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Less possessive: NYCFC’s October transformation into a counter-attacking team

Once NYCFC started giving up possession it started winning games

MLS: Playoffs- Round One-Atlanta United at New York City FC
Keep the ball, we’ll take the win.
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC dominated Atlanta United last Sunday in the first round of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs with a new style of play. Gone were the familiar play-out-of-the-back sequences, an approach originally put into place under Patrick Viera, continued by Domènec Torrent, and maintained until recently by Ronny Deila. Instead, the Pigeons got the win by a combination of pressing and direct long balls: NYCFC, long a possession team, is now a counter-attacking, high-pressing team.

It wasn’t just this one game. In the final five matches of the regular season, an unbeaten run that firmed up NYCFC’s spot in the playoffs, the Pigeons dominated possession just once, in the 6-0 thumping of DC United on October 23. Compare that to the previous five games, a winless streak that threatened to knock NYCFC out of the playoffs: The Pigeons won the possession battle every match except in the 1-1 draw against the New Jersey Red Bulls on September 22. Even then, NYCFC had 49% possession.

When NYCFC played the possession game in September and October, it took just two out of 15 points; when NYCFC ceded possession and became a counter-attacking team in October and November, it took 11 out of 15 points. Once NYCFC started giving up possession it started winning.

Here is NYCFC’s possession rate in the final 10 regular season matches plus the playoff game against Atlanta:

September 22 at Red Bulls, 1-1 D, 49%
September 25 vs Red Bulls, 0-1 L, 65%
September 29 at Chicago, 2-0 L, 52%
October 3 vs Nashville, 0-0 D, 59%
October 17 at Red Bulls, 1-0 L, 63%
October 20 at Atlanta United D, 1-1, 45%
October 23 vs DC United, 6-0 W, 66%
October 27 vs Chicago, 1-0 W, 43%
October 30 at Inter Miami, 1-3 W, 49%
November 7 vs Philadelphia, 1-1 D, 45%
November 21 vs Atlanta United, 2-0 W, 42%

In a piece recently published in the Outfield, Kevin Nelson broke down Atlanta’s “possession without purpose” in the playoff game, writing that NYCFC was happy to “roll out the red carpet for the visitors to fall over themselves.” That was certainly the case last Sunday against Atlanta, a team that led MLS in possession this season. But it also held true in games against Chicago and the Red Bulls, two squads that rarely dominate possession. Even Inter Miami, a team that spent the season trying to give away the ball, out-possessed NYCFC.

Multiple factors most likely have contributed to this change in style, most notably the team taking advantage of Castellanos’s incredible ability to win the ball off of defenders—especially in the air. The absence of Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm, both of whom contributed heavily to ball progression, has undoubtedly affected the team’s tactics as well.

Come Tuesday against New England, it would not be a surprise to see similar counter-attacking tactics put into place by Deila. Across the first two encounters with the Revolution this season, possession was closely split. The third game is hard to analyze as the 53’ red card shown to Alfredo Morales undoubtedly played a major role in New England’s 59% possession. Still, based on NYCFC’s recent run of form it would be unsurprising for New England to dominate possession with City continuously pressing and sending balls for Castellanos to gather.

Deila, for better or worse, evolved/devolved the team into a counter-attacking, high-press team. While it’s a style NYCFC fans are not accustomed to watching, it might prove to be the most successful way forward in this playoff run.