In some ways, Anton Tinnerholm isn’t working quite as hard right now as last season. The good thing is he hasn’t needed to.
New York City FC’s star right back often has been the linchpin of the club’s offensive strategy, truly fulfilling the role of a modern fullback as a key member of the build-up. At times in 2020, however, Tinnerholm went from being an option to the option for NYCFC to progress the ball, heavily skewing the team's attack to the righthand side.
Three matches into 2021 — and with a revenge match against last year's playoff opponent Orlando City SC looming Saturday on the road — it seems there finally may be some balance going forward for NYCFC (2-0-1, 6 points).
"I’m feeling that we can attack in any way this year, I think that’s a strength," Tinnerholm said. "Otherwise it’s easy for the [other] team if we attack on the right side all the time, it’s easier for teams to read that."
Tinnerholm’s heavy usage in the build-up bears itself out in the numbers from a year ago. According to data collected by FBRef.com, only former NYCFC midfielder Alex Ring carried the ball more than Tinnerholm in 2020. Nobody made more progressive carries than Tinnerholm’s 161, with the only other player to hit the century mark being Keaton Parks (137). Tinnerholm also led the club in progressive distance covered (3,112 yards), progressive passes (159), carries entering the final third (57) and touches in the final third (608).
That reliance on Tinnerholm caused NYCFC problems when teams inevitably caught on and shifted to City’s right.
"Against Toronto away, they played with two left backs on my side and, yeah, that’s pretty easy to block one side," said Tinnerholm.
So far this season, NYCFC is a bit less one-sided. The 30-year-old Tinnerholm holds a share of a lead in just one of those categories, matching Jesús Medina’s progressive carry tally of 27. Tinnerholm still has a role in the offense, notching a team-best two assists, but his role no longer is to carry the entire unit on his own.
"It feels this year we're more flexible and can attack wherever. We know we have Maxi [Moralez] in the middle and this year, Gudi [Thórarinsson] has done really well on the left side as well," Tinnerholm said. "I'm feeling we’re still attacking on the right side and I have two assists in three games, so I feel like it's a strength for the team that we can go in different ways."
Instead of the Swede dominating the work, a mix of players from across the field have joined Tinnerholm atop those statistical rankings. That includes a resurgent Medina on the wing, a healthy Moralez in the attacking midfield, James Sands and Parks in the center of the pitch and Thórarinsson coming into form at left back, where he’s replaced the departed Ronald Matarrita in a position new to him since joining NYCFC last year. The revamped attack has yielded six points thus far, good for second place in the Eastern Conference, one spot ahead of Orlando entering Saturday's match. NYCFC's eight goals leads the Eastern Conference and is tied for most in MLS.
Head coach Ronny Deila credited the club’s improved balance to changes in personnel, including a better training ethic by Medina and new faces on the left side.
"The right side was really, really good last year, I think it’s continued to be good. The left side, we have changed a lot of personnel, so I think we haven’t done anything different on the left side than the right side before, and it’s the same this year, it’s just different players," Deila said. "I think Gudi has been good at building relationships with the wingers, and that’s something you have to keep on doing."
Ultimately, the balance will help NYCFC create the type of scoring chances Deila wants to see.
"We need to be consistent in our movements and use both sides," Deila said. "Then it’s about exploiting the overload, being good in crosses and also getting in the box when that opportunity is coming."
NYCFC vs. Orlando City S.C.
6 p.m., Saturday, Exploria Stadium in Orlando
Last meeting: Nov. 21, 2020 — MLS Cup Playoffs first round, Orlando City 1, NYCFC 1 (Orlando advanced on penalties, 6-5)
Quotable: "I think all of us, we're not really over last year, it was a brutal game for all of us. And how it ended, especially for me, who was forced to be subbed off in overtime and then the penalties was embarrassment for everyone, yeah, for everyone who was watching and for the league as well. We don't have any good memories from that game, but now we are stepping into the game on Saturday here to do something. We get some revenge to take and I think you're gonna see all the guys are gonna really want to win the game from the first minute. I can't expect anything else." — Anton Tinnerholm