NYCFC 4-1 Atlanta: The Fall of Frank de Boer

How Dome Torrent’s positional play beat Atlanta’s rigid gameplan.

If you were, say, a New York Times soccer writer parachuting in to cover your city’s team for the first time all season on the night they all but sealed their first Eastern Conference title, you might attribute NYCFC’s—oops, N.Y.C.F.C.’s—4-1 demolition of Atlanta United to Alexandru Mitriţǎ’s brilliant hat trick or Josef Martínez’s absence (never mind that the hosts were missing Anton Tinnerholm, Keaton Parks, and James Sands).

But the real story on Wednesday took place on the sidelines, where two very different coaching philosophies went head to head—and Frank de Boer’s lost.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of coaches. The first is the systems coach. This type believes a particular tactical set-up is the best way to play football, which means even when it’s not working, the gameplan doesn’t change. All a coach can do is sub off underperforming players and hope for some individual efforts to scratch out a result.

The second type is the principles-based coach. This kind of manager may prefer certain tactics or formations but isn’t wed to them, because what matters is less where players are on the whiteboard than how they play the game. As long as the team keeps its style, it can change its shape mid-game to counter the opponent’s gameplan and seek out advantages.

It’s obvious that de Boer falls into the first category. After Atlanta beat the Quakes last weekend, he went so far as to say, “With this system, especially against a team like San Jose, we understand what we have to do if we face them next time. If we change it’s just small details. You don’t have to really get into [Atlanta players’] minds. If you’re thinking then it’s always too late—then you are reacting instead of anticipating.” Which makes you wonder: was de Boer anticipating Mitri’s first half hat trick, or would a little more reacting maybe have helped?

Frank de Boer and Eric Remedi share a moment.

If anyone belongs in the second category, the principles-based coach, it’s Domènec Torrent. Entering the match, the big question was who NYCFC would play in place of Tinnerholm, who suffered a concussion over the weekend. In a surprise move, Dome called on natural center back Sebastien Ibeagha to man the right flank in a back four, sacrificing attacking overlaps for defensive solidity. Ibeagha’s conservative style kept numbers back and ensured NYCFC would build through the central rectangle of Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Tony Rocha, and Alex Ring.

In the bigger scheme of things, this wasn’t just about replacing Tinnerholm: it was a deliberate adaptation after NYCFC had failed to break Atlanta’s press on the road in August. After that game, Dome had been upset at his squad for failing to abide by the team’s core possession principles by staying “brave” and playing through the press with short passes instead of opting for longball after longball.

With a third central defender at fullback, NYCFC was better able to absorb Atlanta’s aggressive wingback play, including the Argentine forward Tito Villalba lining up out of position on Ibeagha’s side. Drawing Atlanta’s front lines out helped NYCFC’s attackers find space between the lines and behind the wingbacks, leading to devastating four-on-three counterattacks. Ibeagha was excellent, coming up with big defensive stops and safely recycling possession. Although he admitted to not having trained much at right back, the move worked because, while the movement patterns may have been different, the defensive principles—a diligent offside trap and short passing out of the back—were the same ones Ibeagha was familiar with as a right-sided center back.

Dome’s flexibility was also on display in the positional play of NYCFC’s attacking unit, whose core tenet is that it doesn’t matter who’s executing which position as long as the basic patterns stay intact. This allows the team to adjust, not only from half to half, but on the fly as actions on the field drag them away from plans on the whiteboard.

Mitriţǎ’s first goal is an excellent example of how this works:

After Ibeagha strips an attacking Villalba, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi scoops up the ball in midfield, already in behind the recovering wingback. As Atlanta’s left center back Florentin Pogba shifts over to cut off the open lane, NYCFC makes two moves at once: Taty Castellanos flares out to the wing behind Pogba and Maxi Moralez, seeing the space Taty is vacating, makes a beeline forward from midfield. It’s an instinctive rotation of an NYCFC attacking triangle—Isi from right wing to midfield, Taty from center forward to right wing, Maxi from midfield to center forward—that leaves Atlanta scrambling to cover.

The result is that Leandro González Pírez is forced to defend half the field by himself and Mitri is NYCFC’s free man on the weak side. As Maxi’s run drags defensive midfielder Eric Remedi out of position, Isi finds a lane to dribble into the center and slide the ball to Mitriţǎ, who skins LGP one-on-one with a quick cut inside and hammers home a golazo from the top of the box.

While it’s easy to dunk on González Pírez for getting beat on Mitri’s first two goals, isos like that don’t happen if NYCFC doesn’t exploit the space behind Atlanta’s wingbacks with smart positional play. As you can see in the still below (thanks, tactics cam!), by the time that whole buildup rotation described above has happened and Mitri begins his dribble toward the top of the box, Atlanta’s two wingbacks have barely crossed the halfway line.

NYCFC exploited the space behind Atlanta’s wingbacks.

As talented as Atlanta is, this was an easy game for Torrent to coach, because even as his side mercilessly picked apart the tactics everyone knew Atlanta was going to run, de Boer made no significant changes. Over and over again wingbacks Villalba and Franco Escobar ran at NYCFC’s back line, pressed high to try to get the ball back, and wound up leaving huge gaps (funny how those can happen on Yankee Stadium’s postage stamp) for NYCFC to run into.

It all makes you wonder how much credit de Boer deserves for his team’s successes this season. Is the system working or is he skating by on a super-talented roster, relying on individual brilliance to rescue incoherent team play?

By the way, if you’re wondering what lessons de Boer took from this game, Atlanta beat writer Felipe Cardenas reported after Friday’s training that the coach, ever devoted to his system, will not be adjusting his tactics this weekend against Montreal. Throw my vote in for “fraud.” ❧

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus