru Mitriță and Jesús Medina come inside, sometimes almost colliding with the center mids in the halfspaces. The whole strategy only really lasted about 25 minutes, until NYCFC went up 2-0 and both teams changed their gameplan in response, but it was enough to put tactics nerds in a tizzy.

Here’s how Deila’s buildup worked:

To be clear, CCL Round of 16 ties are still basically preseason games for MLS teams, and analyzing preseason games is, as a rule, a huge waste of time. But this pattern was distinctive enough, and clues about Deila’s style are still scarce enough after weeks of closed-door scrimmages, that it felt worth going to the tape. Will Ronny’s hilariously aggressive salida LOL-piana be a staple of NYCFC’s buildup this season? Does that mean we’re in for a wild year of gunning for 5-4 scorelines? Who wouldn’t have time for that?

The Salida de Ronny

If you skipped past the video in the last section, take a minute to back up and watch it now. It’ll help illustrate the four tactical ideas we’re going to talk about here, the step-by-step objectives that make this buildup interesting.

Relieve Pressure

The whole purpose of the salida lavolpiana is to outnumber the opponent’s press three (or four, counting the goalkeeper) to two. Once the defensive midfielder—here, James Sands—drops between the center backs, somebody’s going to get open. 

More often than not against San Carlos, NYCFC would move the ball around until that somebody was Alexander Callens, the Peru international who bosses this team’s buildup. Since 2017, Callens leads NYCFC’s center backs in expected goal chain per 96 minutes (a measure of how likely NYCFC was to score from possessions he participated in) and is second among all MLS players for expected pass score per 100 attempts (a measure of pass quality). Get Callens the ball in space and good things will follow.

Claim Space, Break Lines 

Once you’ve got a player in space, use it. Over and over again Callens would turn upfield with nothing but fifteen or twenty yards of bright green grass in front of him. As San Carlos’s front-line press played catch up, the center back would carry the ball past them and keep going until an opponent left the second line to confront him. As soon as that happened, Callens would pull the trigger on a linebreaking pass through the hole that marker left open. And once you’re between the lines, the defense is in trouble.

In some ways the salida lavolpiana isn’t too different from last year’s 3-4-3, which also spread Callens and Maxime Chanot out to the halfspaces. Getting wide can help the center backs find lanes to make more aggressive passes. According to American Soccer Analysis’s Tiotal Football, Chanot and Callens attempted lower-percentage passes and performed significantly worse against ASA’s expected passing model when playing in a back three in 2019, but those riskier passes were more effective, producing a higher average expected goal value per possession for NYCFC and less xG on opponents’ next possession compared to when NYCFC played four at the back. That’s about what you would expect if the outside center backs were playing more linebreaking passes from their wider positions.

But there are differences from the 3-4-3 too, most notably that Deila’s version of the salida left NYCFC’s defensive midfield line totally empty. There’s no easy passing option—it’s break lines or bust.

Get Numbers Upfield

The reason there’s nobody in the center of the pitch is that Deila pushed both central midfielders upfield between the lines. That’s feasible when the defense is mostly passive, like San Carlos was until NYCFC’s second goal, but it’s a high risk, high reward proposition.

The reward of positioning as many as five attackers between the lines and two more on the wings is obvious: get anyone the ball with room to turn and you’re facing the last four defenders with overwhelming numbers. Even if your first foray fails—a misplaced throughball, a clumsy dribble—you’ve got extra bodies in place to win the ball back in a dangerous spot.

Deila says he wants to improve NYCFC’s counterpress, and it’s true that there’s some room for improvement. Even though the club ranked near the top of the league last season in most high-press metrics, the numbers weren’t quite as dominant as the two years prior. A bottom-heavy buildup and direct attack (part stylistic choice, part function of protecting a lot of leads) meant they weren’t always in position to recover lost balls in the attacking half. Moving more players upfield will help keep opponents off balance.

But there are a couple of not so subtle drawbacks to the ol’ 3-0-7 formation, too. For one thing, that attack can get awfully crowded. Recall that Dome Torrent, who knows Guardiola-style tactics better than just about anybody, sized up this same NYCFC squad and decided it wasn’t suited to a 4-3-3. No extremos puros, wide wingers who could spread the field and beat a fullback up the touchline instead of working inside. Sure enough, Deila’s aggressive buildup sometimes saw the wingers, Mitri and Medina, stepping on the midfielders’ toes in the halfspaces. That proximity can help players improvise short passing combinations, but the suboptimal use of space means you’re going to get caught in awkward positions sometimes. 

Which brings us to the second problem with high center mids: yes, they’re in place to challenge for lost balls in the final third, but if a counterattack gets past them you’d better have someone right behind them for a quick tackle or tactical foul. You need your defensive midfielder again.

Reshape and Counterpress

This is where the salida lavolpiana has a natural advantage over a three-back formation: it’s built for flexibility. The defensive midfielder acts like a center back in the buildup, but he’s still a defensive midfielder, and once his services are no longer needed at the back he can charge forward and cut out counters in midfield the way a 4-3-3 is built to do.

