Montreal beat New York City 3-2 on Saturday, in a game that the Blues desperately needed to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Like so many other games this season, there was a marked contrast between the two halves of play. The first half was as insipid a performance as New York City has delivered all season, surrendering two goals, and managing only two shots the entire half. The second half, fueled by three substitutions and the long-delayed introduction of Frank Lampard, was better; but it was all for naught.
For the first time, New York City's three designated players shared the field. I think a little caution is on order here; I don't think this is how they'll line up if all three are starting a game. But now that Lampard is seemingly healthy, I think the headaches are only going to get worse for Jason Kreis going forward. New York City fans were irate with Jason Kreis' lineup choice for this game — and they've been frustrated with the lack of a settled lineup for most of the year. This game's complaints were: Why is Grabavoy starting? Why are Mix and Poku on the bench? Where's Facey?
In Kreis' defense, New York City got demolished by an injury crisis earlier this season, which saw player after player get mowed down. That didn't help. The problem is different now: how do you craft a successful lineup that fits Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, and Mix Diskerud, not to mention Tommy McNamara and Kwadwo Poku?
It's not just a matter of putting all those players on the field, and thinking that success will just happen. You have to put players — even the greatest ones — in a position to succeed. That's why strategy and tactics matter so much; that's why, even though the superstars may get the attention, it's the unheralded players that may matter even more.
Let's look at New York City's lineup from Saturday's game.
At first glance, it looks like a pretty standard 4-2-3-1. But if you're familiar with the players in that lineup, a few questions come to mind:
- Angelino and Iraola love getting forward. Who's going to provide cover for Jefferson Mena — making his first start — Jason Hernandez, and Josh Saunders?
- Andrea Pirlo and Andrew Jacobson are notionally your holding midfielders. But are you really expecting Pirlo to provide defensive support?
- Why is Ned Grabavoy lined up as a central attacking midfielder? Shouldn't McNamara be in that spot? Calle is a left midfielder, so he's in his natural starting position, but you've got two players who aren't. How come?
Frank Klopas, Montreal's manager, isn't a great coach. But he's a canny one. This is how Montreal scored their first two goals. Look at what happens on both goals.
And this was their second goal:
Both times, Montreal simply dumps a long ball over the top. Both times, the receiver is blissfully wide open. And why is he open? There's lots of reasons why, but a key one is Pirlo's inability to close space. This isn't something new; it's one of his fundamental flaws. It's why he's always had a bulldog midfielder accompanying him his entire career, whether that was Gennaro Gattuso in Milan, or Vidal and Pogba at Juventus.
Jacobson is supposed to provide that support. But he's just one player. When you combine that with Angelino's and Iraola's propensity for going forward, that means that you only have two centerbacks on defense. Mena and Hernandez were playing together for the first time ever, so they have no defensive rhythm. The result is two simple goals surrendered.
A successful lineup needs to address that. New York City's weak point all season long has been its defense. It remains so, and likely will for the rest of the season. It's so obvious that even Andrea Pirlo addressed it.
Pirlo:"We need to work on defense, it's the main thing we need to work on"— Nick Chávez (@NickChavezMLS) August 1, 2015
MLS' secondary transfer window closes on Thursday. That's also the trade deadline. I don't think New York City make any more additions to their back line. For better or worse, New York City's defensive roster is likely set, barring any waivers. Where New York City might make moves in the next couple of days is in the midfield. The Blues' midfield is not well-crafted at all. Earlier today, we tweeted about the differences in passing percentage between Andrew Jacobson and Frank Lampard.
PHUN PHACT: On Sat., Frank Lampard subbed on for Andrew Jacobson. Lampard's passing % was 61.5, lowest on #NYCFC. Highest? Jacobson, 92.3%— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) August 4, 2015
That difference is stark — and there's a reason for it. Many of Lampard's passes were long balls sent rocketing to David Villa, or mopped up by Tommy McNamara or Kwadwo Poku.
Those kinds of passes are necessarily going to be less accurate than short, precise ones. But I really don't see where New York City have a choice. One thing that tactic has going for it is that passes — even long ones — from Pirlo and Lampard are going to be way more accurate than average. If you've got McNamara and Poku up top receiving those balls, feeding Villa, and Jacobson covering the back line, that's a lineup that could work for New York City.
What shape would that lineup take? How about this?
That's a lineup, I think, that maximizes most of the pieces that New York City has at its disposal. The backline features two fullbacks in Angelino and Iraola that like getting forward and can help support and cover for Pirlo and Lampard, whom we shouldn't expect to cover acres of ground. Jacobson, in the middle, can help support Mena and Facey on the defense, and serve as the bulldog midfielder that someone like Pirlo -- and let's be honest, Lampard, too -- needs.
For their part, Lampard and Pirlo help orchestrate the attack from the left and right, blasting pinpoint long balls into the box. McNamara and Poku are the primary receivers here; they mop up those balls, and help Villa up top. McNamara uses his darting runs, whilst Poku simply muscles folks out of the way.
There's one name here that doesn't appear. Someone's got to be the odd man out here. We'll be discussing what New York City can do with him in the next article.