A Structure Takes Shape

Will less possession and more compact defending be building blocks for Ronny Deila’s NYCFC?

Zero point three. That’s how many goals per game NYCFC was averaging in its last six matches coming into Sunday evening’s tilt against Toronto. Two goals in six games. It felt like the nets were still responsibly quarantining.

So after an offensive explosion spat out three goals, seven shots on target, and two more late ones off the crossbar, you might have wondered what changed at the attacking end. Did Ronny Deila switch up his strikers’ tactics? Was it the return of Maxi Moralez that gave our hapless front line a shot in the arm?

Here’s a theory: What really propelled NYCFC to the quarterfinals was Deila’s defensive structure and counterpressing.

Two weeks ago, Deila told reporters that his aim was to bring more “structure” to NYCFC: “When the ball is there, I want you there.” For that kind of coaching to work, every player needs to internalize his instructions in a dizzying variety of situations. But on Sunday evening, the orders were clear. Limit Michael Bradley’s touches, cut off access to Alejandro Pozuelo, and wait.

NYCFC’s defensive shape focused on denying Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo.

Deila ran the team out in a typical 4-3-3 that defended as a compact 4-4-2; after Ismael Tajouri-Shradi left early with an injury, Maxi Moralez took over the No. 10 role and joined Taty Castellanos at the tip of the defensive shape. The two Argentines sat directly in front of Bradley during Toronto’s buildup, taking turns applying light pressure on the ball while the other cut off the passing lane to Bradley at the base of the midfield. At the edges of the middle line of four, Jesús Medina and Alexandru Mitriță marked Toronto’s fullbacks to funnel any balls out wide backward. Alex Ring and James Sands anchored the middle, keeping an eye on Marco Delgado and Nick DeLeon and looking to turn any balls through the middle into quick turnovers and counterattacks. But the key man for Toronto was Pozuelo, a DP attacking midfielder deployed as a false nine with Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola hurt. Deila gave Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens free rein to leave the back line in pursuit when Poz dropped off the front line to receive.

The defensive structure paid off. Even though Toronto had most of the possession, Bradley was limited to his fewest touches of the tournament, and both he and Pozuelo had their lowest passing accuracy all season. Ring and Sands were a destructive force, combining for seven tackles and seven interceptions while sparking dangerous counters that produced chances at the other end.

The clips below show a sampling of the ways NYCFC disrupted Toronto’s buildup while denying Bradley. Sometimes it’s Chanot stepping forward to cut out a linebreaking pass, like at 0:07 and again at 0:45, when he comes all the way past the midfield line to force Pozuelo into a loose pass that Mitri picks off on the run and slides to Medina for a big chance in transition. Maxi’s man marking job on Bradley is on full display in the sequences at 0:37 and 0:56, forcing Toronto’s center backs to try and fail at creating from the back. Again and again, the turnovers NYCFC earned in its disciplined mid block launched its best attacks. 

Against the side with the most passes per game in MLS is Back, NYCFC ceded possession in a departure from the typical “City way” of controlling the ball and building from the back. Sean Johnson sent nearly all of his goal kicks long, and the team looked to generate chances off of turnovers high up the field. Two of three goals came in transition.

Should we expect more of the same in the next round? The jury’s still out on exactly how Ronny Deila wants to play, and at this point we can’t even be sure whether possession is part of the plan. Through six MLS games, Deila’s NYCFC ranks smack in the middle of the league for share of passes played, one spot above its quarterfinal opponent, Gio Savarese’s Portland Timbers.

Unlike Toronto’s ball-hungry style, Portland is perfectly happy to sit back in a 4-2-3-1 and strike on the counter with quick combinations between attacking midfielder Diego Valeri and left winger Sebastián Blanco. Valeri often pushes up alongside the striker, Jeremy Ebobisse, while Blanco comes inside to open a lane for left back Jorge Villafaña bombing up the left. It could be a busy night for Anton Tinnerholm and whichever one of Chanot or Sands (who’s finally starting to garner some attention beyond the five boroughs) gets the nod at right center back. Once again, the result will hinge on NYCFC’s defensive instructions and a structure that’s still coming into view. ❧

Image: Paul Guillaume Lemoine, Architectural Ground Plan