Busquets, who’s equally comfortable orchestrating the buildup and snuffing out attacks in the opposing half, was the ideal defensive midfielder for Guardiola’s salida lavolpiana. For Deila’s NYCFC, that two-way player just might be the 19-year-old Sands. In Costa Rica, the homegrown’s dual training as both a center back and a defensive midfielder came in handy as he showed a knack for knowing when to drop into the back line and when to get forward for a well-timed midfield stop. 

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly how NYCFC’s first goal of 2020 happened: Sands moved up a line, recovered a loose ball, and two quick passes later Héber was celebrating (when is Héber not celebrating?). The salida lavolpiana was working. The defenders were going out with the play, the midfielders were counterpressing, and Deila was winning the way he said he wanted to win. For the moment, at least, it was easy to love. ❧

Image: Pierre-Auguste Cot, The Storm

Dallas 1-1 NYCFC: Tactics Chat

What happens when Plan A stops working?

Sometimes—okay, pretty much all the time—we have tactics nerd fights in The Outfield Slack. But Dome being Dome, just figuring out what formations we’re talking about, let alone how to fix them, can take some work. Here’s how the conversation went down the morning after the second-half collapse at Dallas.

Christopher Jee
did we talk about breaking down why we take so much pressure in the 3-4-3? I thought after recent runs in 4 ATB we might be done with it, but after yesterday I’m curious

There’s no question that our struggles started when Tinny got injured, but I’m curious why – perhaps the requirement for wingbacks to be very aggressive in a 3-4-3

NYCFC Tactics
i think its an unbalanced 3-4-3

mitrita was much more a winger while maxi was floating

Christopher Jee
But we seem to struggle in 3-4-3 generally and the underload in midfield looks like a clear culprit

NYCFC Tactics
tinnerholm allows for more drive on the right side

Christopher Jee
They tried to make Mitri a second striker after halftime

NYCFC Tactics
yup, post injury

Christopher Jee
I wouldn’t rule out some kind of adjustment in Dallas press or just Pomykal being more effective at exploiting the midfield overload

Dummy Run
we can’t just blame the 3-4-3 when we dominated in that shape in the first half

Christopher Jee
Right, at worst it’s bad in certain modes

However the way it fails looked very familiar

Also why I wonder if Dallas adjusted

Dummy Run
dallas adjusted in a big way at halftime, they moved their line up and man marked everywhere

from left to right: nycfc’s distribution with tinnerholm (1-23), without in the first half (23-45+7), and at the start of the second half (45-67)

Christopher Jee
Actually looks decent 23-45+7

Dummy Run
right. losing tinnerholm kept us from getting up the wing but it didn’t break the midfield, dallas’s defensive shift broke the midfield

NYCFC Tactics
so we think a rope-a-dope strat with the heat?

Dummy Run
i definitely think this was part of it

they gave us so much space in the first half and absolutely none in the second, it was wild

NYCFC Tactics
that would be a good question to ask Dome before playoffs

Dummy Run
what question

NYCFC Tactics
how would he react to a team “baiting” him with one shape playstyle in the first half

then pivoting to a different one in the 2nd half

is that solution solved better with substitutions or positional adjustments

Dummy Run
his answer is usually “both”

NYCFC Tactics
i know
but gotta keep asking

Dummy Run
i was surprised we didn’t make more changes yesterday

maybe there just weren’t enough players available

NYCFC Tactics
that wouldve been my guess

he seemed hesitant to bring Shradi on for Tinnerholm

which seemed far more the comp

Christopher Jee
I figured Rocha came on for his tactical flexibility
We shifted personnel around (to disastrous effect, arguably) at some point in the second half. Maybe from the beginning? (Miller to RWB, Ring to CCB, Rocha to midfield)

Shradi wouldn’t have been able to slip into the double pivot as easily
Although I thought Rocha had his worst performance in the center of the park in a long time

It seemed clear to me that we were outmanned in midfield 2 v 3 very often in the second half. Even if we dominated in a 3-4-3 in the first half, I still think a switch to a 4-3-3 in the second half might have solved the problem even with the tired legs

NYCFC Tactics
i would have liked a 4-3-3 in the second half

Dummy Run
at 45′? or after keaton came off? configured how?

Christopher Jee
Shortly after 45″ when it was clear we were undermanned in midfield

NYCFC Tactics
i think id have preferred mata pushing into midfield instead of rocha

and maybe keeping more of a top 3 full out with mitrita, taty and shradi as the trident

and maxi more in midfield with ring

Christopher Jee
Yeah. I mean even when tired, dome always says it’s best to keep the ball to avoid running around a lot

We weren’t set up to do that

I suspect Dome was a lot like Rocha as a player

Left footed, reasonably technical, not very athletic

Kevin Nelson
I feel like the 3-4-3 breaks down when the opponent has wide players running in behind and the wingbacks are concerned about getting beat over the top so they drop further than they should and is a problem if the wingers aren’t tracking back, I think that shape can work if that combination of things doesn’t happen

That shape can work in theory with the players we have but if they’re unaware of their tendency to do that it can break down

Christopher Jee
I would agree, with the addition that it fails when wingbacks don’t have the energy / ability to push those opposition wingers backwards when they have the opportunity

e.g. when we are playing in ridiculous heat

I’ve been lovefesting on Dome but I think this result was on him

Poor Ringy takes the blame but it was only a matter of time before someone made a soulcrushing error when we were taking that much pressure for that long.

