Several weeks ago, I detailed the club's ongoing troubles at Yankee Stadium. Up until the much needed victory against the Whitecaps home field was looking more and more as a hindrance rather than an advantage. Fast forward back to the present, where the club is in the midst of a 3 game winning streak, and sits tied atop the Eastern Conference standings, and one would think we are looking at a completely different team. And in some ways, there is some truth to that. Just take a look at their home and away splits when it comes to how the team scores it's goals:
NYCFC has an impressive 9 goals in open play in their Away games. Meanwhile, at home, the club has only managed 7 total goals, with only 4 coming from open play. It's clear that it is a challenge to find space and attack the narrow pitch in Yankee Stadium. It's also clear, however, that Patrick Vieira's side does not take the ailments of the narrow pitch with them on the road. They instead take advantage of the more spacious confines of the opposing team's pitch, to the early tune of a 3-2-0 Away record. The club is currently tied with Toronto FC in away wins, with TFC having spent almost the entirety of their season so far on the road. Further adding to this fact is that 2 of their wins in this recent 3 match winning streak came on the road as well.
But it's not just the wider pitch in enemy territory that has turned the tide for the club. Their last two home matches saw them take away 4 out of a possible 6 points, with a late lapse in defense against Montreal preventing what could currently be a 4 game winning streak and the lone spot atop of the Eastern Conference. Yes, Vieira's side has made some very real adjustments that have brought dividends to the team's performance, and has resulted in the team's recent run of success. So what moves has Vieira made? Well, one could point to going back to the 4-3-3 and moving away from the WM formation. It's more than a simple formation change, however. Let's dive into some of the tactical adjustments Vieira has made.
Adjustment 1: Moving Tommy McNamara to Left Winger
The Legend that is Thomas McNamara has played every game so far for NYCFC this season, starting but all but one of those matches. It's fair to say that McNamara has been a consistent fixture in the lineup. However, his role has been slightly adjusted over the club's recent run of success. Originally, McNamara played more a central midfielder along with Mix Diskerud in the 4-3-3, and in a more advanced central position in the WM formation, also alongside Mix. But when Vieira went back to the 4-3-3 he has now moved McNamara into the left winger role. But the real bit of nuance in this adjustment is Vieira has not asked McNamara to play the role of a true winger. And that's a good thing.
T-Mac is known for many things: a foot of gold, sensational hair, and the body of your uncle. Given that last one, he's the last person you'd want to ask to fly up and down the touch lines - things Vieira has asked of players like Khiry Shelton, Tony Taylor, and Steven Mendoza. Instead, he's asked for for McNamara to tuck back into the center of the pitch. In doing so, he's given Ronald Matarrita free reign to maraud up and down the left wing all game long, providing width in the attack and being asked to track back on defense. What's made this work is this is exactly what Matarrita was bred to do, and plays to his strengths. This adjustment also pulls McNamara back to where he is most of effective: in front of goal. Tommy has been a revelation when it comes to smart runs into the back, and excellent link up play with NYCFC talisman David Villa. This has led to him being the middle of almost anything that's been positive buildup in the NYCFC attack. No play was more emblematic of this than the goal Villa scored against DC:
There goes Tommy again, making another dangerous run and linking up beautifully with Villa. Even though he's technically playing the left winger role for NYCFC, McNamara is playing ostensibly the team's no. 10. Vieira has been a noted as being a fan of Tommy, calling him a very smart player who understands the game and knows how to put himself in the right spots on the pitch. McNamara has only rewarded Vieira so far by consistently displaying those qualities when he's out there. In the club's last 4 matches, McNamara has 3 assists and this beautiful golazo:
The Legend of Tommy McNamara grows indeed.
Adjustment 2: Scrapping Pirlo playing Defensive Midfielder
Early on this year in preseason, and in the first week versus the Chicago Fire, Vieira had try to work with Pirlo playing as a defensive midfielder, recognizing his preference to play as a deep lying playmaker. He had played as the sole midfielder in the 4-3-3, and also played alongside Federico Bravo as a holding midfielder in the WM formation. However, this often forced other players in the midfield to consistently track back and work harder on the defensive end to provide cover for Pirlo. Vieira, to his credit, has recognized this and made adjustments. More specifically, he's moved Pirlo up in a more advanced midfield role in the 4-3-3, allowing Bravo to play as the holding midfielder. This has been admittedly an adjustment for Pirlo, who has to work his magic with less room to work with. What this has done, however, is helped solidify the defense for NYCFC. Bravo has the potential to be as good as any of the top defensive midfielders. His loan signing may probably go down as the key acquisition of the season (yes even over Matarrita!). Bravo is also a willing defender. He wants to be in the defensive third. He lives for breaking up opponent's attacking play. His presences has also helped to stabilize the backline in what is turning into a competent defense for the first time in NYCFC's short history. This adjustment also links directly with another adjustment made by Vieira.
Adjustment 3: Starting Mikey Lopez over Mix Diskerud
Before the season began, I had a feeling that Mix would have to settle into a super-sub type of role. However, that was because I assumed Frank Lampard would be healthy, not because he'd lose his place to Mikey Lopez! And admittedly, I didn't like the move at first. I felt like the midfield was too defensive in nature, and would isolate Villa even more than he had been already. It was not too long ago where it seemed impossible to get Villa decent service in front of goal. But the move has actually worked very well. It's allowed Pirlo stay more advanced and in the attacking third. And while he hasn't really been ripping apart defenses with that final ball we are desperately expecting from him, it has allowed him to morph into this safety valve role that allows possession to continue in the attacking third. And this is because not only does he have Bravo holding the defensive line, he also has Mikey Lopez doing a lot of the defensive work. Lopez has played hard and physical, giving you 90 minutes of grit. He tirelessly hounds any player in his sights who has the ball.
It's a trait Vieira admires as well. When asked about his selection process, namely why was he choosing to start Mikey Lopez over Mix Diskerud, Vieira was quoted as saying he was looking for "more physicality on the field". Lopez came to NYCFC this offseason with the reputation of a defensive midfielder. Putting him alongside a stalwart like Bravo, allows him to do the box to box dirty work needed to cover for Pirlo.
These three adjustments are just a few of the tactical changes that Vieira's side has worked on over the last few weeks. Also, beyond the tactics themselves is the fact Vieira's message is getting through to players as they spend more time training and practicing his style of play. Khiry Shelton, while still not where many of us want him to be as a player, has shown strides as well in this recent winning streak. He played probably his best game ever in a NYCFC shirt against DC United, notching a goal and an assist. He took defenders on and did something that has often been rare to see: use his size and strength to overwhelm the defense. Also, now that R.J. Allen is healthy, he's been able to come on and become a solidifying force at the Right Back position. In the last few weeks he's scored his first goal, and made this peach of a pass to David Villa for an assist:
Another important change: NYCFC has learned to close out games. Vieira has made adjustments to ensure this as well. He's brought on players like Iraola and Ethan White late in games recently, swapping them in for attacking players. Not only that, he's employed these subs into 5-3-2 formation late in games. This extra defensive help and alignment has proved effective in their last two road wins. While Vieira has held true to his beliefs and tactics, he has only employed a level of pragmatism that is needed when trying to secure points on the road.
So, what's next for our Boys in Blue? Next up they close out their road trip at BMO Field against Toronto FC this Wednesday. After that, the club comes for a pivotal match against cross-river rivals New York Red Bulls. It'll be the opening match in this season's Hudson River Derby.