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.
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?
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