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Tactical Analysis: The case for playing three in the back

It hasn't always been pretty, but NYCFC need to trust the process

Designated Player Thiago Martins was NYCFC’s biggest signing this year.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy of

For the first time in his New York City FC career, manager Ronny Deila’s job is safe and secure. No longer needing to win over the fans, players, and front office, he can take more tactical risks with the team. In the early stages of 2022, Deila has utilized his bench effectively at earlier marks in the game—an aspect that he received criticism for last season. He has also tried a three-at-the-back defense, slotting the newly signed Thiago Martins alongside Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens.

It hasn't always worked out for NYCFC. The team are 4W-1D-3L after eight games in all competitions, with 15 goals scored and nine goals allowed. More troubling, NYCFC are 1W-1D-2L in MLS league play, with four goals scored and four goals allowed—that's the record of a mid-table team, not a title winner.

But there are reasons to support Deila’s lineups and newfound inclination to make substitutions. NYCFC fans need to trust the process.

The case for three in the back

NYCFC went scoreless against both the LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps to start the 2022 MLS season. One reason for the flat offense was the inability of the fullbacks to get involved in the attack.

Delia addressed this issue in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals against Comunicaciones FC by inserting Thiago Martins into the starting lineup, benching Keaton Parks, and moving to a 3-4-3. Playing three at the back allowed Andres Jasson and Malte Amundsen to create overloads in the attacking front then track back to solidify the defense with the three center backs. This switch worked with Jasson providing the hockey assist to Taty Castellanos’s opening goal.

Last season, NYCFC would often use a three-in-the-back, but never with three natural center backs. Instead, James Sands would slot between Callens and Chanot to play out of the back when NYCFC were in possession of the ball, then move back into the midfield when New York City were on defense. Nicolás Acevedo, Alfredo Morales, and Parks have all tried to play the role that Sands filled (and that Alex Ring had before him), but to no success. Neither Acevedo nor Morales is as solid in possession, and Parks is more of a ball-carrier who is better used higher up in the field.

Without that versatile player that can play both as a part of the back-three and as a defensive midfielder, Deila is forced to choose a more static lineup at the start of the match. If Deila needs to correct course mid-game, he can turn to his new hobby: Making substitutes.

Mr. Substitution

Playing in the CCL brings the need for squad management and squad rotation, tasks that every MLS team struggle with as no club seems to have the roster to successfully compete in both the tournament and in league play.

Deila’s substitution patterns last season were a point of heavy criticism. He ranked in the lower echelon league-wide in terms of substitution use, which was all the more criminal considering the depth of NYCFC.

New season, new Deila: In NYCFC’s first eight games, he has made an average of 4.25 subs per game, with the first change coming at an average of 60.5 minutes. (Jasson replacing the injured Tayvon Gray in the game against Vancouver doesn’t figure in these numbers.) Admittedly, this new affinity for making substitutes are a direct response to the team’s heavy game schedule and extensive travel, but they still represent a significant shift.

To complete the full 180-degree turn, Deila has become so substitution-crazy that his mid-game changes almost knocked out NYCFC out of the CCL. While Talles celebrated his header in the 53rd minute of the second leg of the CCL Quarterfinals against Comunicaciones, putting NYCFC up 2-1 in that game and 5-2 on aggregate, the camera turned to the sideline where Deila is consulting with his coaching staff and getting four members of the squad ready to come in off the bench.

At the time, the logic seemed solid: Because Comunicaciones needed to score four unanswered to advance, it was prudent to give the starters a break and the backup players some minutes. But within 15 minutes of those subs coming on the field, Comunicaciones scored two of those four goals. After an ugly loss, NYCFC advanced on away goals. It was a case of too many subs made too early.

That being said, this feels good for the fans who bemoaned the lack of changes last season. NYCFC will face Seattle Sounders in the CCL Semifinals, while there is more than enough time in the MLS season to compete domestically.