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Mixed results: Finding balance in the NYCFC midfield

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Michael Rayome takes a look at the Blues' midfield composition

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In the first test of Patrick Vieira’s New York City tenure, his men earned every bit of Sunday's victory over the Chicago Fire. Yet, in a 4-3 game that featured Fire striker David Accam setting the City high line ablaze, it’s not surprising that the defensive woes are of some concern to the NYC faithful.

Considering the 2015 NYCFC defense gave up a league-most 14.8 shots per game, the goals and chances conceded prompted some cries of "same-old, same-old" from those in blue. With the exception of fat-gloved magician Josh Saunders, the defense shows poorly in the match report and has taken somewhat of a beating on social media.

But if you’re ready to chalk it up as a repeat of last year’s troubles, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The 2016 Bronx Blues show again as deficient on the defensive end — but, this year, it could be for subtly different reasons.

NYCFC features arguably the most star-studded midfield in the league, starting the Italian Andrea Pirlo, the electric Kwadwo Poku, on-and-off USMNTer Mix Diskerud and Manchester City legend Frank Lampard. Today, due to a nagging injury to the Englishman and a healthy scratch to Poku, the midfield trio was completed by golden-footed mullet Tommy McNamara.

In today’s game, the City midfield contributed two goals and two assists, one of each from the Mix and McNamara duo, while dominating possession. While you can’t depend on that kind of output every week, the attacking prowess is as evident as it was last year.

It’s still early returns, to be clear. But even this early, it’s obvious that the high line 4-3-3 implemented by Patrick Vieira gives this midfield a greater opportunity to influence games offensively. The attack was able to punish mistakes, creating ample opportunities from open play.

But playing Vieira's aggressive style isn’t without risk. Using a high line puts a heavy burden on your team’s defenders, particularly against the pacy strikers this league has to offer. MLS isn’t a league noted for breathtaking skill, but elite athletes grow on trees here. It isn’t hyperbole to say that some of the fastest attackers in the world call MLS home. If you give them space, Dominic Oduro and David Accam can destroy you. (Not convinced? Watch the NYCFC-Seattle game tape from last year and weep uncontrollably.)

When playing against pacy strikers, it’s more critical than ever to make chances hard to come by. To limit opportunities in space, pressuring the passer is a more consistently successful strategy than emergency defending. While not every MLS side has an Andrea Pirlo, if you give them space, MLS midfielders are plenty capable of punting a pass over the top to a streaking striker.

You saw it on Sunday. According to WhoScored, Chicago played 81 long balls in an effort to unlock the NYC defense. If it weren’t for Josh Saunders’ continued brilliance, this is a game that very easily could have ended 6-4 to the home side — 15 of Chicago’s 17 shots came inside the 18 yard box. That’s problematic.

It’s fair to say that Mix and McNamara are questionable defenders. And St. Andrea Pirlo left "questionable" behind well before Juventus signed Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba to protect him several years ago.

It’s an issue further complicated by the club’s commitment to using marauding fullbacks to support the attack. New signee Ronald Mataritta’s average position today (according to whoscored.com) showed him playing mostly as a left mid today. While he was very impressive in the attack, you need cover for a guy that committed to bombing up the pitch*.

Frankly, it doesn't take a genius to adjust to attacking that space. Many teams replace an attacking full back when reacting to a counter with a deep lying midfielder, but NYCFC doesn’t have that option. Respectfully, Pirlo is just not capable of recovering defensively.

This puts a ton of pressure on both your unconvincing centerbacks and your goalkeeper. Chicago flooded the middle of the attacking field with four attackers most of the game, and there simply weren’t enough defenders there to cover.

Let’s be clear — this is not a problem that can be solved by the return of Frank Lampard. Whatever your feelings are on Frank, replacing Mix or McNamara with Lampard takes a pair of legs that can still run off the field.

It’s not clear that this problem can be solved by the return of right back Andoni Iraola — like Mataritta, he’s an attacking fullback you have to cover for.

Despite the desires of NYCFC fans everywhere, it can’t even be solved by installing Kwadwo Poku into the lineup. Even if you ignore what some would call a shaky preseason, he’s another talented attacking midfielder in a squad full of them.

What this team needs is Federico Bravo. Or, at least, a player with his profile. A defensive-minded anchor would provide cover for the fullbacks while creating a capable defensive triangle.

But in order to drop that anchor, you have to either:

  • Bench three of Pirlo, Lampard, Mix, McNamara, and Poku. You’re not benching both of your DPs, so I’m guessing that this isn’t a favored option.
  • Ditch the 4-3-3 and play the Jason Kreis-favored narrow 4-4-2 formation. I’m sure that this would go over tremendously well with the fanbase. But fans gave the ex-coach heartburn over the perpetual benching of starlet Poku — good luck leaving Lampard or Pirlo off the teamsheet. This solution gets at least one more talented midfielder in the side.
  • Trade away some midfield talent. It might be too late for this, but this has to be considered in the summer window. There’s some valued talent that isn’t playing here.

Let it be said — it’s an absolute gift to be asking this question after earning three points on the road. Despite the flaws that NYCFC showed defensively, they put up four goals on the road — that’s a major accomplishment whether you’re playing in Bridgeview or West London. But unless  the club finds a sense of balance in the midfield, you’ll get screen burn from how often you see on Twitter an opponent "scoring from a lofted ball over the top."

Creating a winning midfield is a question that Vieira is paid very handsomely to answer. But, considering the major challenges both on and off the field, I feel very fortunate today that I’m not the man charged with solving this problem.