Editor’s note: The following is a submission from guest author Nate Gilman, offering a tactical breakdown of FC Cincinnati’s loss Saturday at New York City FC.
Other than the obvious issues with set pieces, reviewing the NYCFC match gives us another data point in where this team is, how they are or are not improving, and, yes, even a couple positives. The short answer is, FC Cincinnati struggled with many of the same issues that plagued them in the match against Nashville in match one.
So other than the set piece defending, what else went wrong for the Orange and Blue?
In open play, FC Cincinnati had no answer for NYCFC’s #10 Maxi Moralez. He consistently offered an outlet going forward, receiving 16 progressive passes from teammates, according to Football Reference. He also moved the ball forward himself, completing 10 progressive passes and 9 progressive carries. Moralez’s 37 touches in the attacking third were the most of anyone in the match. His four key passes were also the most of anyone on the field. He was able to find space between FC Cincinnati’s midfield and centerbacks, causing havoc throughout the match. Morales is one of the best attacking midfielders in MLS so thankfully FCC won’t have to face off against players of that quality every week. However, a better plan to deal with elite playmakers will be a must.
FC Cincinnati remains vulnerable to high pressure from their opponents. NYCFC pressured FCC players 119 times during the match, 59 of those were in the middle third of the field and 44 in FC Cincinnati’s defensive third. NYCFC’s pressures resulted in 40 instances where FCC lost control of the ball within five seconds of that pressure. Similarly to the Nashville match, the bulk of FC Cincinnati’s possession was its own third and the middle third of the field, so those turnovers became dangerous attacks more frequently. Though the match events are a little bit different across platforms, according to WhoScored.com’s chalkboard, FC Cincinnati’s lost possession of the ball 34 times, with 14 of those happening in their own half.
FCC’s issues with the high press are like a chicken or egg situation. They’re vulnerable to the press because they lack a consistent, effective plan to progress the ball out of the back and they can’t progress the ball because they’re stymied by high pressure. Regardless, until they can navigate their way past the first line of confrontation, expect to see teams continue to press Cincinnati’s center backs in possession. On Saturday, Nick Hagglund and Tom Pettersson led the team in touches, combining for 135, with 104 of those touches occurring in their own defensive third. In contrast, NYCFC’s center backs combined for a similar number of touches, 128. However, 60 of their touches happened in the middle and attacking thirds of the field.
The three starting central midfielders struggled to get on the ball, combining for just 114 touches, though it should be noted that Kamohelo Mokotjo and Yuya Kubo did not play the full 90 minutes. Allan Cruz, who replaced the injured Luciano Acosta in an attacking midfield role, struggled to assert himself offensively during the course of the match. He had 36 touches in the full 90 minutes, including just 7 in the attacking third. His 20 completed passes accounted for just 82 yards in progressive distance while his 22 carries covered just 18 yards towards NYCFC’s goal.
Brenner’s 18 touches against NYCFC, including just 4 in the attacking third, remains concerning. A week after FCC completed just 13 of 34 passes to Brenner against Nashville, just 6 of 22 were completed against NYCFC. Finding a way to get Brenner more involved in open play will be imperative over the next few matches.
Stam seemed to ask his fullbacks, Joseph-Claude Gyau and Rónald Matarrita, to take on more ball progression responsibility. The fullbacks combined for three progressive passes and nine progressive carries in the match. However, they could not do enough to establish FC Cincinnati in attacking areas of the field.
FC Cincinnati did show limited improvements in some areas, however. Granted, the bar was set pretty low by the Nashville match, but still.
Offensively, FC Cincinnati was nearly as dangerous against NYCFC as they were against Nashville, despite not scoring. FC Cincinnati created 1.4 expected goals on 11 shots. Against Nashville, FCC finished the match with 1.8 expected goals, though 1.7 of that total came on two shots, Acosta’s tap-in goal and Brenner’s penalty. Though the bulk of FC Cincinnati’s expected goals output in the match came in the 70th minute, 0.96 xG, including a Locadia header, Brenner’s miss, and two attempts from Tom Pettersson. FCC doubled their touches in the opposition penalty area, from 9 to 18, and completed 7 more progressive passes, 18 this week versus 11 against Nashville.
Yuya Kubo showed more willingness to move the ball forward out of midfield. Against Nashville, Kubo’s 26 carries resulted in just 7 progressive yards, whereas against NYCFC his 31 carries led to 114 progressive yards. His three successful passes into the final third tied for the team lead, too. If Kubo can continue to emerge as a deep-lying playmaker and provide FC Cincinnati with another option to link the defensive third with the attacking third, that might solve some more of the attacking issues this team faces.
FC Cincinnati’s willingness to try to press NYCFC higher up the field has the potential to be promising as well. Allan Cruz joined Brenner leading the press from the front, though they did not have much success. Last match, FC Cincinnati pressured Nashville in their own third just 13 times. On Saturday, FCC pressured NYCFC in that area 39 times. With more game time, FC Cincinnati’s ability to defend from the front will hopefully improve as well.
Haris Medunjanin and Jurgen Locadia made positive contributions from the bench, though they came on chasing the game. Despite only playing 27 minutes, Medunjanin completed 28 of 33 passes, including 11 of 14 passes longer than 30 yards. Medunjanin’s three completed progressive passes led the team. Jurgen Locadia made an impact in his 34 minutes as well. He received 3 progressive passes and 13 of 17 passes targeted to him. Locadia also had two progressive carries and took three shots, accounting for 0.2 xG. Medunjanin’s ability to play direct and Locadia’s ability to receive the ball might be an option for Jaap Stam to deal with high pressure. That is to say, just go over it.
One last player bearing mention is Calvin Harris. He seemed to have more of an impact in his second MLS match, leading the team in receiving four progressive passes. He also helped to progress the ball himself, making two progressive passes and two progressive carries himself. His two shots only accounted for 0.1 xG but both forced sharp saves from NYCFC keeper Sean Johnson.