“It’s all about philosophy.”
Gerard Nijkmap kicked off his first press conference as FC Cincinnati’s new general manager last May by planting a flag in the ground. There, the Dutchman clearly outlined the technical philosophy that the club would pursue under his watch.
“Building from the back,” Nijkamp said. “To be dominant in your playstyle you want to have the ball. … Not too much in the long ball.”
That philosophy, the “Total Football” made famous by Ajax and the Netherlands’ national team in the ’70s and ’80s, was explained as the solution for FC Cincinnati’s long-stated desire to play attractive, attacking-oriented soccer. And the aim was to identify a head coach that would share that same tactical outlook.
The commitment to employing that playing style was steadfast. Interim coach Yoann Damet stuck with the 4-3-3 despite suffering 11 losses in the 15 matches of his first interim spell with the aim of familiarizing the players with the system.
Yet 14 months after Nijkamp’s introduction, his statement of intent seems less like a philosophical war flag and more like a distant milepost to which the club is still trying to navigate.
To be fair, Nijkamp thought he had his man a year ago. But with compatriot Ron Jans unceremoniously forced out just before the 2020 season, FC Cincinnati and Nijkamp were again on the hunt for the right wayfinder.
With the COVID-19 pandemic buying them some extra time for that search, Nijkamp again returned to his Dutch well to implement his Dutch system. This time, it would be legendary defender Jaap Stam taking over Cincinnati’s philosophical reins.
He, too, sung a familiar tune.
“In how I want to play, that’s by playing in an attractive way, going forward, being dominant, keeping possession, and hopefully finding the patience to create openings in the opposition to score goals,” said Stam in his own introductory news conference back in May. “By being dominant, I mean it’s always nice to have the ball as a team than to chase it every time. That’s why you want to play in a certain way.”
Unfortunately for Stam, playing “attractive” soccer is not quite as easy as it sounds.
In Stam’s first match in charge — which admittedly came in the unchartered waters of the MLS is Back Tournament against FCC’s biggest rival — he attempted to have the Orange and Blue play the Dutch way. The team rolled out against the Crew in a 4-1-4-1 variation of the 4-3-3, including what were essentially three attacking-oriented central midfielders and attempted to hold possession and build play out of the back.
And Columbus pummeled them.
But this is Stam we’re talking about here — arguably one of the game’s greatest ever defenders. The idea that he might be willing to get plowed over again for the sake of a philosophy the club has previously promised to deliver is likely incongruent with his very existence. So what is a manager to do?
Ditch the philosophy. At least for the time being, anyway.
In the two matches that followed the heavy, tournament-opening loss, Stam employed a radically different tactical approach. Like the proper defender that he is, Stam shored up the leaky defense by utilizing a five-man backline. Too, he introduced Caleb Stanko — the club’s only true defensive midfielder — to help offer additional protection. In lieu of pressing higher up the pitch and leaving themselves further exposed to attacks, they crowded Atlanta United and New York out of the attacking spaces by bunkering in. Sitting deep also invited their opponents forward and created space into which Stam’s men could counter. As a result, both matches saw a non-insignificant increase in direct play as FC Cincinnati aimed to exploit those counters.
And it worked. Not just once, but twice.
But parking the bus and dumping it long are decidedly not “total football.”
In fact, they’re near antithetical strategies to one another. Not that there’s any shame in using them, as FC Cincinnati is living to fight another day in this tournament because Stam threw the playbook out the window.
The question now, however, is will this be a long-term strategic shift away from the club’s long-desired philosophy?
Being fair, Stam has repetitively spoken of the limited time he has had to implement his own outlook on the philosophy. Perhaps he and his staff feel that with the tournament format, a temporary shift to a more conservative style of play might be the best short-term solution. Now with some momentum, Stam can build the team’s confidence back up before fully implementing the possession-oriented system he, Nijkamp and the club have so clearly set their sights on.
Conversely, though, this could also be a sign that Stam doesn’t believe he has the players at his disposal to play the Dutch way. We won’t truly know the answer until after FCC’s tournament run is complete and Stam has more time to make an impression on the squad.
But for time being at least, Stam’s willingness to make a shift away from that philosophy has thus far proven the right choice at the right time for FC Cincinnati.