In my short time as a soccer fan, I've grown to appreciate the fact that there is no such thing as an easy game. I happened to learn this the hard way, but I don't think it's necessarily a difficult assumption to make; you look at a fixture list and see that your club is playing against a team at the bottom of the table and think, "Okay, great, this should be an easy win." Or you hear that the opposition has been having a bad run of form, so why wouldn't it be a quick, painless game that your team can bury in the opening 25? Logic dictates that you're probably right.
Herein lies the issue: logic doesn't dictate anything in soccer, which is both simultaneously thrilling and exceedingly frustrating. If logic dictated every minute of every match, the ball would most certainly never lie, fouls would most definitely be called accordingly, and we would have a decidedly boring, static game that lacks the drama we all crave in a good soccer match.
So when we came to the NYCFC match away against New England Revolution, all signs (and a lot of fans!) pointed to an NYCFC win. A promising lineup, a good run of form against the Revolution's bad run of form, and a wild performance in the Bronx last weekend that had been more or less their most electric match of the season all suggested it was possible. As we all know, however, that was precisely what didn't happen.
stasis (or lack thereof)
I will admit that I was stoked for this lineup. I'd been wanting to see Hernandez and Facey in the back with Iraola and Angelino, and the four in midfield have proven themselves to be intelligent both on and off the ball, especially Jacobson. With Villa and Mullins leading the charge, I was convinced we'd see some solid chemistry between these eleven players. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
When Villa is compelled to drop back to force his own chances, it's a pretty good indicator that equilibrium is lacking in the midfield. Again, the linear setup of the 4-4-2 did absolutely nothing but inhibit NYCFC's ability to innovate plays on the move; McNamara, Grabavoy, Jacobson, and Ballouchy were all square during much of the opening 30 minutes of the game, tracking step for step up and down the pitch a few yards ahead of the back line. Because of this, we did see Villa dropping back to feed balls to McNamara who in turn fed them back to him, but at that point Villa really needed to be five steps ahead in the box waiting for a ball from his midfield. He can't be responsible for executing two roles at once on the pitch.
While his job as a striker doesn't forbid him from occasionally lingering further back on the pitch, I don't really think we're going to see the best that David Villa has to offer until he can get robust support from his midfielders. The linear structure of the team saw balls passed from the defenders to the midfielders, but unless a counter was in motion, there wasn't enough good movement off the ball to generate a series of successful plays into the Revolution's final third. A majority of the passing felt jarring, halted, and since the Revolution played five in midfield, the middle of the pitch was over-saturated with players from both sides. On the most basic level, this prevented NYCFC from opting for threading those key passes that they have favored so much in the past.
What a diamond in midfield, or a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-5-1 does, is organically introduce more dynamic lines on the pitch between positions. Instead of building a lineup that is constructed of static rows of players, there is a staggered placement of midfielders. This isn't to say that managers must rely solely on the formation to fix movement problems on the pitch; midfielders who are in sync with one another and have the foresight to initiate creativity with their forwards are just as integral to finding balance on the team.
In the game on Saturday, a lot of passing within midfield went square or back, funneled out through the wings because of how congested Revolution's midfield was to begin with. Angelino and Iraola attempted to help move the ball along the touchlines, especially Angelino, but his quickness was dampened by a lack of synergy with McNamara who was more often than not just too slow on the return. Once Angelino gets accustomed to playing with the team, there is a potential for some fantastic soccer along the left-hand corridor of the pitch.
I think finding that sweet spot of a formation that lends itself to more dynamic play with players who are capable of sustaining the demand of the formation is when we're going to see the best of NYCFC. I think it's also when we're going to see the full range of skill that each player possesses, just as we have seen Andrew Jacobson excel as a holding midfielder. Whether that's with Pirlo and Lampard orchestrating midfield is yet to be seen, but I have a strong suspicion that their impact will, at the very least, benefit Villa's incredible capabilities.
The red card at minute 54 for Grabavoy effectively killed whatever hopes NYCFC had for an equalizer. There have been opinions swirling around the nature of the booking; I personally think a straight red was harsh, since it was fairly obvious that the challenge was accidental on Grabavoy's part. Was it smart? Absolutely not, but it definitely was not malicious enough to warrant the official's knee jerk reaction to it. Reds drastically alter the tides of matches; we've seen NYCFC react with fervor to them before, but we've also seen them struggle listlessly across the pitch when they've gone down a man. Every single game is different.
Last week we saw a referee point to the spot a record number of times in a single match. This past weekend we saw a referee who probably should have acknowledged at least two penalties for NYCFC and didn't. Brash challenges were left unchecked, yet all that really means is...every single game is different. It's amazing how subjective the sport is, but that's soccer for you!
I think one of the most important takeaways was that Saturday showed a side of the team that didn't collapse under pressure, and while it wasn't the result we all wanted, it showed that the team has the ability to mitigate damage. Unlike the Impact game where City had all 11 players on the pitch and Impact spent the better part of the last 20 minutes pummeling the box with balls, the Revolution game saw a strong opposition control the dying stages of the game while NYCFC fought to organize a response. What we got were a few decent attempts on goal with the distinct feeling that the team was still trying, something that is still important as we look toward the end of the season in the fall. I may be in the minority, but so long as I see an honest effort put forth during those games when things start getting rough for City, I will continue to acknowledge the bright points of each performance. Consistent growth through this inaugural season is key.
With the imminent arrival of help in both the back line and the midfield, there are positives on the horizon. It was a disappointing loss, and one that so many felt should have been an easy win, but Revolution fought a hard game and a very good game to secure three points. With the Orlando City game next, hopefully we'll see a few fresh faces on the pitch to help push NYCFC to a home win!