So. Life goes on. The sun rises.
Anytime something like what happened Saturday occurs, it's a good idea to hit pause on any specific analysis, sit back, and then approach it from a new perspective in the light of the morning.
Like it or not, Saturday's 7-0 defeat is one of those things that's going to become a benchmark of this rivalry. In previewing the game, I wrote that any rivalry is forged on the field, first and foremost. What matters most is what gets recalled in stoking the fires of antagonism between two clubs. What gets recalled? What happens on the field. Fans will use it, obviously; hell, the Red Bulls fans were using it during the game. And, for as much as players were downplaying the scoreline after the game, they're not forgetting it, either.
I know it's hard to imagine now, but I'm convinced that in time, New York City will have an equally dominant victory over the Red Bulls. It stings that this rivalry is so one-sided right now. It aches, but the truth is that these two teams are in starkly different places right now. The Red Bulls are a fully developed, mature team. They have a stadium, they have a youth pipeline complete with an excellent academy. They have an established way that they play, they have a lore and a history and a set of fully developed relationships, both internally and externally, that define who they are and what they are.
New York City doesn't have that. Not yet; they will. All that building, though, takes time; intangible and tangible; internal and external. It cannot be forced. It will not be forced. It's not like the Blues aren't making progress. They are. This, right now, is a better team than last year. As much as I like Jason Kreis, seeing him manage and coach and seeing Patrick Vieira manage and coach tells me that Vieira is a better coach for this team. He's quietly putting together a team that's going to be very good
I know it doesn't feel like it in the aftermath of a humiliating loss to our neighbors, but it's true. You can see it in the way they practice, you can see it in the way that they approach the game, and you can see it in the way they handle adversity. It's hard to believe, but New York City was in the game Saturday. Before Bradley Wright-Phillips scored his brace, the Blues had several decent scoring forays. They didn't make much of them, but they weren't getting played off the park.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
It begins with set pieces. The Blues gave up five goals from set pieces: three from corner kicks, one from a second ball, and two from giveaways. Dax McCarty, the second-shortest man in the Red Bulls lineup after pioneering hobbit player Connor Lade, was responsible for two set-piece goals. How did that happen? Because the Blues are just a small team, physically.
That allows teams to dominate them in the physical scrum that's any set piece play. It happened in the draw against Montreal and it happened here. There's only so much that New York City can do here; short of starting more physical players, the Blues will be at a disadvantage on set pieces. It's clear that Vieira's first-choice back line is Matarrita, Hernandez, Brillant, and Allen. None of those players are bruising physical specimens in the vein of a Jámison Olave. The closest player to that on our roster is probably Jefferson Mena. Vieira sees him, at best, as a reserve player.
Set pieces may be the immediate cause, but that's not where it starts. Where it starts is with how the teams play. Like in so many other ways, New York City and the Red Bulls are opposites. New York City like to patiently build from the back, stringing together passes, giving Andrea Pirlo time to craft plays, and hold on to the ball. In many ways, when executed properly, it's a playing style reminiscent of Barcelona's possession-oriented approach.
In contrast, the Red Bulls come at you with a suffocating high press, content to surrender possession in exchange for forcing turnovers. They play a hard, running game, closing down their opponents fast enough to frustrate build-up, and to devoid them time on the ball. They wait for the opportune moment to tackle, or force the player on the ball into an error, and then counter on the break.
That's precisely what happened on Saturday. From the start, the Red Bulls deprived New York City of space to work with the ball. They aggressively closed down what little space existed on the field, then proceeded to occupy that space maximally, continually harassing the back line and the midfield. They denied Pirlo space and time on the ball, and continually forced Mikey Lopez and Federico Bravo, who shield Pirlo and allow him to create, to stay home on defense instead of getting upfield.
Instead of building from the back, New York City were reduced to booting the ball and bypassing their midfield. Tommy McNamara and David Villa can do a lot of things, but winning aerial battles isn't one of them. The Blues really only have one player who's capable of doing that - Khiry Shelton - and that capacity remains more potential than reality.
Aurelien Collin got tasked with covering Villa, and he blanketed the Spanish striker, reducing him to one solitary shot in the area. Meanwhile, Chris Duvall shut down any possibility of balls getting played in to Villa diagonally, closing down those passes and pouncing on them, and then launching yet another counter for the Red Bulls, with Zizzo and Lade available to help frustrate attacks, scoot down the field and lay off the ball to the midfield.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It didn't hit me until I was talking about it with someone else after the game, but the Red Bulls' playing style is ideal for Yankee Stadium. As the smallest field in the league, it's not particularly conducive for pinging the ball around, probing a defense for weaknesses. It's far too easy for visiting teams to shut down what channels exist, should they decide to use a high press, to sit back and hit on the counter, or to do both.
This goes some way to explaining why New York City have won just one of their seven home games. Most teams that have visited Yankee Stadium this season have either sat back, conceding possession to the Blues, then nicked a goal off a set piece, or have pressed up the field, forcing goals off New York City's defensive lapses as they pressure Saunders and the defense whilst they attempt to build from the back. Vancouver's first goal, in City's only home victory this season, came precisely this way.
Vieira's commitment to building from the back with New York City is admirable, but it's not well-suited to playing in Yankee Stadium. When it works, it's beautiful to watch, but when it fails the failures are devastating -- with Saturday's demolition being the nadir. The Red Bulls were just the most successful team yet at frustrating New York City from playing the way Vieira wants them to play, but other teams have done well at it. Even worse, it's become clear to me that when building from the back isn't working, the Blues have no backup plan and are forced to design one on the fly.
If Vieira has one major flaw as a manager, it's that. I've yet to see this team successfully execute an alternate scheme of attack when its primary scheme gets foiled. Put another way: MLS has now adapted to how Patrick Vieira plans a game out. This is where things now get real for Vieira, and where we find out just how good of a manager he's capable of being. Can he now adapt in turn, and force MLS opponents to adapt to that? Or will he persist with his original design, even if it's now clear that opposing teams have gamed it out and are successfully shredding it?
In the military, this concept is called OODA: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Attack. It's visualized as a decision loop, and victory comes from getting inside that loop and forcing your opponent to react.
Jesse Marsch got inside Vieira's OODA loop on Saturday, but he's not the only one. He's just the guy who did it to maximum effect, and laid it bare for all the world to see.
When Vieira was asked after the game how the Blues would get past this loss, his response was telling: "Working. Working, working, working." On what? One hopes that it's not just on stuff around the edges and perfecting Plan A. One hopes that it's on crafting a Plan B, and a C and even a D or an E if the first two don't work. Otherwise, it's going to be a long season in Yankee Stadium, and those seats are going to get emptier and emptier.
What could those alternatives look like?
Vieira differs from Kreis in that not only has he settled on a formation and playing style, but a stable starting eleven. Far more than Kreis, he seems to have ruthlessly settled on which players pass his scrutiny and which are chaff, at least in the early weeks of the season.
One of the good things about a pasting like the one we saw on Saturday is it becomes a natural point to reassess things and look at them from a fresh perspective. There's nothing that Vieira can really do about the physical gifts and deficiencies of his squad, at least in the near term. MLS roster rules limit the amount of roster turnover a team can engage in during the season, so even if he wanted to clear out his roster, Vieira can't. Instead, he's got to make do with the ingredients he's got at hand.
That starts with assessing how his team has failed in certain critical situations, and start testing out alternatives. For example, now would probably be an excellent time to see whether New York City have a long-term answer at goalkeeper in Eirik Johansen, who acquitted himself well during preseason. At 6-7 and 235 pounds, the Swede is physically imposing in a way that Saunders will never be, plus he demonstrated comfort with the ball at his feet that Saunders clearly doesn't possess.
Similarly, now that Jack Harrison is healthy, we should start seeing him more of him on the field. Although his appearance on Saturday came with the game already decided, and consequently with minimal pressure on him to perform, he demonstrated a degree of brightness and inventiveness on the ball that deserves to be rewarded with more time.
What would a lineup like this look like? Vieira raised eyebrows earlier this season when he deployed a W-M-ish 3-2-2-3 lineup. Given that, I've crafted a lineup with that in mind.
Obviously, I've replaced Saunders with Johansen. In this lineup, the three-man backline consists of Matarrita, Hernandez, and Allen; Brillant is the odd-man out here, and deservedly so, as his performances thus far have not progressed past serviceable.
The midfield - which has regularly gotten overrun in its three-man deployment - is anchored by Bravo. He and Lopez help shield Andrea Pirlo, as they have all season. However, the addition of Jack Harrison gives opposing teams another player to be wary of. His presence is buttressed by McNamara's; I have him here as a withdrawn winger. In addition, I have him and Harrison rotating field position -- McNamara cuts to the inside to serve as a quasi-number 10, and Harrison cuts to the outside to serve as a left midfielder.
Up top, I have David Villa as the lead striker. I also have Kwadwo Poku acting as a secondary striker, rather than as a midfielder. I've long been convinced that he's miscast in a midfield role, and that New York City would be better served by him acting as a target forward. I actually like him better in that role than Khiry Shelton, who's shown no aptitude for that. Poku is a more imposing player in the box, he's got a greater nose for goal, and he's able to hold up the ball and craft something out of nothing far more than Shelton has.
Saturday's loss can define the season, but it need not define it negatively; it can - and must - serve as a springboard to greater success. Now is when we find out what kind of manager Patrick Vieira is capable of being. Now is when he makes his bones as a manager, and demonstrates whether the comparisons to Pep Guardiola are grandiose or merited.