NYCFC Tactics
yeah, i agree this one had the smell of institution failure

Christopher Jee
Yeah and another huge factor is what the other team is doing

If it makes sense that 3-4-3 uniquely gives us the capability to play against certain systems, then it should follow that it hamstrings us against other systems

I think

Based on the discussion above it sounds like Dallas made a half time adjustment that we failed to adjust to in turn

NYCFC Tactics
right, but the 3-4-3 with the full talent available is also a 4-3-3

its just i think we got hamstrung by what players were available

Christopher Jee
I mean it morphs easily into a 4-3-3

I think 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 are vastly different based on their various shapes in various phases of play

e.g. in a 3-4-3 your central CB is facing up the field in the build-up. In a 4-3-3 they are facing their own goal in the build-up.

In a 3-4-3 your two wingers are more like inside forwards. In a 4-3-3 they hug the line.

NYCFC Tactics
right, if NYCFC’s best 11 is playing there is little quality difference between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 in my eyes

Dummy Run
in (one of) (our) 3-4-3(s) our two wingers are more like inside forwards

same with the 4-3-3, it comes in different flavors

Christopher Jee
Yeah I think this also happens in-play based on whatever positional game we are playing in a given part of the field.

I think the way the center CB / CDM is facing between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 is almost invariant though because it happens in the “first move”

i.e. it’s not super dependent on what the other team is doing.

NYCFC Tactics
it has a lot to do with the static-ness of Mitrita

if maxi plays on the LW/LF spot, the flexibility is even more pronounced

Christopher Jee
Yeah but lack an outlet up front when Maxi plays LW

NYCFC Tactics
not if Heber and Taty are up there

its like a sliding door of a front three or a front two with a roaming number 10

Christopher Jee
At that point it’s kind of the 4-2-2-2 right?

NYCFC Tactics
yeah, but the attacking layer of 2 is asymmetrical depending on where the ball is

Christopher Jee

I think I know what you mean ❧

Image: Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing #340

Does Dome Play Pep Ball?

A stylistic investigation.

Like Alfonso Ribeiro and Carlton Banks, Dome Torrent may never be able to detach his reputation from his longtime role as Pep Guardiola’s assistant. That connection brings the weight of immense expectations, but the professional and personal relationship between Torrent and Guardiola is universally regarded as a positive by people who can put two and two together: some of Pep’s magic must have transferred to Dome simply by osmosis, right?

As Manchester City begins another season where they’re expected to crush all comers, it’s a good time to take a deeper look into Pep Ball and ask how attached Torrent has been to his old boss’s playstyle. 

What is Pep Ball?

A video’s worth a thousand words:

This team goal finished by İlkay Gündoğan embodies the ethos of their manager, who worships at the altar of possession. The 44-pass sequence gobbles up the space United’s defense concedes while taking only calculated risks.

Guardiola’s decade of success at the highest levels of European soccer is rooted in three critical aspects of his possession game: building out of the back, positional fluidity in the final third, and counterpressing.

  • Building Out of the Back 

Guardiola’s attacking style involves all eleven players on the pitch, which requires technically adept central defenders and a keeper who’s able to play like an outfield player. Hoofing it long is taboo; the team prefers to control the ball and pass through the press, leaving opponents scrambling to recover. Defenders look for line-breaking passes to stretch opponents vertically and create spaces for progressive transitions. The resulting style works against all types of opponents, and is as useful for breaking down a bunker as for exploiting more open games.

Central defenders have long been the engine of Guardiola’s rear-wheel-drive attack. Last season’s top four qualified Premier League center backs in attempted passes per 90 minutes are all on City’s roster, and Aymeric Laporte led all defenders in expected goal chain stats, which measure the value of shots from possessions in which a player had a touch. Pep’s teams have also long featured some of the best ball-playing keepers in the world: last season only Liverpool’s Alisson contributed to his team’s buildup as much as City’s Ederson.

  • Extended Attacking Sequences  

The ability to retain possession for long stretches allows Manchester City to be patient and fluid in the attack. Guardiola downplays the significance of the various formations he’s used in England (sometimes a 4-3-3, sometimes a 3-5-2 with Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker as wingbacks, often with a fullback tucking inside to create an asymmetrical 3-2-5 in attacking phases), and has famously referred to the numbers in his lines as “nothing but telephone numbers.”

The way his teams play in the attacking zone shows what he means, as attackers have freedom to interchange and explore all areas of the final third. Forwards and attacking midfielders become a creative, unpredictable collective that looks to overload one side to drag the defense horizontally and open up a quick switch to the weak side. This opens the necessary gaps for a break towards goal, when combination play heavy on flick-ons and passing triangles comes together to lethal effect. Last season Manchester City led the Premier League in passes in the opposing box and expected goals per shot—stats that speak to the persistence of their attack, as they investigate every avenue to get into dangerous shooting spaces. 

