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Why NYCFC’s fullbacks may hold the key to success this season

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Lack of creativity in the final third means City will have to turn elsewhere for goals and assists.

MLS: New York City FC at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s season opener against D.C. United at Audi Field was a mixed bag and when the 90 minutes were up, it felt like more on-field anguish would define NYCFC’s season again. High pressing and loads of energy set the tone for the opening 15 minutes of the match. It didn’t take long for Taty Castellanos to find the back of the net after a floored cross from Mr. Reliable: Anton Tinnerholm.

The energy then dissipated as quickly as it came. United were slowly creeping into the game and the midfield duo of James Sands and Keaton Parks failed to establish any meaningful spells of possession. The inevitable happened when United flipped the scoreline and headed into the break with a 2-1 advantage.

With the team down by one goal but still very much able to take something from the game, all eyes were on Ronny Deila and who he would bring off the bench. The triple substitution which saw Andres Jasson come on for Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Malte Amundsen for Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Alfredo Morales for Alexander Callens seemed like a positive move from the manager but there was little promise shown in the 20 minutes the substitutes played.

While many eyes will have been on the young attacking talent that is Jasson, it was Amundsen who had the most positive impact. The adventurous fullback did indeed find himself in attacking positions, offering a handful of teasing crosses — the best City had to offer in the second half.

The creative trio of Maxi Moralez, Tajouri-Shradi and Jesus Medina offered little creativity going forward. Once the energetic spark of the first 15 minutes faded, the three midfielders became lethargic and failed to carry their own weight in the final third. In the end it was Tinnerholm who recorded an assist for the night. As he’s done time and time again, the fiery fullback provided the majority of the threat on the right flank throughout the night.

The willingness of Amundsen to get into forward positions and Tinnerholm’s proven track record suggests that instead of gambling on the unpredictable form of the aforementioned creative trio, Deila should instead focus on having his fullbacks create chances for Taty and company.

A 3-4-3 formation could provide exactly what City need to edge out results, especially when they’re locked in a stalemate or down a goal. A backline where the defensive minded Thor drops as a left center back to aid the already solid Callens and Maxime Chanot can create a defensive unit that’s tough to break through. The change in position could sit well with Thor as he impressed defensively against United with his marking and positional discipline. Sands could also drop into a center back role although he does lack a strong presence in the air which could be problematic. This back three would also give license for Tinnerholm and Amundsen to get forward and bombard the opposition with crosses, stretch the field and make runs inside.

It’s still early in the season and as Ian Joy noted, the players may not be match fit for another five or six games. A change in the system may not sit well with the players but looking long term, it may just be the most pragmatic approach for City to get some decent results with a severely limited attacking threat. It would take pressure of Moralez, Medina and Tajouri-Shradi who instead of creating chances (which they didn’t do much of last time) can instead focus on creating space for the wingbacks and adding themselves as another body in the 18-yard box.

It’s worth mentioning that United are in a transition period of themselves. Still searching for an identity, manager Hernan Losada managed to scrape a good result at home, earning his side a valuable three points. While it would have been nice for Deila to iron out any wrinkles in his side, he was never going to be able to foresee any problems other than squad depth during pre-season. A change in shape might just be what City need in order to turn what is expected to be an underachieving season into a solid one.