By Alex Brodsky (@highpressblog)
Following an underwhelming inaugural season under Jason Kreis, New York City FC’s ownership sought a dramatic change. They enlisted the help of Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira to oversee their team’s sophomore campaign. Opting for a foreign manager raised more than a few eyebrows among MLS media. The former French National Team captain has proved doubters wrong but still 2016 has been anything but smooth for NYCFC.
After New York City FC’s first game against the Chicago Fire, it appeared as though history may repeat itself. They edged out with a 4-3 victory but defensively they looked as shaky as in 2015. Since that game, however, Vieira has taken great strides. By implementing a unique style of build-up play Vieira has managed to maintain NYCFC’s strong attack while addressing their porous defense. New York City’s 1.56 xG against/game sits at 5th worst in the league but they’ve improved from 2015 by .26, the highest mark over that time.
NYCFC’s defense may not be a shutdown unit, but with their stellar attack merely upgrading their defense from a dumpster fire to a league average could turn Vieira’s men into a fearsome squad.
After opening the 2016 season with a 4-3 shootout win over the Chicago Fire it seemed like NYCFC’s sophomore campaign would be a retread of their inaugural season. Miscast central midfielders struggled with their defensive duties. A disorganized backline seemed incapable of playing an offside trap. This goal from Razvan Cocis is just about the softest you’ll ever see in professional soccer:
Gradually, however, Vieira adapted. Whereas Jason Kreis seemed hell-bent on slotting Andrea Pirlo in as a lone defensive midfielder, Vieira (along with about a billion Twitter coaches) recognized that the Italian could no longer maintain his defensive responsibilities. Lacking depth at the defensive midfielder role Vieira decided to shift fullback Andoni Iraola into that spot. Early flirtations with exotic formations were met with mixed results and gave way to a more standard 4-3-3. Their style of play, however, became anything other than standard within MLS.
No coach in MLS is quite as dedicated to patient build-up play as Vieira. So far in 2016 NYCFC averages more passes in their own half than any other squad. Josh Saunders has the second lowest average pass length in the league among goalkeepers, trailing only Columbus’s Steve Clark. NYC’s brand of build-up also differs significantly from other MLS teams.
In this graph you can see how unique New York City FC’s style is under Vieira. It plots final third passes per shot, a proxy for how direct a team plays in their opponent’s defensive zone, against own half passes per game. As you can see, NYCFC is all alone in the lower right of the graph. Vieira’s squad is the only one in MLS that both heavily circulates the ball in their own half while also playing extremely direct through the opposition’s final third.
While teams like the New England Revolution and the New York Red Bulls have made a name for themselves in recent years with their possession-oriented style of attack, they focus on breaking down defenses by circulating the ball in the final third. Under Vieira, New York City FC have instead opted to circulate the ball deep in their own half, inviting defensive pressure from the opposition. Then, when enough defenders have pushed into NYCFC’s half, they spring an attacker - generally through a Pirlo long ball - on a sort of mini counter attack. This sequence against FC Dallas demonstrates the strength of this philosophy:
As NYCFC circulates the ball around their backline and goalkeeper, Dallas dedicates more and more numbers forward to press. Clever movement from Pirlo and Andoni Iraola drags Dallas’s central midfielders out of position. Pirlo then plays a simple throughball to Iraola who is then free to run at Dallas’s exposed backline. This deep buildup yielded a quick 5 vs. 5 attacking opportunity. Even numbers like that always favor the attacking team.
Below is another sequence in which NYCFC utilizes that same deep build-up play:
Once again, the backline and Josh Saunders cycle the ball between them, allowing opposing defenders to push up to press. Federico Bravo, playing the defensive midfield role in this game instead of Iraola, pushes up, taking his marker with him. Pirlo drops into that space Bravo vacated, receives the ball and threads a killer pass to initiate a dangerous attack.
Vieira’s system makes the best use of many of NYCFC’s pieces. Firstly, it maximizes Pirlo’s off-ball movement and passing vision by involving him heavily in the early build-up phase. He frequently combines with the centerbacks and central midfielders before picking out a precise pass to initiate the attack. Pirlo completes the second most long balls per 90 minutes of any outfield player (8.9) while also completing such passes at the fourth highest clip among midfielders who've attempted at least 150 (66.0%.) Since this style of play revolves around sitting deep and allowing a few attackers to carry the offensive load, Pirlo has to cover far less ground during a match.