  • Counterpressing

Long buildups push defenses deep into their own half, allowing City to settle into an attacking set around the box. This puts Guardiola’s team in position to defend high upfield with a suffocating press that cuts out counters before they develop. The goal is to recycle the attack just as the opponent releases from its defensive shape, when it’s most vulnerable.

Staging the defensive front in the opposition’s half is a risky strategy, since it leaves a lot of space behind that teams who break forward quickly can exploit. Guardiola trains his team to push counters wide and extend the path to goal, buying the defense more time to recover. The aggressive counterpress works: last season City allowed the fewest opposition passes in the box and lowest expected goals allowed in the Premier League.

Does NYCFC Play Pep Ball?

Torrent inherited a team from Patrick Vieira already steeped in a possession-heavy ethos Guardiola would appreciate, yet the transition was far from smooth, as he struggled in a league very different from the elite clubs where he’d spent the last decade. Over the course of this season, though, Torrent has overcome his rocky start by adjusting Guardiola’s formula to his circumstances. 

NYCFC still build out of the back. Sean Johnson continues to improve with the ball at his feet and averages 35.6 passes per 96 minutes (third most among qualified keepers), most of them short and successful. But the talent gap between MLS and Manchester City means Torrent doesn’t always have players who can comfortably ping the ball through midfield pressure. To compensate, he’s added a healthy dose of directness to a team that nevertheless maintains 55.6% possession, second highest in the league.

Shifting the attacking phase deeper towards the halfway line leaves more room for quick, vertical transitions. NYCFC’s style often looks like a fast-forwarded version of Guardiola’s attacking flow, like in the above buildup against Montreal in May. While Manchester City’s patient, probing attack takes about 35% percent of its touches in the final third, NYCFC’s more direct approach tops out at 26%. Héber’s introduction to the squad has allowed for some textbook Guardiola-style positional fluidity, as his ability to drop in and push wide gives other attackers, especially Taty Castellanos, opportunities to exploit his striker space. On the pressing front, Torrent has dropped NYCFC down a gear to a still intense but more sustainable pace to survive routine cross-country road trips and other weird quirks of MLS scheduling.

In short, we might think of Dome Ball as a sort of bastardized version of Guardiola’s positional play—not for the worse, necessarily, but MLSified. A year into his tenure, Torrent’s transformation of NYCFC is still ongoing, as he continues to experiment with inside fullbacks, defensive midfielder-center back hybrids, a two-striker attack, and so on. We’ll never fully understand the nature of the Torrent-Guardiola relationship, but Dome’s ability to adapt their shared philosophy and make appropriate tactical adjustments to suit his squad suggests he may share one of Pep’s best attributes. ❧

Image: Edouard Manet, The Shadow that Lies Floating on the Floor

What Does NYCFC Have in Gary Mackay-Steven?

The Scottish winger had a solid first start, but is Mitri blocking the path to his best position?

NYCFC’s pair of summer transfer window newcomers made their first start for the club last Thursday evening against the Houston Fighting Tommy McNamaras, and while Eric Miller may still have a role to play this season as a backup fullback, it’s Scottish international Gary Mackay-Steven who’s expected to help the playoff push. But will he? After all, his stats in Scotland weren’t great last year, and it wasn’t obvious how a guy who likes to play as a wide winger would help a team that doesn’t typically employ any.

After cutting tape of Mackay-Steven’s every touch against Houston, I’ve got some good news: it looks like the Pigeons have added another potent offensive threat to their arsenal.

The Houston Game

Mackay-Steven started as a right winger in the 3-4-3, where he kept mostly to the sideline and cut inward on the ball to support the attack with his preferred left foot. Maybe the infield turf or lack of an offensive-minded right back on the overlap played a part, but he looked a bit uncomfortable playing on the right. The bright spots came from his off-ball movement, as GMS continuously made himself available in threatening spots, creating a number of chances. His best of the night came in the space behind a lead run by Jesús Medina, and the shot was headed for the back of the net if not for a desperation block by a Dynamo defender.

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Even when they weren’t the preferred option, Mackay-Steven’s trailing runs were neatly timed. Below, Rónald Matarrita sends a dangerous goalmouth cross that Héber should probably have put into the back of the net. But at the same time, GMS provides another dangerous option in the space behind the runners, where he finds an opening at the top of the box.

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But too many times GMS’s off-ball work just wasn’t recognized, with Medina often the culprit. In the clip below, as soon as Medina turns on the ball Mackay-Steven starts a diagonal run in behind Houston’s back line. There’s plenty of space to loft a ball in front of the keeper, but Medina hesitates and opts for a backpass instead.

Mackay-Steven’s game changed for the better not long after Taty Castellanos got subbed on at 58′, as Dome responded to Houston’s deep ten-man defense by flipping Alexandru Mitriţǎ to the right and GMS back to his more natural left winger spot.

