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An Unbalanced Force
Nick Cushing's tactical tweaks helped secure essential victories in the Campeones Cup and Hudson River Derby. James Nalton breaks down how Cushing's lopsided 3-4-3 could help save NYCFC's season.
There were no better pair of fixtures to help turn the tide for Nick Cushing and New York City FC this season.
The extra motivation stirred up by an international cup final and a local derby arriving within days of each other was a chance to turn the most discouraging run of games into a net positive. Two games to help erase the disappointment that had preceded them.
MLS games are suddenly meaningful again, too. Though the Eastern Conference crown is out of reach, long since abandoned as a season aim, there is a home tie in the playoffs to play for.
And for NYCFC, regardless of the furor about their various lodgings and The Stadium Issue, home is important, or at least their Yankee Stadium home seems to be as these two mid-September games proved.
A handy marker for these games is the inclusion of 23-year-old Kevin O’Toole. They were the Montclair, NJ utility player’s second and third appearances of the season, having made his debut for the club earlier in the year against Rochester NY in the US Open Cup and making ten starts for NYCFC II.
O’Toole wasn’t the tidiest in these two appearances, with a pass success of just 60% and 55.6% against Atlas and the Red Bulls respectively, but he was key tactically in a way a more traditional left-back might not be. His role in these two games is a handy starting point for looking at how NYCFC set up.
A quick introduction to the setup can be seen in the pass map from the Campeones Cup game against Atlas which also shows the average positions of each player.
On the face of it, this looks something like a 4-4-2, and it does bear many of the hallmarks of this formation. The lineup could be seen as something like this:
GK: Luis Barraza
RB: Tayvon Gray
CB: Thiago Martins
CB: Maxime Chanot
LB: Alexander Callens
RW: Gabriel Pereira
CM: Nicolás Acevedo
CM: Maxi Moralez
LW: Kevin O’Toole
CF: Santi Rodríguez
But in reality, watching the game unfold the shape was much more fluid, and in terms of the positional roles the players were carrying out, it was more like a lopsided back five.
The same formation was used against the Red Bulls, which gave us a chance to delve further into how it functioned. The only changes to the lineup saw Sean Johnson and Talles Magno come in for Barraza and Héber, but everything else remained roughly the same.
The touch maps of Gray and O’Toole show the balance of the two wide players. Both were some kind of wing-back but O’Toole was more wing and Gray more back. While both covered the entirety of their respective flank, O’Toole’s touches (top) are more concentrated in the attacking half, while Gray’s (bottom) are more concentrated in the defensive half.
Adding some width is important, especially on a narrow pitch just 70 yards wide. NYCFC can use this to their advantage by getting their technically gifted players on the ball in the middle of the field, using their superior touch and passing ability to work their way through tight spaces.
O’Toole was key to opening up the spaces for his teammates to pass through. The second goal against Atlas is a good example of this.
A lofted pass was played out from an awkward bouncing ball by goalkeeper Barraza to Gray on the right. At this point, O’Toole is back in the defensive line forming a back five and is fairly central.
Gray started the move by getting the ball under control on the touchline before passing inside to Moralez, who used his supreme technical skill to quickly receive the ball in a tight area and offload it to Acevedo.
This is where O’Toole plays his part without even touching the ball. As the ball is worked through midfield he darts forward to the left-wing position, dragging the defense across and opening up just enough space for NYCFC to work the ball through midfield. As shown below, it takes him just seven seconds to go from one position to another.
Talles Magno, now on from the bench, and Acevedo combine before the former plays in Moralez, who had continued his run down the right half-space. It was a great finish, passed into the far corner, and it was a really nice assist from the Brazilian, too, but O’Toole’s run was also key.
In order to score the goal, and indeed pick up the initial pass from Gray, Moralez had drifted from his position as the left-sided of the two central midfielders.
Moralez’s role in this system — freer than that of his midfield partner Acevedo — is afforded to him by the covering of Callens.
The Peruvian defender opened the scoring in both games from set-pieces, but his role in defense is somewhere between that of a left-center back, left back, and a left-sided defensive midfielder when stepping into the space vacated by Moralez.
Callens being in this area also allows O’Toole to become the left-winger as the pair supports each other down this flank, and lets Moralez do his thing.
On the other side, Gray is more like the traditional right back in a 4-4-2, able to combine his ability to operate as a center back and fullback in the one role.
Overall, this shape can probably best be described as a 3-4-3, but it’s really a combination of a few formations. The average positions from the Hudson River derby, shown above, help paint a picture of each. The back five is like a rocker on a rocking chair that can roll forward and back, or in this case left or right, depending on where the support is needed.
Like an optical illusion, the formation depends on your perspective on how you look at the shape. Maybe it is an illusion for the opposition too.
It’s one of the most tactically interesting things Cushing has done since becoming head coach at NYCFC. It was ultimately effective and came at a moment when it was most needed, winning another cup and a derby.
There had been signs of it in the 1-1 draw against Cincinnati at Citi Field, with Malte Amundsen in the O’Toole role, but it really came into its own in these two celebrated victories at Yankee Stadium. The Bronx-based baseball field is a home where NYCFC has a good record anyway. They have only lost their once this season, against the unstoppable Philadelphia Union, but this formation really seems to be able to turn unbeaten into winning at the moment.
Tests are still to come on the road, at Yankee Stadium, and maybe elsewhere in the Tri-state area. Nevertheless, these two wins, the celebrations, the rise in morale, and the success of the system for the new head coach could give the team a much needed boost going into the playoffs.❧
Image: Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1930)