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The 109ers: The curious case of Pirlo, Lampard & Iraola, NYCFC's veteran three-man midfield

It shouldn't work in a tough, athletic league like MLS. But it's working.

A mix of young and young-at-heart.
A mix of young and young-at-heart.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We hardly got a whiff of it last year due to injuries and late arrivals, but when we did, our reaction was always the same:

There is no way in hell NYCFC can get away with playing a midfield that includes Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo together, because defending.

Last year, when New York City had no true-blue #6 midfielder to play behind those midfield star-men-of-a-certain-age, as well as the fact that Jason Kreis's ever-shifting back four couldn't stop a celibate monk from scoring, it just felt like the team couldn't afford the luxury of starting both midfield DPs beside one another. In the offseason, we asked Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl about precisely this:

HRB: How do you put together a competent MLS midfield if you've got Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo out there at the same time?

GW: You find a Patrick Vieira.

Of course, Grant was talking about Vieira the Midfielder, not Vieira the Rookie Head Coach.

He went on to suggest signing an Ozzie Alonso-type guy as the answer at the base of the midfield, and NYCFC went on to sign a guy who very much fits that description in Federico Bravo. But the recent summertime rise of Lamps & the Maestro side-by-side in the middle has come about while Bravo has nursed a calf injury.

Crazily enough, the solution at the #6 position -- the Lebowskian rug to tie the midfield group together -- is a guy that's been on the team for a year now: 34-year-old Andoni Iraola, whose six recoveries of possession Saturday at Seattle tied him with RJ Allen for the most among NYCFC outfield players:


Iraola had played almost exclusively as a right fullback over the course of a celebrated career at Athletic Bilbao, and we had wondered out loud if dropping him into the deep midfield would neutralize his potential as a crosser and playmaker.

But we should have just shut up about that. Because this three-man grouping, with Lampard out ahead, Pirlo playing facilitator, and Iraola cleaning up the mess, is absolutely cooking right now. They're cooking so hard that Lil B ought to take notice. Lamps has scored in two games on the trot, Pirlo continues to look as engaged as ever playing the part of the nerve center, and Iraola has adapted at lightning-speed to his brand-new role.

It's fascinating: Lampard is 38, Pirlo is 37, and Iraola just turned 34. While plenty of four-man midfields might add up to 109 years of age, Patrick Vieira and NYCFC have reached that mark with three guys. And it's working. The Blues have won back-to-back games, one home, one away, with the 109ers.

(For reference, FC Dallas's five-man midfield of Carlos Gruezo, Kellyn Acosta, Michael Barrios, Mauro Diaz, and Fabian Castillo is a combined 115 years of age.)

As to how this was able to happen for the Blues, perhaps Nas would say that it ain't hard to tell:

New York City 3, Philadelphia Union 2 (Yankee Stadium, 6/18)

  • NYCFC were effective at maximizing chances compared to their possession, as well as springing counter-attacks
  • The threat of the 109ers freed up the younger, more athletic wide guys -- RJ Allen, Jack Harrison, Tommy McNamara, Ronald Matarrita -- to wreak havoc and stretch the field.
  • You know what happened: Lampard and Pirlo both scored and earned WhoScored match ratings of 7.6, Iraola led all non-center backs in clearances, and the good guys won.
New York City 2, Seattle Sounders 0 (CenturyLink Field, 6/25)
  • On a far larger pitch, the Blues controlled proceedings with short passing up the middle and killer runs/passes in from the wide areas of the attacking third.
  • With the 109-ers eating up space centrally, Allen (assist) and Matarrita (goal) had the room to play starring roles at fullback.
  • Once again, Iraola led all non-center backs in clearances, and was tied for the NYCFC lead in interceptions. Lampard and Pirlo both posted WhoScored match ratings of 7.4.
  • The good guys won it in one of the toughest road environments in the western hemisphere with Jefferson Mena and Frederic Brillant starting at center back.
In each of these wins, Pirlo has shaded more to the left, between Matarrita and McNamara, while Iraola and Lampard have both pushed more to the right, between Allen and Harrison. It stands to reason: by placing so many young, assertive playmakers all around the "more deliberate" 109ers, Patrick Vieira has struck the perfect balance. Does the team still have weaknesses? You bet your arse-- they've still got problems closing things out at their home ground, and they've conceded more goals than any team in MLS. But the current blueprint matching an "experienced" midfield three with fearless, marauding wide men and the singular brilliance of David Villa has produced incredibly encouraging results of late.

Of course, the real test comes on Sunday when the Dread Bulls come back to town. But confidence matters -- never more so than in rivalry games -- and the Blues ought to take the field this weekend with plenty of it. If the 109ers can turn back the clock once again, it could be a long, long day for those whippersnappers from New Jersey.