“When I say play wide and when you arrive one-v-one and cross the ball, he tried to play in that way,” Dome Torrent said of Mackay-Steven after the game. Operating for about half an hour on the left side, GMS did just that, bombing up the wing and creating separation to launch dangerous balls into the box. He connected on six of six crosses from the left side after the switch, including three key passes.

Looking Ahead

Mackay-Steven’s wing play against Houston provided plenty of danger, but familiarity with teammates takes time, and Dome Torrent promised after the game that we’ve yet to see the best of his new winger. Moving forward, Torrent’s quandary will be how to best use GMS along with the other offensive weapons at his disposal. With the uncertainty surrounding Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, NYCFC’s top two choices at winger right now very well may be Mitriţǎ and Mackay-Steven. But both like to play on the left, even though they have differing tendencies. While GMS likes to stay wide and send left-footed crosses into the box, Mitri prefers to cut inside and shoot on his right.

Last Thursday, we saw Dome initially opt to have Mitri on the left and GMS on the right, each with instructions to cut in on his preferred foot. But the second half switch put Mitri on the right and Gary left as natural wingers, providing width and crossing the ball against a low ten-man block. This change was quite effective against the Dynamo, but is it something Dome will revisit? Was it just because there were no outside backs in that makeshift second-half formation to provide the width with overlapping runs? Or was it because Castellanos had taken the field and provided a target for crosses?

Trying to figure out how to arrange your winger talent is a good problem to have, and one Torrent will definitely tinker with from game to game (and in game, too). Whichever side he plays on, we’ll definitely be seeing more of GMS. ❧

Image: Hendrick ter Brugghen, Bagpipe Player

What Is James Sands?

Sizing up NYCFC’s versatile homegrown teenager.

James Sands is special. At 18, NYCFC’s first homegrown player has already laced up his boots with World Cup winners and marked Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer Wayne Rooney into the ground. He’s talented at aerial duels, good on the tackle, and quick enough to cover opposition speedsters. Under pressure he’s composed, completing more than 86% of his typically short passes, and his ability to read opponents’ transitions gives him a dominant positional sense. There’s a reason NYCFC looks best when the Rye native is on the pitch.

On offense, Sands is a reliable cog in the middle, guiding the direction of the buildup and showing Pirlo-level calm receiving passes in his own defensive third. He’s not a one-v-one artist but he has a deft touch and positions his hips and plant foot well. And while he’s yet to show much of a goalscoring threat, final third production isn’t really his responsibility.

Still, there’s the nagging question that follows any positionally flexible young player: he’s great, but what exactly is he?


Defensive Midfielder: This is Sands’ most transferable role, the position that, if he masters it, could make him a global hot commodity. He excels at a defensive mid’s bread and butter: tackling, intercepting passes, and playing short. But he doesn’t have the offensive output to become a box-to-box midfielder like his former teammate Frank Lampard. Ultimately, as Sands grows into his 5’11” frame, his ability to play this position may be decided for him, as any drop in speed could force him to shift to a role that suits his profile better.

Sands’ first MLS start, in September 2018, came as a defensive midfielder. (Credit: Knuckler)

Central Defender: Long term, this role suits Jimmy the best. It rewards his aerial ability, his knack for being in the right place at the right time, and his unnervingly calm short passing. Physically, he’s already shown he can handle most MLS strikers one on one in the box, an impressive feat for an 18-year-old. He’s been deployed as a right-sided center back for the youth national team and looks very comfortable in the center of NYCFC’s back three, where he should continue to get minutes as the club looks to develop its future spine. Center back is a position that rewards experience and skills honed by repetition, so for a young player already succeeding there the future looks rosy.

Sands has looked comfortable in the middle of NYCFC’s back three this spring.

Inside Fullback: Sure, this one’s a longshot, but it’s a possibility Sands and Dome Torrent have raised in the past. While fullbacks who tuck into midfield have become an important tactical wrinkle for Gregg Berhalter’s United States Men’s National Team, finding the right Americans to plug into the role has been difficult. Could Sands’ international future be at the position that’s lately been manned by Nick Lima and Tim Ream? His experience as both a defender and a midfielder puts him in the conversation, but playing as an inside fullback would limit his aerial usage and his distribution in all phases from the center of the field, where he’s thrived for club and country.


Promising young hybrid defenders don’t always come good. Take Reece Oxford, who made waves as a 16-year-old wunderkind out of West Ham’s highly regarded academy (where he played under new NYCFC academy director Liam Manning). He was lauded for his positional flexibility, playing both defensive mid and center back at a high level thanks to his imposing physicality and ability on the ball. But after injuries, pressure, and a drop in form derailed his meteoric rise, Oxford landed on loan at FC Ausburg, where his ambiguous position is now considered a liability in his struggle for minutes. There are drawbacks to not committing early to mastering one position.

Still, if we’re talking possible futures for Sands-style hybrids, Oxford would be a pretty decent floor. And if you were to stand on the floor and look up, you’d see Bayern Munich’s stalwart Javi Martinez looking down from the Sistine Chapel ceiling of defensive versatility. The Spanish international can dominate as a lone defensive midfielder, in a double pivot, or—as he often did under Pep Guardiola—at center back. Like Sands, Martinez has great timing in his tackles, aerial prowess, and a strong short passing game. Perhaps Dome Torrent sees some of Martinez in Sands. After all, he did coach Martinez in Munich.

