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Is the 5 Man Backline Our Secret Weapon?

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In the last game of the season Vieira opened up a new option in his arsenal with a 5 man backline. Could this lineup be the key to playoff success?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On the last day of the season, with New York City FC needing three points to secure the number 2 seed and a playoff bye, Patrick Vieira again bucked conventional wisdom and went with a completely new formation, and started Eirik Johansen in goal over Josh Saunders - Saunders having played every single minute of the MLS season thus far for City. Not only was this Johansen’s first MLS game this season, this was actually his MLS Debut - having never played a regular season game up until this past weekend.

To go along with that change, Vieira deployed the squad in a 5-2-3 type of formation, one the club had never used before. Here’s how the team lined up:

Vieira chose to go with a two man midfield featuring Federico Bravo and Andrea Pirlo, with a front three of Stiven Mendoza, David Villa, and Jack Harrison. At times it looked like Harrison would alternate between dropping back into midfield and moving up into the front three, while Mendoza would move more centrally and Villa dropping wide into the left side of the field. And behind them was a back 5 of Ronald Matarrita, RJ Allen, Andoni Iraola, Maxime Chanot and Frederic Brillant. This was the first time we saw all of these players together in the backline, with Iraola dropping back down from midfield into central defense. With three defenders in front of goal, Allen and Matarrita pushed further up into the attack and defended the wings for Pirlo and Bravo, allowing them to stay central.

This lineup resulted in more width to the passing than you’d expect in Yankee Stadium. Chanot and Brillant were able to push out while Matarrita and Allen pushed forward covering the wings for the midfield. This resulted in a lot more moving the ball up the pitch along the wings, rather than centrally. Was this a one off formation? Hard to say at this point. Vieira has been known to tinker with formations, especially at home. At the same time, this might be something he cooked up for the Columbus Crew considering how difficult they’ve been for the club to handle since the NYCFC’s inception. We know Vieira has a lot of respect for Columbus, so it’s not hard to believe this was tailor made to compete with the Crew.

Having said that, there are advantages this formation could provide the club for a home leg match in the upcoming playoffs. First and foremost, this formation seems tailor-made for Ronald Matarrita. His performance against the Crew was one of his strongest games of the season. And it’s not surprising it would be, as he is used to playing for a 5 man backline for the Costa Rican National Team as well. That left wingback role suits him very well at this point in his career. It also allows Allen to move further up into the attack, where his deft passing can lead to more dangerous chances to the attacking players. Using both players to move the ball up the wings also avoided Columbus loaded midfield, where they had three midfielders to City’s two. Columbus play in a 4-2-3-1 formation that is a common formation in MLS, and NYCFC will no doubt see often in the playoffs.

Also, with Iraola dropping into central defense, it adds more stability to playing the ball out of the back. Iraola’s patience and steadiness with the ball at his feet has really helped to solidify Vieira’s philosophy for the club. However, the same can’t be said for other players like Jefferson Mena, Brillant, even Jason Hernandez. While strong physical defenders, they often put themselves in precarious positions with their passing decisions. Adding Iraola, and also having Chanot back from injury, prevented and minimized the passing gaffes we have been accustomed to all season. Eliminating or cutting down on turnovers in the team’s defensive third will be crucial to any sustained playoff success the team is hoping to achieve over the next month.

Will this be the formation we see moving forward towards winning MLS Cup? Only Vieira himself knows the answer to that. But utilizing this five man backline againt the Crew at the very least provided him and the fans the knowledge that it can be used. Teams will try to overload the midfield against NYCFC, attacking Pirlo and pressuring the backline into making an untimely turnover. This formation could be an effective counter to that strategy, particularly at games played in Yankee Stadium.

Come on you boys in Blue!