Another advantage of this tactical setup is how often it allows David Villa to operate in space offensively. So far in 2016 the Spaniard has been one of the most effective all-around forwards in the league. Villa shoots more than anyone not named Sebastian Giovinco and combines more in the penalty area than any forward other than Juan Agudelo. He currently leads the league in overall xG+xA 23.21 and looks poised to compete for MVP.
Speedy wingers like Jack Harrison and Khiry Shelton also benefit from this system. This article from ASA alum Tom Worville for mlssoccer.com points how the two NYCFC youngsters carry the ball a more direct distance towards goal than anyone in MLS aside from David Accam. This is due to how often Harrison and Shelton find themselves isolated against opposing fullbacks. Opposing wide midfielders wingers push into NYC’s half to press the build-up, leaving space for these young attackers to exploit.
Vieira’s system doesn’t optimize every player’s strengths, however. The backline in particular has struggled under the rookie head coach’s tenure.
Despite improving significantly on NYCFC’s inaugural season, defensive frailties still remain. In playing this deep build up style Vieira’s men frequently run the risk of turning the ball over in their own half. NYCFC defenders comprise three of the top five players in unsuccessful passes in their own end of the field per 90 minutes in MLS. These kinds of turnovers put immense pressure on a backline as they have to scramble to regain their defensive positions. Moreover, when sporting a central midfield whose combined age is often north of 100, players aren't always willing to hustle back for emergency defending.
The sequence below came during the New York Red Bulls’ 7-0 rout of NYC:
Here NYCFC fell directly in their cross-town rival’s trap. Several loose touches in a row pin RJ Allen between Alex Muyl and the touchline. Under duress, Allen proceeds to misplay a backpass to Frederic Brillant which leads to an easy chance for the Red Bulls. Having four attackers versus three defenders in your own penalty area is not particularly ideal.
Another example against the New England Revolution shows how easily opponents exposed NYCFC’s backline:
After Kellyn Rowe muscles Pirlo off the ball, New England’s attackers proceed to put New York City FC’s back four plus Federico Bravo on skates. Not once during this sequence do Pirlo or Frank Lampard reappear in frame after their side turns the ball over. Opposing attackers isolated against NYCFC’s backline like this is all too common a site.
If NYCFC want to become a consistently elite team they’ll need to dramatically cut down on midfield turnovers like these. Unfortunately for Vieira, MLS’s strict salary cap means teams have to scrimp in certain areas. Sure-footed defenders and goalies don’t exactly grow on trees ‘round these parts.
Currently New York City FC find themselves tied atop the Eastern Conference. This marks a clear improvement over their 2015 campaign which saw them miss the playoffs by a hefty 12 points. You can mark some of this up to luck - NYCFC have overperformed their xG differential by 8.16, second most in MLS - but Vieira surely deserves credit. The Frenchman established a consistent playing rotation and implemented a clear tactical system. Personally, I believe their continued defensive woes will limit how much damage they can do come playoff time (then again, no other Eastern Conference teams are perfect, either.) Just how much Vieira’s system can thrive going forward will depend on the kind of players NYCFC sign.
New York City FC have an interesting offseason awaiting them. Given the opacity of MLS’s salary structure, speculating on a team’s cap situation is foolhardy (but I’ll take a shot anyways). NYCFC’s front office has already invested moderate amounts across a number of defenders - Frederic Brillant, Jefferson Mena and Jason Hernandez - who have yet to really make an impact. Time will tell for the Luxembourgish Maxime Chanot who has only played 405 minutes in MLS this year due to injury. If NYCFC can move a certain USMNT member off their books they could open up space for some new defensive talent. Centerbacks and fullbacks comfortable with the ball at their feet in particular could flourish in Vieira’s system and reduce the costly midfield turnovers. Even while sporting a possible MVP striker, New York City FC will only go as far as their backline will take them.