Torrent's touch helps NYCFC halt Red Bulls derby dominance

Patrick Vieira’s replacement wasted no time putting his stamp on NYCFC, leading his new team to a vital derby win against the New York Red Bulls.

It didn’t take a coaching genius to look at New York City FC’s results against the New York Red Bulls and know something drastic needed to change. A pair of 4-0 beatdowns at Red Bull Arena, with the most recent coming in the U.S. Open Cup a month ago, threatened to give the Red Bulls a psychological edge over their cross-river rivals.

Domenec Torrent knows the importance of derbies all too well. As Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man on the bench at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, Torrent saw the impact derby success could have on a team and fan base, and also what damage derby failure could do.

Patrick Vieira was often lauded for his commitment to attractive possession soccer and to building out of the back, but sometimes Vieira blurred the line between commitment and stubbornness when it came to his preferred style of play, especially when it meant playing right into the strengths of his team’s biggest rival.

It was that very formula that led to a 7-0 Red Bulls mauling of NYCFC in Vieira’s first season as NYCFC coach, and this year it led to back-to-back 4-0 losses that seemed to suggest NYCFC was incapable of playing with, let alone beating the Red Bulls.

Torrent saw things differently. The NYCFC boss knew this Red Bulls team had clear strengths to avoid, namely the buzzsaw that is their high press. Rather than sticking to the flawed approach of trying to build through the Red Bulls pressure — even when it meant playing right into the Red Bulls’ strategy — Torrent told his NYCFC players to avoid trying to build centrally from the back, and avoid forcing passes when a safe long ball could serve to alleviate pressure and avoid feeding the Red Bulls defense with turnovers they could convert into chances.

That tactical adjustment led to a match where Sean Johnson played fewer short passes — just one all match — than in any previous match since he joined NYCFC. It also meant the Red Bulls had fewer turnovers to feast on, and fewer opportunities to press NYCFC into game-changing mistakes.

“Our idea was to not lose the ball near the 18-yard box,” Torrent said. “The second idea was to avoid playing frontal balls. If you watch the games, and you analyze the Red Bulls, they always finish with diagonals. If you play frontal balls, forget it. You have 90 percent the possibility to lose the ball, and they 100 percent kill us. Our intention was long balls to avoid these kind of actions. The first intention was to play on the side, diagonal balls.

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“Sometimes I say to Sean, ‘When you are able to play, play, but when they make the high pressing – long ball, don’t take risks because they live for these kind of situations.'”

In fact, it was NYCFC which pressed the Red Bulls into the match-winning mistake, when second-half substitute Jonathan Lewis pounced as Aaron Long struggled to deal with a bad pass from Tyler Adams, and quickly set up Maxi Moralez for an 86th-minute winner that set off raucous celebrations from a fan base desperate to taste derby victory after watching their team get mauled in the previous two encounters this season.

Sunday’s victory, which moved NYCFC above the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings into second place, wasn’t all about tactical adjustments. NYCFC players came out and matched the Red Bulls’ energy in a way we hadn’t seen from them since 2017. NYCFC started the match intent on matching the Red Bulls’ intensity and bite, and while that may have led to an ugly first half, it also didn’t include the kind of poor starts that have doomed NYCFC in the past in this series.

“The message was if you want to win the game, you have to fight [for] every single ball, you have to fight every single second,” Torrent said. “I watched the last two games against Red Bull and they won every single duel. The most important thing for us is to win the duels, but don’t lose the control, because in these kind of games if you lose control it’s kaput. They play many times with the mistakes of opponents.”

Sunday’s win was made even more impressive by the fact it came without the services of injured star David Villa, and his back-up at striker, Jo Inge Berget. Torrent showed off his managerial chops by adapting without his team’s top strikers and deploying a lineup that featured Maxi Moralez playing as a false nine. The setup didn’t yield a ton of chances, but given the available personnel, Torrent’s lineup did the job of neutralizing the Red Bulls.

“They played with soul,” Torrent said of his NYCFC side. “The most important thing — I’ve said many times — is to play with passion.

“I’m proud of them and they understood this way to play against this type of team when we lost the last two games 4-0 and 4-0. It’s not easy to think about that in your mind,” Torrent said. “I’m very happy for them because we have to break the streak of losing games (to the Red Bulls) and it’s not easy.”

While NYCFC clearly showed some tactical tweaks under its new coach, the Red Bulls looked much like the same team under new coach Chris Armas, who recently took over for Jesse Marsch. Armas’ Red Bulls continued their high-pressing approach, and while the team’s overall performance was a bit more flat than usual, part of that should be credited to NYCFC’s efforts.

But it’s also worth wondering if the Red Bulls came in a bit flat after having beaten NYCFC so convincingly in their two previous meetings. That sort of success can make a team take an opponent lightly, derby or not, and while Armas insisted that he felt his team played well, there is no denying Sunday’s performance wasn’t anywhere near as energized or tenacious as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the Red Bulls.

It is going to take some time before we really see what sort of changes will take place within NYCFC and the Red Bulls under their new coaches, but in the case of Torrent, Sunday’s victory was an impressive derby debut that showed us a coach who is both tactically astute and pragmatic.

He is a coach who has been on the sideline helping run some of the best teams in recent memory, in some of the world’s best leagues. Now with his own team to run, Torrent has the look of a coach ready to put his own stylistic mark on the team he inherited from Patrick Vieira, and as much as NYCFC fans were sad to see the Frenchman leave for Ligue 1, Sunday’s victory should have those same fans feeling excited about the future with their new coach.

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