More often than not, romanticism can’t exist in chaos. I don’t suppose any MLS coach knows this better than NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira.
Romanticism in its own way was a response to the crushing squalls of modernity. The 19th century movement clung to the notion that, as German painter Caspar David Friedrich put it, “The artist’s feeling is his law.” Painters, poets and writers retreated from the crush of humanity to the countryside and the past to allow this sort of romantic idealized view of the world to soak through their work. There were no romantics on the assembly line.
I thought about this on occasion in the offseason in relation to Vieira. He entered MLS with this idealized romantic view of tactical shape and technical ability and building out of the back. He embraced a probing 3-5-2 before Greg Vanney used it to push Toronto FC into the MLS Cup final. He unlocked Tommy McNamara, helped turn Andrea Pirlo back into a regista who can change the shape of a game, set Frank Lampard loose and turned out an XI that attempted to play out of its defense more than any team in MLS.
And then MLS happened. And MLS does not tend to brook romantics. Just ask Caleb Porter.
NYCFC’s 4-0 demolition of D.C. United at Yankee Stadium on Sunday was heartening for NYCFC (and MLS) fans who’d worried Vieira stripped the romanticism out of his coaching style in the offseason in favor of those practical ideals that tend to work with more regularity. Parity by definition is chaos, and it tends to bite coaches who leave the factory for the forest. You can afford to be an idealist on paper, you can almost hear certain MLS coaches remark. Being one in actual practice is a much different thing.
The end of NYCFC’s 2016 season was a departure for Vieira, and not a particularly heartening one. NYCFC was blown out by Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and Vieira suddenly went from painting lush landscapes to assembling propeller shafts. NYCFC’s lines dropped off in the first leg, and suddenly Vieira’s men went from lacing together complex passing networks to peeking their heads out of the bunker.
NYCFC put in their third-worst passing performance of the year and created little in the final third playing a suddenly negative form of soccer. TFC blew this shadow version of NYCFC out of the water.
This was the last we saw of Vieira’s tactical ethos until the start of this season. MLS has forced coaches to adjust to its parity before, which tends to mean stylistic parity as a result. One wondered if Vieira spent the offseason tinkering his style and pulling the reins back on his idealism. Among my greatest fears was Vieira abandoning his unique artistic vision on how to shape a game and making his approach, in essence, someone else’s.
If NYCFC’s first match did not prove the point that Vieira’s romantic view of the beautiful game is alive and well, Sunday’s certainly did.
NYCFC piled pass on pass on pass Sunday, ultimately working in 593 at a 79 percent clip largely built brick on brick out of the back. Quite frankly, D.C. United looked powerless, and in more ways than one. You have to understand how difficult that passing number is to achieve on the narrowest field in the league. Imagine being the fastest driver in the world on a slightly longer track than the one used by all your competitors. NYCFC uses space better than anyone in MLS, and they have less of it than anyone else. Perhaps Vieira is more Dutch than he knows.
The fundamental difference between 2016 NYCFC and 2017 NYCFC though, and why I think Vieira has such license to continue creating towering monuments to managerial idealism, lies inside the creative core of Maxi Moralez.
Vieira did fine work sussing out the last drops of productivity from Lampard’s career, but in some ways the former England legend hamstrung NYCFC. He was too defensively liable, too unwilling to drop in to find Pirlo’s feet, and his knees were too worn to run attacking channels and pop up in unexpected places. He ended up with a nice number of goals for NYCFC, but he almost looked like some sort of strange hybrid midfielder-poacher by the end of it.
Moralez is an entirely different sort of animal. He isn’t an out-and-out volume passer, and he isn’t a prototypical No. 10 in the Javier Morales mold. He won’t sit in the pocket, but I don’t think Vieira particularly wants him to, based on early returns. Moralez is a deeper operator, and this manifested into a delicately baited trap D.C. United walked into repeatedly. Moralez, Pirlo and Alex Ring all peeled back deeper in possession, pinging passes between one another and waiting for D.C. United’s midfield line to set upon them out of sheer frustration. Once this inevitably happened, Moralez’s hammer dropped in a way Lampard’s couldn’t in 2016.
He ultimately managed two key passes out of his 59, and one of them, a nice second-touch leading ball to David Villa to set up NYCFC’s fourth in the 75th minute, epitomized his utility. There were multiple times when Moralez seemed to drill up from underneath the earth to find himself behind D.C. United’s typically compact defensive midfield. Between monitoring Pirlo’s bombing diagonal balls and keeping tabs on Moralez, I do not envy coaches as they defensively game plan for NYCFC this year.
The broader takeaway from this, though, was that Vieira’s tactical vision has not changed from year to year. The first offseason for an MLS coach, especially one coming into the league with no prior experience, tends to be a bracing one. There is perhaps no league in the world where so many teams are in position to win a title in so many consecutive years, and that can be an exhausting thing for a coach attempting to fight what objectively works with what his own romantic notions tell him should work.
I think the Toronto FC series was hugely impactful on Vieira’s notions of this. NYCFC were not themselves in that series. They were defensive, refused to engage on their own terms and played tentatively. This is not Vieira’s way, or at least it wasn’t throughout a largely successful 2016 to that point. He is a man of control. His teams shape the match and force the opposition to pick a trail through the overgrowth they’ve planted.
Thankfully, Vieira’s NYCFC is still romantic at heart. Sunday proved that more than anything else. Expect more breathtaking landscapes in 2017.