Formation Drift and NYCFC: Will Vieira Stick Or Move

This Article Was Part Of The April 1st Collection on The Nutmeg News

Starting this season with a new manager in Patrick Vieira, New York City FC (NYCFC) launched an attempt at running a formation not typically seen in Major League Soccer.

Depending upon how you want to count the midfielders, NYC FC have run out a 3-2-4-1 or a 3-5-1 or as NYCFC calls it a 3-2-2-3, and so far the reviews of the system can only be said to be mixed.  While New York City Football Club started off the season with 4-3 win on the road in Chicago, their next two games were a draw against Toronto and a loss at home to Orlando City before playing the Revolution to a 1-1 draw at home.

With the loss at Orlando City we can see the fragility of running the 3-2-2-3/3-2-4-1 with Pirlo and Federico Bravo covering the back three. The issue here is one of the size of the field, combined with the compression of offense to defense and who is covering the zones on the field in transition. As with most teams that play a 3 man back line, the NYCFC defensive formation and defensive coverage varies depending upon how they are setting up to the oncoming attack.

As NYCFC return to defense with Tony Taylor caught up field playing to stretch and Mix Diskerud cutting inside to be the playmaker, the ability to defend the left side of the field is often left to the combination of 36 year old Andrea Pirlo and 21 year old Ronald Matarrita.

As indicated here on the Cyle Larin goal against NYCFC in the 1-0 loss at home...

Caught in transition, NYCFC attempts to get numbers behind the ball, but Pirlo ends up looking like he is trying to defend the ball out left and is beaten to the end line, the ball is sent in and horrifying defending by Josh Saunders and the NYCFC defense ends up with the ball in the net for Cyle Larin. 

Because of the size of the Yankee Stadium field, Vieira uses the ideal of a 3-2-2-3 formation and a press in an attempt to dictate the offensive play as well as interrupting the opposing team, but the issue here is one of defensive solidarity. The league has hardly suffered teams without a defensive identity and currently the NYCFC team defense appears to hinge on whether or not a 36 year old 5 foot 9 Italian can cover at the holding midfielder and fullback position when the offense is caught up field. Vieira will, potentially, have to eventually make a choice about whether he can allow the wing back play to either regress and turn his 3-2-2-3 into the de-facto defensive 5-4-1, or whether playing an attempted regimented 3-2-2-3 is opening up his side to a league in which the ability to transition athletically from one end to the end happens to be a staple of the league.

Major League Soccer is still in the infancy of its tactical nous, but the league has always had a penchant for game stretching players who lack the ability of a critical final touch, people like Dominic Oduro, Robbie Findley, Deshorn Brown, Darren Mattocks or even a player like Steve Zakuani are all players who thrive (or thrived) on getting behind the defense (and also having questionable finishing skill). Now, the issue is whether or not NYCFC has the ability to actually get enough defensive solidarity from the triangle of players they rotate through Pirlo, Mataritta, Bravo, Diskerud, Taylor to cover the fact that Major League Soccer tends to build low cost speed and counter attack teams that seem directly capable of causing NYCFC grief at their space of weakness.  If Pirlo is getting constantly pulled out to defend, the onus falls on Bravo to cover the middle of the field, while the lineup is constantly in flux. You don't buy Pirlo to play emergency fullback.

The idea of playing a "Genius" system in Major League Soccer is so often undone by both the current available talent and the inability to buy the needed talent to run these formations, as well as the grind of the season and methodology of other coaches. It remains to be seen if Vieira can buck the trend and burst forward with success at running a 3-2-2-3 system that seems to potentially expose the weaknesses of his team to some of the strengths that Major League Soccer has.

In the end, the question remains how long will Vieira suffer his lineup before he becomes pragmatic?