Previously, on New York City Football Club

EDITOR’S NOTE
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