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How to Beat NYCFC

A Tactical Breakdown of the Second Meeting Between the Crosstown Rivals

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

A couple months ago, the answer to the above question was fairly straightforward, something like, "Just don’t go full Metro" (valiant effort though, Young Matt Miazga!). Since the Red Bulls followed that advice and vanquished the crosstown rivals team against whom they occasionally play, Man City Lite has emerged from their Kreisis and are looking to build on an impressive three game win streak. With the task somewhat complicated on this occasion, let’s take a look at how Jesse Marsch’s men can keep New York red.

About the Opponent

Red Bull fans need no introduction to their blue adversaries, having seen them play a mere seven weeks ago and perhaps even now and again on YES (it’s okay Joe Tolleson, we know you’re a Metro at heart). While the Red Bulls will face more or less the same crop of blue men, many have rounded into form. David Villa is doing David Villa things, Mix Diskerud is making MLS marketing executives mouths water with goals for club and country, and the role players surrounding them have begun to step up.

Andrew Jacobson is developing into the anchor Kreis’ system necessitates at the back of midfield. RJ Allen has bounced back from his tire fire performance at Red Bull Arena to putting in an MLS Team of the Week performance against Toronto last weekend. Man City loanee Shay Facey has slotted into the middle and shown the type of promise that might earn up a call up to Manchester, where he can look forward to joining the illustrious group of English prospects who wilted under the pressure and fizzled out. Keep up the good work, Shay!

As much as Kreis struggled early in the season to replicate the success he enjoyed during his seven years in Salt Lake, he has stuck to the tactical blueprint that got him this far. Thanks to some interesting data from Alex Olshansky, we can see that City—perhaps in part due to the narrow pitch at their beautiful, state of the art soccer specific stadium—have refrained from lumping crosses into the box, hardly a surprise given Villa’s high skill-to-height ratio.

Villa, Diskerud, Mehdi Ballouchy (!!!), and whoever out of Khiry Shelton, Patrick Mullins, and Adam "Objectively Bad at Soccer" Nemec starts on Sunday will look to work combinations in the attacking third in order to break down the Red Bull defense. Look for Kreis favorite Ned Grabavoy, mullet-donning Tommy McNamara, or rising star Kwadwo Poku to make additional runs from midfield to support the attack, requiring the Red Bulls to do a better job tracking runners than they have done of late.

How to Beat

The two games that usually provide the best guidance for how to win a game—a team’s last game, and a team’s last game against the given opponent—are not particularly instructive in this case. The Red Bulls played the majority of Wednesday night’s match up one and then two men, while it spent the entire second half of the inaugural Hudson River Derby down a man and uncharacteristically ceding possession and territory to City, anomalies unlikely to reoccur Sunday evening.

From a personnel standpoint, the lineup for Sunday's match is perhaps the most unpredictable for any game yet this season. Jesse Marsch confirmed Friday that Ronald Zubar will start, which, assuming stalwart Damien Perrinelle remains, means that Miazga will return to the bench, at least for the time being. Kemar Lawrence is just about a lock to feature at left back as is captain Dax McCarty at the heart of the Red Bulls midfield, but beyond them are a series of question marks.

Connor Lade did good work defensively on Wednesday, although he was a bit shakier in possession. Who will get the nod is a toss up between him and regular starter Chris Duvall. Of the attacking five, none are guaranteed a starting spot, although it seems likely that Bradley Wright-Phillips will be in the lineup, either at forward or at left wing. If Marsch continues with the BWP at left wing experiment, Anatole Abang will once again occupy the center forward position after doing solid work there against RSL.

Read More: Preview: NYCFC vs. New York Red Bulls

At the moment, Lloyd Sam is "pencilled in" to start, a good sign that he has recovered quickly from his groin injury sustained in the Open Cup. Assuming he can go, that leaves Marsch to choose two out of Sacha Kljestan, Felipe, and Sean Davis. While Kljestan and Felipe have locked down starting positions this entire season, each of them underperformed during the team's four game losing streak. Davis, on the other hand, looked quite impressive in his 45 minutes against Atlanta and even moreso as the orchestrator of the team's attack against RSL.

Jesse Marsch's postgame comments Wednesday showered praise on Davis, who in his eyes is more naturally suited to play in a deeper box-to-box role than in a #10. Don't be surprised if Davis keeps his spot ahead of Kljestan -- who perhaps deserves to sit out an extra game after his costly, unprofessional antics against Vancouver -- or if he drops back to fill in for the struggling Felipe.

If Marsch opts for a midfield trio of Dax, Felipe, and Davis, expect Davis to play in a more withdrawn role, with the 4-2-3-1 looking more like a 4-3-3 at times. Davis will look to draw Andrew Jacobson out from his comfortable position directly in front of the back four, creating space for Sam and Wright-Phillips, each of whom are each keen to cut in from the wings and get looks at goal.

The tendency of the team's wingers to cut inside will require Lawrence and Lade/Duvall to push up and overlap in order to create width within the narrow confines of the Yankee Stadium pitch. While lumping in crosses has proven ineffective thus far this season, the matchup of the hulking Abang against the 5'9" Facey and the 5'10" Jason Hernandez make that option more palatable should City's defense prove difficult to break down.

The offensive burden on the shoulders of the fullbacks further supports the idea of withdrawing Davis into a deeper position, given his strong tactical awareness and ability to rotate into the fullback position in order to protect against the counter. Dax McCarty will look to stay anchored centrally, in order to disrupt combination play between a withdrawn Villa and the plethora of attacking midfield options at Kreis' disposal.

Beyond grand strategy, the intensity of a rivalry game and the unusual narrowness of the field will increase the role played by extraneous X-factors. Players coming in late off the bench could make the difference. Out of Ballouchy, Grabavoy, Poku, McNamara, Shelton, Velasquez, and Mullins, only three will start, with the remaining players posing dangerous threats as substitutes. On the other side, the Red Bulls enjoy what will perhaps be their strongest group of bench players so far this year, including Miazga, Roy Miller, Dane Richards, Sal Zizzo, Mike Grella, and Kljestan/Davis/Felipe.

Another important X-factor could be the long throw-in. Jason Kreis expressed disdain for this tactic after Sporting Kansas City used it to great effect against his team; Jesse Marsch mentioned this week that he would look to use it, especially given City's general lack of size or strong aerial players. Kemar Lawrence showed off his long throw-in abilities at the Copa America with the Jamaican national team, and could get the chance to be the hero again this weekend for the Red Bulls, not with his feet as per usual, but this time with his arms.

What do you think? Should Sean Davis keep his spot in the lineup? And will Marsch adapt the 4-2-3-1 into a slightly different formation? Let us know in the comments!