Sands’ best position is what he’s currently playing for Torrent, as a center back in a back three with the option to push into the midfield. His physicality is an asset on the defensive end, especially with the healthy weight he put on this winter, and his fearlessness distributing the ball allows his team to build from the back with confidence. If NYCFC sticks with the 3-4-3 long enough for Sands to find some stability in the role, his breakout season should continue to develop him for long-term success. ❧

Image: NASA, Mars Odyssey All Stars: Arabia Dunes

NYCFC Really Shouldn’t Be This Bad Against Free Kicks

The line is too high. The keeper’s too low. And nobody can find their assignment in time.

Watching New York City Football Club defend set pieces has been an anxiety-inducing experience from the beginning. In its first two seasons, the team posted some of the worst set piece goals–conceded numbers in American Soccer Analysis’s dataset. (Is anyone getting nostalgic thinking back on the Jason Hernandez and Josh Saunders era? I didn’t think so.) Things got better after a defensive rebuild brought in Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens: in 2017 and 2018, goals and expected goals against off set pieces dropped to respectable levels, with a correlated decline in cardiac arrests per 96′ in Yankee Stadium.

Nevertheless, improving NYCFC’s set piece defense remained a focus this offseason. The problem areas were evident, especially when it came to defending against free kicks played into the box from outside shooting range. If the first six weeks of 2019 are any indication, that’s where this team still needs the most work, as opponents are converting non-shot set pieces into shooting chances at a near-record clip.

Expected goals allowed vs. shots allowed from non-shooting free kicks, 2017–2019. Source: American Soccer Analysis

The increase in shots from these situations can’t just be chalked up to allowing a lot of free kicks in the first place. NYCFC does commit an above-average number of fouls in the zone (say 30 to 50 yards from the center of goal) where you might expect non-shot free kicks to lead to attempts on goal, but other teams like Portland and Columbus foul more often there without letting opponents create shots from it at anything like NYCFC’s rate.

Small sample size disclaimers apply, but something doesn’t smell right here. Coordinating set pieces was a key part of Domènec Torrent’s job when he worked alongside Pep Guardiola, and his squad returned its entire defensive core this season. So what’s the problem with NYCFC’s set piece defense? There are two of them, actually: the dead zone and the matchup problem.

The Dead Zone

We’ll start at the very beginning with the dead ball set up. New York City tends to play a high line against non-shot free kicks, an effective yet risky method given the amount of space the attacking team has to run into. Playing a high line is fine in theory but is complicated by Sean Johnson’s uncertain command of the penalty area. According to American Soccer Analysis, Johnson ranked 16th out of 23 primary MLS keepers last season in aggression based on the number of successful crosses per claim or punch.

Together, a high line and passive goalkeeping leave a lot of room for error in the resulting dead zone, particularly on inswinging balls. As the distance the defenders have to track back increases, so does the chance of the defensive shape breaking down, making errors in communication far more costly.

In our first example, from last September, D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum scores an entirely preventable goal due to the combination of a high defensive setup and a keeper reluctant to come off his line. Either Ben Sweat has to track Birnbaum’s run better or Johnson has to claim that ball, though ideally both of those things would happen.

Fast forward to 2019 and the problem remains:

Chris Mueller’s free kick in the season opener originates in a wider position, forcing the defensive line back to the penalty spot, yet once again there’s a fatal lack of communication between Johnson and Chanot as each thinks the other will clear the cross (and let’s be honest, Mueller was most definitely trying to cross that). That seam where the defense and keeper can’t agree who’s responsible for the ball continues to be a major source of vulnerability for NYCFC—but it’s not the only one.

The Matchup Problem

Discussions about set piece defense often start and end at the seemingly eternal debate over whether a zonal or man marking system is better. Both systems can be successful with the right players, and Torrent has used elements of each so far with NYCFC. He’s generally preferred zonal marking for corners, with occasional hybridized schemes against certain opponents. But last season he leaned more toward man marking for non-shot free kicks, especially those taken toward the center of the pitch or against a higher defensive line, like the D.C. United goal above.

This season, NYCFC has moved toward a kind of matchup zone system for non-shot free kicks: each primary defender is responsible for marking a lane from the defensive line down into the six-yard box, while a couple teammates drop into the cutback passing lanes. Zonal assignments are determined by attacker positions in order to put NYCFC’s best defenders on the opponent’s most dangerous aerial threats.

The system itself hasn’t been the problem—it’s really down to the players to execute. But matchup adjustments could explain some early season struggles, as NYCFC have looked disjointed setting up their shape against free kicks from distance. They were beaten out wide on set pieces on several occasions against LAFC:

This ball is played as Ring is still trying to get his teammates organized, and Ronald Matarrita is caught flat-footed on the outside. NYCFC recovers well to regain control, but LAFC would continue to target wide areas on similar free kicks through the rest of the game.

Here LAFC overloads runners on the right side, pulling the NYCFC defense with them. Again, the main problem is NYCFC’s disorganization when the ball is played. LAFC’s objective is to open up the left flank, and Taty Castellanos lets Diego Rossi get in behind way too easily. Maybe whatever changes Torrent has introduced this year are contributing to the disorganization, but there’s clearly room for improvement on an individual level too.

What to Do About It

The interesting thing is that there are reasons to believe this team shouldn’t be quite so bad at these plays. Despite struggling against non-shooting free kicks, NYCFC is better than average for shots and xG allowed from corner kicks. True, defensive movements are less prominent on corners, but these stats suggest a team that’s capable in dead ball situations and in the air. In fact, NYCFC ranks seventh in the league for aerial duel win percentage.

Maybe Torrent is asking too much of his team, running a system he’s familiar with from Europe without considering his players’ skillsets. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a coach was too married to his preferred tactics. (Remember when Josh Saunders was forced to play out of the back? Sorry, I promise I won’t bring him up again.) Or maybe the system is fine and it’s just a problem of focus.

Whatever the source of the confusion, it does seem possible that this team would fare better against set pieces if Dome minimized the moving parts. You could start by pushing the defensive line a bit closer to goal, just to reduce the amount of ground covered. You could work with Sean Johnson on coming out to claim balls to further cut down the danger space. With more reps, maybe the defense will get better at finding their matchups before the ball is played. Again, we’re still early in the season—maybe this is an overreaction to a small sample, a blip on the radar in hindsight. But let’s hope Torrent’s coaching staff has been looking into the problem just in case it’s not. ❧

Image: José Guadalupe Posada, Chaos During an Earthquake

Built-Up Frustration

The key to unlocking the attack starts with Ben Sweat not passing backwards.

There are plenty of causes for concern about NYCFC’s attack lately: Maxi Moralez isn’t getting the ball in dangerous areas, players are running into each other, no one’s drawing out opposing center backs, and it’s fair to wonder whether Alex Ring has the vision and creativity for his new role as an advanced midfielder. The team often lacks the sharp movement and penetration that became a signature of the slow-then-quick attacks under Patrick Vieira.

But before we can worry about all that, we need to talk fullbacks—more precisely, the role they play (or don’t) in NYCFC’s buildup. With Domènec Torrent’s prior experience as Guardiola’s Best Friend (he’s mentioned he worked for Pep, right?) comes an unavoidable expectation that fullback play will be critical to his team’s possession game.

Here’s where you might expect yet another lecture on the intricacies of the Guardiola fullback role and its evolution from a runner overlapping an inverted winger to an inside fullback tucking into central midfield, the way Gregg Berhalter had Tyler Adams play for the USMNT last week. But for NYCFC, it’s not the fullbacks’ positioning that’s problematic. It’s the passing. Specifically, it’s Ben Sweat’s inability or unwillingness to hit a forward pass into the attacking quarter (you thought I’d say third, didn’t you? Silly Doyle-ite).

In the buildup, Sweat often receives the ball 5 to 15 yards into the attacking half. Let’s call this the triple threat position. Given the countless variations that can occur due to the fluidity of his teammates’ movements, it’s easier to think about his options from this position in terms of the spaces where the ball can move next.

The fullback’s three basic options from the “triple threat position.”


The backward or lateral pass to a center back or holding midfielder, who is almost always static or nearly static when it’s played. (Isn’t there a chess piece that can only do this? If so, can we name it the Sweat?)

This pass has a high completion percentage, but it does little to move the team forward. On the rare occasions the opponent intercepts a pass or recovers a miscontrol in this situation, they’re well positioned to launch a dangerous counterattack.


This move could be a pass to a winger who’s pulled over to the touchline or a dribble up the wing, as Matarrita occasionally does. It carries a lesser chance of success than the neutral option, but it does progress the ball to an area where NYCFC will have a better chance of creating danger, and there’s a strong chance any defensive action along the touchline will result in a throw-in.


A pass into the inside channel, either to a forward checking back or to a midfielder running forward. Vertically, the receiving player should be somewhere between the defense’s back and midfield lines.

When the diagonal ball connects, it creates immediate danger due to the variety of attacking options and a transition moment as defenders have to adjust and reassess threats under pressure. While this pass has a relatively low completion rate, it’s not dangerous the way a turnover from a neutral pass would be. Think of it as low-risk, high-reward.

The diagonal pass represents two key strategic tenets shared by Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. Both managers’ tactics aim to get the ball into spaces that force defenders to make difficult decisions quickly, while ensuring their players are positioned to recover lost balls.

Assuming Dome has a similar vision for NYCFC, the diagonal pass into the channel from the fullback should be a critical element of buildup play because it immediately does two things: (a) it gets the ball to a dangerous player in a dangerous position with options around him; and (b) it sets you up to win the ball back high if you lose it, because you have a striker, a winger, and an advancing midfielder right there to close it down. And when you recover in the halfspace, you’re right back at (a).

