Tactical analysis Real Salt Lake New York City FC 3-1 MLS

Real Salt Lake – New York City FC: Calculated Press causes New York problems (3-1)

Just how important is a team’s shape in football? The answer is clear to see when an organized team plays an unbalanced one. A high-pressing and structured Real Salt Lake side demonstrated their structural superiority in this fixture. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

Despite the loss of numerous recognizable names like David Villa and Andrea Pirlo in recent times, New York City FC have shown spells during the campaign where they have looked more than capable of pursuing MLS glory. NYCFC’s head coach Domènec Torrent – right-hand man to Pep Guardiola for many years – has deployed the same possession-oriented style in America, but in his own unique fashion. He has often used the 3-4-3 formation, with both wingers tucking in close to the striker. 

Installing this style has brought good success so far, in the twenty games played, NYCFC have lost just three times and boast the strongest defense in the Eastern Conference. However, New York City FC have been inconsistent throughout the campaign, with recent defeats to local rivals Red Bulls and Portland Timbers keeping them away from the top spot. After beating Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas, NYCFC have a brilliant chance to build the form they had going into the summer months.

Real Salt Lake’s aims are much different. Sitting just outside of the playoffs in the Western Conference, former New York Red Bulls coach Mike Petke has a big task ahead of him to get his team in the party. Petke prefers a very direct style of play. Using the 4-2-3-1 formation, Real Salt Lake often hit shots from distance and play long balls into the area, forming a big contract with NYCFC’s close, possession based buildup style 

Petke’s team have taken points from several of MLS’s big clubs this campaign, which include smashing Philadelphia Union 4-0, and a 2-1 victory over Atlanta United earlier in the season. They made just one change to their 4-2-3-1 system, moving Corey Baird onto the left wing and pushing Damir Kreilach upfront, for the return of key attacking asset, Albert Rusnák.

NYCFC started in their usual 3-4-3 formation and would make three changes, most notably losing Maxi Moralez due to injury. He was replaced by Argentine youngster Valentín Castellanos. Keaton Parks and Alexander Callens were also rotated, Ebenezer Ofori and Ben Sweat taking their places in central defense and midfield. 

Passmap Real Salt Lake New York City FC 3-1 MLS

NYCFC’s shape creates difficulties in buildup

Domènec Torrent’s team took control of possession in the early spells of the game – which gave them a great start. A quick attacking move from a throw-in found its way to Alexander Ring on the edge of the area, in space, allowing him to drive the ball into the bottom corner after just four minutes. 

A brilliant start on paper, but on the pitch, New York City FC had trouble progressing the ball. When possession is in the defensive third, Ebenezer Ofori would drop back to support the backline, whilst Alexander Ring would push further forward. This would create a huge amount of space in the middle of the pitch and problems would soon occur thanks to the unbalanced positioning of their midfield. 

Real Salt Lake had positional superiority over New York City FC.

Real Salt Lake had positional superiority over New York City FC.

It comes as no surprise that Torrent advises his team to be as expansive as possible, but without a balanced shape in place, New York City FC found their players isolated and struggled to progress the ball. The work of Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm on the flanks was pivotal, as without them, New York City FC would struggle to break out from their own half. 

However, as both wingbacks dropped deep to support the backline, they would still find themselves with very limited options ahead of them. Alexandru Mitriță and Valentín Castellanos remained close with Héber upfront, which forced both wingbacks to produce longer, riskier passes down the channels if they were to feed the ball to them. Despite the early lead, NYCFC failed to establish a link between midfield and attack.

Organized pressing from RSL evens the game

Real Salt Lake made a vast number of ball recoveries in the opposition half thanks to an organized and calculated pressing approach. When NYCFC would try and build from the back, Damir Kreilach would try and force the ball to be played to either flank, doing so by cutting off the angle from one side to the other. 

From here, Real Salt Lake would man-mark all potential options for the man on the ball, and with just the one central midfielder dropping deep, New York City FC were forced out wide, where the ball would often be ran out of play or Real Salt Lake would quickly turn over possession in their favour.

Real Salt Lake pinning NYCFC on their flanks, overloading the channel to give the man in possession very limited options to pass to.

Real Salt Lake pinning NYCFC on their flanks, overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the channel to give the man in possession very limited options to pass to.

Ebenezer Ofori would soon find himself being the pressing trigger, A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. often being patrolled by one of RSL’s double pivots – whether that would be Everton Luiz or Kyle Beckerman stepping up. Once receiving the ball, Real Salt Lake would collapse onto him, which would force a sideways pass or turnover in possession, once again.

From goal kicks, New York City FC would be forced to go long, which would often result in Marcelo Silva or Justen Glad comfortably winning the aerial duels in the Real Salt Lake defense. It would be this kind of scenario, which resulted in the hosts impressive equalizer. Damir Kreilach pulling James Sands out of the defensive line in this quick attacking sequence would be the pivotal moment in opening up NYCFC, which in turn opened up space for Albert Rusnák to link with Beckermann. Jefferson Savarino fired in from close range to make it 1-1, an impressive goal, started off from maintaining a great shape off the ball.

Real Salt Lake pull NYCFC out of shape

When off the ball and with RSL building play from their defensive or middle third, New York City FC would often drop back and form a 5-4-1 shape, with the wingbacks forming a defensive line, and the wingers creating a midfield four. This medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. stopped Real Salt Lake from taking chances directly in front of goal, and it prevented them from accessing the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. with ease.

Passmap Real Salt Lake New York City FC 3-1 MLS

In the second half, Real Salt Lake would switch their style to breakthrough, transitioning from constant long balls behind the defensive line, to playing in-between the lines to access the space behind. They adapted their passing range to accommodate this, playing shorter, more vertical play to break through the lines and exploit the space created.

From there, they dragged the NYCFC defense out of shape, whether that would be pulling one out of the defensive line to press or bunching them close and playing the ball into the vacated space elsewhere on the pitch. A great example of this would come from RSL counterpressing NYCFC in the final third. Already in between the lines, Corey Baird played a neat pass into Albert Rusnák, drawing multiple defenders towards him, opening the space for Jefferson Savarino out wide, running in from the left channel, but seeing his shot saved by Sean Johnson.

With New York City FC radically pressing on the player in possession, this drew in a number of fouls in their own half where Real Salt Lake could put the ball into the area. This is where Real Salt Lake would turn the tables. After initially dealing with the first phase, the second ball would arrive to Rusnák on the edge of the area. With no pressure on him, he was allowed to cut in and release a venomous strike, beating the goalkeeper at his near post. 

The closing stages of the match would see Real Salt Lake take complete control, trapping NYCFC in their own half. They would finish the game off in some style, an attempted shot from Jefferson Savarino creatively backheeled in by substitute Nick Besler. A fantastic result for Real Salt Lake. 

Expected goals plot Real Salt Lake New York City FC 3-1 MLS


Real Salt Lake continue their impressive home form, winning 7 of their last 8 matches at Rio Tinto Stadium. Victories against some of the biggest clubs in MLS certainly labels them as dark horses if they are to reach the playoffs. This victory takes them above FC Dallas and knocks Portland Timbers out of the playoff positions. Upcoming home matches against Seattle Sounders and league-leaders Los Angeles will be pivotal, in their quest to revamp the glory days of their success in the early part of the decade.

Failure to build any form of consistency throughout the season will prove costly for New York City FC. Their unbalanced shape and the difficulty handling Real Salt Lake’s immense pressing proved costly, and against better attacking teams, this could end much worse. Domènec Torrent has much to do if he is to be the Pep Guardiola of America. 

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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