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Shape-Shifter: How Nick Cushing’s tactics defeated Gerhard Struber’s press

New York City FC lined up in a 4-3-2-1 but beat the Red Bulls with 3-5-2 formation that pulled the New Jersey defense apart

We’re starting to learn something about this guy.
Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy NYCFC.com

It didn't look good for New York City FC in the first half of yesterday’s game against the New Jersey Red Bulls.

Both of the teams took the field in formations that played to their respective strengths. NYCFC lined up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 that had Alexander Callens and Thiago Martins anchoring the defense, Maxi Moralez in the No 10 role, and Taty Castellanos playing as a roving striker up top. Go with what you know: The configuration from interim head coach Nick Cushing has become the identity of a New York City team that set out to dominate possession, overload the flanks, and win the game by creating chances from crosses lifted in from the wings.

In fact, it was the same formation that Cushing used in the US Open Cup match against the Red Bulls in his second game in charge of NYCFC, when New York City was soundly thumped by a score of 3-0. The squad that took the field last night was different from the one that started in June – most notably Sean Johnson was back in goal and Thiago Martins was starting – but the lineup still felt a little naive. We had seen this play out before, and it didn’t go well.

It was Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber who looked to be the more creative manager. He lined up his team in a 3-4-2-1 with the young, pacey midfielder and Bronx native Omir Fernandez operating as a false nine. It was a break from his preferred 4-3-2-1, the formation that dominated NYCFC in the US Open Cup, but that also didn’t deliver last week against FC Cincinnati despite the Red Bulls being up a player for more than 30 minutes. The celebrated press of the Red Bulls that often confused and frustrated opponents could also look directionless in front of goal, and Struber seemed to want defenders Dylan Nealis and John Tolkin to function as wingbacks that could feed the attack.

The starting lineups for New York City FC and New Jersey Red Bulls

For the first 45 minutes plus stoppage time, Struber looked to have made the better tactical decisions. New York City dominated possession but never looked dangerous under the constant threat of a Red Bulls press that forced turnover after turnover. For their part, New Jersey were relentless in transition, winning three corners in the first six minutes of play. The physical Red Bulls were getting called for fouls by the no-nonsense referee Chris Peno, but they were also creating chances and threatening to score. Struber later said in his postgame press conference that he felt the speed of Fernandez, Morgan, and Luquinhas would win the day over the “not especially good mobility” of Callens and Thiago Martins, and while you could take issue with that assessment of the NYCFC center backs it certainly seemed like the Red Bulls were going to score first.

By the end of the half, the Red Bulls had only 32% possession but took nine shots, three of them on goal. Even more frustrating for NYCFC, their advantage in possession was neutered by a New Jersey press that had them pinging the ball around in their own half. New York City would string together two or three passes, lose the ball, weather a Red Bulls attack, then do it all over again. Rinse and repeat.

Both teams took the field in the second half with their starting lineups. Neither Cushing nor Stuber made any changes, or at least not on the face of it: New York City might have had the same Starting XI, but they soon shifted into a three-back formation with Alfredo Morales slotting in between Callens on the left and Thiago Martins on the right. Malte Amundsen and Trayvon Gray still had defensive duties to perform (and Gray’s tendency not to track back quickly enough led to some sharp words from Thiago Martins), but they were free to try to stretch the Red Bulls defense and create room in the center for Moralez, Santiago Rodríguez, and Nicolás Acevedo.

That change of shape shifted the momentum of the game. The Red Bulls were still dangerous in spells, but they managed only one more shot on goal for the rest of the match. New York City were more looking composed and started to keep possession in the attacking third, while the Red Bulls were looking more desperate: The New Jersey goal that seemed so close for so long was now moving out of reach. In the 57th minute, Stuber brought on Tom Barlow for Fernandez, choosing a more conventional striker over the false nine who ran hard but who wasn't clinical in front of the goal.

The formations for New York City FC and New Jersey Red Bulls when Taty Castellanos scored

By this point, the NYCFC defense were thoroughly frustrating the Red Bulls attack, while the New York City attack were picking apart the New Jersey defense. The three-back formation that bunkered down to protect the goal was also instrumental in creating the goal that Castellanos scored in the 69th minute. A deep-lying Morales played the ball to Callens on the left, who passed it up to Amundsen and opened space in the midfield for Acevedo to receive the ball and pick out his pass. Acevedo shifted the ball to the Rodríguez on the right, and the Red Bulls defense lost the plot: Talles Magno had drifted over to the right, drawing Long and Casseres with him, while Gray’s position out on the right forced Tolkin to stay wide. Edwards and Amaya had just tried to close down Amundsen, and didn’t anticipate the quick shift to Rodríguez — or the arcing ball he was going to loop over the top of the Red Bulls defense.

In that split second the Red Bulls defense lost their shape, giving Castellanos a one-on-one with a Sean Nealis whose momentum was carrying him slightly askew from where the ball would land. New Jersey had numbers back, but the players were in the wrong places.

We can see the sequence in these two screen shots, captured less than one second apart.

When Santiago Rodríguez sent the ball over the top to Taty Castellanos, the Red Bulls defense had already lost their shape.
The positioning of Talles Magno and opened up space for Taty Castellanos.

The announcer on ESPN credited the goal to two moments of individual brilliance, one from Rodríguez and one from Castellanos. Not to take anything away from that exceptional assist and exquisite shot, this was very much a team goal that relied on the passing sequence from the defense to open the midfield, the shift from Acevedo to catch out the Red Bulls defense, and the positional intelligence of Talles Magno and Gray to create space for Castellanos in the box.

More than that, it was a tactical goal: Cushing’s change of shape let NYCFC exploit the weaknesses of a Red Bulls team that hadn’t adjusted to the new formation.

On Wednesday’s game against FC Dallas, Cushing set up NYCFC to win by making tactical changes that adapted to the realities of playing a strong opponent in the brutal Texas heat. NYCFC were the underdogs in that game, and on paper should have been happy with a draw, but they went home with a 1-0 win.

Yesterday's win over the Red Bulls isn’t so different. Once again New York City were the underdogs: Not only did they play that sweltering game on Wednesday night while the Red Bulls rested at their sir-conditioned homes and made protein smoothies on their Vitamins, they were contending with the psychological weight of facing off at Red Bull Arena, a venue where they have beaten New Jersey only once in 13 attempts. Once again NYCFC would have been happy with a draw, but they crossed the Hudson River with a hard-fought win.

Castellanos will be known as the hero of this game, especially as it looks like he’s about to depart New York City and MLS for Europe, but this is another team win that owes much to Cushing’s tactical acumen.

Let’s enjoy it: