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 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