MLS Tactical Analysis: New York City FC vs FC Dallas 3:1

New York City FC

1. Johnson / 3. Tinnerholm, 33, Ibeagha, 6. Callens, 2. Sewat / 10. Moralez, 8. Ring, 30. Herrera / 19. Medina, 7. Villa, 9. Berget

FC Dallas

14. Maurer / 2. Cannon, 24. Hedges, 3. Ziegler, 6. Nedyalkov / 11. Mosquera, 15. Hayes, 8. Ulloa, 20. Lamah / 9. Colman, 37. Urruti

Dallas played fantastic tactics, but New York City’s quality got themselves another win.

Dallas’s defensive scheme in the first half

New York City is a matchup nightmare for any defense; Alexander Ring has an excellent passing range. With the three forwards occupied the opponent’s defenders, Ring can find Anton Tinnerholm or Ben Sweat roaming along the sideline with a long ball. He can also use a vertical pass to bypass the opponent’s midfield and connect with David Villa and Maximiliano Moralez between the lines so that they can immediately enter the scoring positions.

Oscar Pareja had designed a specific defensive scheme against New York City: to encourage the host to attack only one side where they could dictate the amount of available space:

Dallas started in a 4-4-2 but often defended in a 4-3-3. Roland Lamah pushed to the first line to match up with New York City’s back three when Ring dropped between the center backs. Although they didn’t apply any high pressure to New York City’s build-up unit, they forbid them from carrying the ball into the midfield. Because Jacori Hayes and Victor Ulloa followed Yangel Herrera and Moralez and blocked New York City’s ball progression in the center, the host could only attack the flank.

Pareja didn’t want the host to attack the right side; Tinnerholm, Maximiliano Moralez, and Jesus Medina are all technical and quick. They can thrive with limited space. Dallas wanted New York City to attack only the left flank; Lamah positioned himself according to Tinnerholm’s position. His priority was to block any passing lane toward the Swedish fullback. On the other side, Santiago Mosquera would not stay close to Sweat without the ball. Dallas let Sweat collect the ball before Mosquera, Hayes, and Anton Nedyalkov zoned in on him. He or the other ball handlers, usually Jo Inge Berget and Villa, could not switch to the right side because of Dallas’ high pressure. This way, Dallas blocked New York City’s ability to isolate their fullback on the flank. The second goal explained the reason of Pareja’s setup; for once when Ulloa didn’t chase Moralez and allowed him to gauge the passing lane, he found Sweat with a long ball. Dallas’ defense had to scramble to cover Sweat. When the balls returned to Moralez, he was able to find Tinnerholm in a 1 vs. 1 situation against Anton Nedyalkov on the right flank and created the penalty.

For the most part in the first half, New York City couldn’t break the visitor’s defense. Dallas funneled most of New York City’s possession to the left flank where they could contain. Even they conceded the first goal from that side; the chance came from Dallas’s mistake after they intercepted a New York City’s attack.

Dallas has conceded the least amount of goals in the MLS. The game also shows you why they are so good at the defense; Dallas’s three defensive lines moved as a unit and kept minimal space between the defense and the midfield minimal. Sweat could sometimes escape Dallas’s high pressure on the left flank with a quick one-touch pass. Villa often dropped in the space between the lines, exchanged position with Berget and attempted a penetrative pass toward the Norwegian. But Dallas’s close distance between the lines meant the defenders were always ready to attack those combinations. Moreover, Dallas’ defenders didn’t worry about having an extra player to cover other defenders:

If the midfielders were applying high pressure on New York City’s ball handler, the defender behind them was always ready to come out of the last line to maintain the pressure to the next ball receiver. Taking the risk of losing the defensive numerical advantage outweighs the danger of having an attacker running directly at the defenders. These lightening defensive decisions and movements are the result of well-drilled daily practice.

New York City found a way to control the match

Even though New York City’s attack struggled against Dallas’ defense through the build-up play, they still found a way to control the match in the first half through the counter-pressing:

Dallas’ defense prevented New York City from finding the player with space, but it didn’t pressure them from losing the attacking shape. Everyone still moved in the proper attacking position. New York City’s players attacked the loose ball immediately after they lost the possession. In the center, their midfielders maintained a 1-2 triangle. They had three layers of players to attack the loose ball: the three forwards, Moralez/Herrea, and Ring. They could send waves of the counter-pressing against Dallas’ ball handler or the loose ball in the middle. Once regained the possession, the players were already in advanced positions to attack. New York City’s counter-pressing created the first goal and pinned down Dallas in the first half.

Pareja played another card

Pareja’s strategy worked well in the first half, but they still came out with one goal disadvantage. Dallas needed the ball to create more scoring chances, so Pareja changed his tactics:

Dallas now attacked New York City’s center backs when they controlled the ball. The substitute Mauro Diaz stayed close to Ring so that Alexander Callens and Sebastien Ibeagha couldn’t pass to him. They needed to do the play-making stuff. Cristian Colman and Diaz always ran at the ball handler with an angle that could remove his horizontal passing lane to another center back or Ring through their cover shadows. Callens and Ibeagha could only send a long ball forward during the build-up because Colman and Diaz wouldn’t let them have time on the ball. New York City now couldn’t transition properly. The players couldn’t move into the attacking positions, and they lost the layered structure that could generate waves of the counter-pressing against the loose ball. Dallas took back some of the possession and had more chances to attack.

Pareja also changed his offensive strategy in the second half. Dallas didn’t have a lot of creativity and attack primarily through the counter-attacks. Introducing Diaz didn’t help. Instead of trying to invent something creative, Pareja merely asked his team to make the game as chaotic as possible:

Dallas’ players had no target when they played these long balls. The only purpose of the passes was to hit New York City as early as possible so that their players couldn’t maintain a coherent structure. Usually, no one could predict the outcome of an air duel. The game became disorganized, but Dallas’ players were stronger and more physical than the host’s. They won more 50-50 duels and had a higher chance to re-initiate the attack after the duel. Although they didn’t dominate the possession, they controlled the tempo of the match and played to their strengths.

Dallas created several chances in the early period of the second half. They couldn’t convert any of them, made a mistake, and let Villa finish the game.

Dallas played great tactics in this game, but they are not enough to tip the balance to their favor. Tactics alone don’t always dictate the outcome of a game.

The scoreline is too generous for the host; they lose the control of a majority of the game because of Dallas’ strategy. New York City’s quality carried them in this game, but it won’t be enough against a well-drilled opponent with quality like Atlanta or Kansas City.


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