To say it another way, it’s about losing the ball the right way, in the right positions, so the team can sustain attacking pressure by more consistently putting defenses in triage situations.

So far this season, opponents have looked too comfortable against an NYCFC attack that’s struggled to create these dangerous situations. Yes, the lack of a center forward has been part of it. But just as important is how the team builds into the opposing half. Right now, NYCFC’s buildup play isn’t creating enough transition moments that let the attackers take advantage of momentary indecision. And the solution starts with better decisions by the fullbacks. ❧

Image: Liberale da Verona, The Chess Players

How Héber Could Reshape NYCFC

An active, versatile striker can free his teammates to be the best versions of themselves.

The gaping hole at center forward has been the bane of Domènec Torrent and Claudio Reyna’s press interviews for months now (and if they think the interviews have been rough, I hope for their sake they’re not active on Twitter). But the hunt is over: last week, NYCFC bought Héber Araujo dos Santos from Croatia’s HNK Rijeka as a $3 million quick fix for its striker problem. What qualities drew them to Héber, and what might inserting him into the starting eleven mean for the team’s tactics?

The man moves very well off the ball. He’s a willing runner from wide and central positions, bending his runs to suit the pass he’ll receive and the space he’ll exploit. I’d bet my bottom dollar that he ends up leading NYCFC in offside calls—which, in the right dosage, is a sign of a great player pushing the limits of his chance creation potential. Pace is important to his movement, but don’t discount the cerebral side of these runs. He’s got a knack for picking out just the right moment (and defender) to pounce on and create danger.

Héber’s line-leading runs create space behind him that Maxi Moralez can take advantage of.

On top of pace, Héber has also shown the ability to play with his back to goal. Using his body position and guile to hold off defenders, he creates chances for his teammates as they run onto him. As is tradition for NYCFC strikers, he’s great in the left halfspace and comfortable playing slick passes on both feet. It’s easy to imagine him tucking in a ball to the penalty spot for an onrushing Maxi or Ring, but he’s also shown the agency to look to the corner flag, playing in a winger or fullback for a deadly cutback. That’s an underrepresented skill on this roster.

Due to a roster-building philosophy that favors smaller and more technical players, NYCFC has never been very good in the air. At 5’11”, Héber has been known to score with his head, and while he won’t overpower opponents, well-timed runs and an ability to absorb contact could make him a legitimate aerial threat. Ben Sweat may finally have found a head to bang his errant crosses off of.

Our Pineapple Professor has very few constants. Dome is willing to change team shape, player selection, and even his facial follicles for mysterious purposes. But he holds to at least one truth: tight passing and positional versatility are the tenets of a good squad. And guess what, the bald Brazilian can play in multiple spots. Héber’s so good on the left wing, in fact, that people are worried he might not be the right fit at center forward. I see that versatility as a positive and a prime reason he’ll have a shot at locking down the number nine spot.

But what will he do with the role? Will he operate as a stouter version of Maxi Moralez’s false nine? Will he embody the bygone Jo Inge Berget’s baffling lack of cohesion with other forwards? Or maybe he’ll be a more tactically astute version of Jona Lewis?

Héber’s skillset could allow NYCFC to play a 4-2-4 (left) that stretches to open a central pocket for Moralez to operate, supported by Ring pushing up and Matarrita tucking inside (right).

My dream is that adding Héber to the starting eleven will stretch NYCFC’s shape into an amorphous 4-2-4. Dome’s postmodern double pivot of James Sands and Alex Ring allows for all kinds of tactical variation in the midfield, and we’ve already seen Sands holding down the six while Ring pursues his grand experiment at becoming a box-smashing number eight. Add the wrinkle we saw last week against LAFC where Matarrita slides into the defensive midfield line as an inside fullback, and you’ve got the most flexible defensive unit since Adoni Iraola was patrolling Yankee Stadium.

How does Héber’s inclusion open up all those possibilities behind him? First, it pushes Maxi into a more tactically flexible role. Having a vertically aggressive center forward in front of him stretches the space for el hombre araña to work between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines, the role in which he put up MVP-caliber numbers last year. Moralez is talented enough to fill in as a false nine or a shuttling eight, sure, but it’s generally a good rule of thumb to play your best players in their best positions, and Maxi was born to be a ten.

A multimillion-dollar center forward should also relieve some pressure on newcomer Alexandru Mitriţă to be the focal point of the attack—a boon for the talented Romanian winger, who’d rather pick his moments than dominate touch counts. Once the system’s had time to gel, Héber’s positional flexibility ought to allow Mitri and Maxi to float into whatever space seems advantageous, trusting that Héber will help cover their role and track back in transition.

All that said, there’s still risk. The Brazilian could be a bust if he fails to get on the same sheet of music with our jazz-loving coach. Héber’s scoring ability could fade away for the City like a sunset during Manhattanhenge; a blight could be cast upon our people and our whole attack could go infertile. Whenever a new player comes into a team, there’s bound to be disruption. But right now it feels like NYCFC needs to harness that disruption and see where it leads. ❧

Image: Kano Tsunenobu, Album of Hawks and Calligraphy