As the New York subway train rolls up to East 161st Yankee Stadium comes into view. You could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled across one of the city’s many museums, but for the large blue signage that adorns the outside.
It is bold in design and difficult to misinterpret. The same cannot be said for temporary tenants New York City FC right now. Domenec Torrent arrived as Patrick Vieira’s successor last summer and boasted a resume at some of Europe’s best clubs.
His time working as Pep Guardiola’s assistant stretched 11 years and is best seen in the 2018 Amazon documentary ‘All or Nothing’, in which Manchester City run away with the Premier League title. He arrived not only with a strong list of achievements, but also glowing references.
“For New York City, you’re lucky to have him here.” Bernardo Silva said, “because of the way he looks at football, the way he understands the game and his passion and ambition to always win more.”
When Torrent was hired NYCFC spoke of how a ‘smooth transition’ from Vieira was a priority. The Frenchman, while unable to win a title in New York, had cultivated a clear and effective identity founded on short passing that helped steer the team away from a bumpy start to life in MLS under Jason Kreis. At its peak, Vieira took the team to a second place finish overall.
Nine months on from his departure to OGC Nice and the Torrent era feels nebulous.
During his early days in New York Torrent constantly tinkered with his approach and it resulted in five wins in his first six games (including a win against rivals the New York Red Bulls). But what began as small tweaks eventually grew into a change of the team’s style. The identity that was once so strong under Vieira was wiped away and it’s now difficult to decipher what remains.
Not all of the responsibility for that falls on the Spaniard. Torrent was hamstrung by the club’s inability to secure a replacement for David Villa (who departed for the J-League in December). Villa’s influence, both on and off the field, is felt more with each passing goalless game.
They have since signed Brazilian forward Héber HNK Rijeka, but his arrival is unlikely to be a remedy to every issue.
After a 4-0 humbling by Toronto FC, Torrent took the blame. “Sometimes you have to recognise and I didn’t read the game,” he said before later adding. “Maybe I don’t convince my players the best way to play – sometimes it happens.”
The team’s major issue appears to centre around their midfield. That night, the defensive positioning in the middle of the pitch was the issue. NYCFC struggled to show a consistent approach to pressing and that allowed Toronto to carve through the lines with ease. Alejandro Pozuelo, signed recently from Genk in a big money deal, was the star of the show as he sprinkled his quality on proceedings.
Torrent changed from his usual 4-3-3 formation (which uses 3 defensive midfielders) to a 4-2-3-1 for the visit of the Montreal Impact this past weekend. He encouraged his attackers to swap positions in an attempt to find a space in the Impact’s defense, but the huge gap between midfield and attack required a player to link the two.
Maxi Moralez could be that man. As could Keaton Parks, signed on loan from Benfica, but Torrent seems unwilling to start the American. Moralez was absent through injury at the weekend, while Parks was reduced to a second half cameo.
Regardless, Torrent’s midfield setup remains the burning issue, and as his good friend Guardiola once said, it is there where the game is won and lost.
The game finished 0-0 and even the dismissal of a Montreal player with 20 minutes to go couldn’t help NYCFC as they mustered just one shot during that period.
The draw also left the team winless in their first five, second bottom in the Eastern Conference and with only Atlanta United registering fewer goals in the league this season.
Once again, Torrent took responsibility. “I need to improve my team,” he said. “It is my job.”
While it is an admirable stance, there is only so long that attitude can persist without consequence. Chants of ‘Dome Out’ could be heard at Yankee Stadium at the weekend, as fans struggle to find joy in the way their team is playing.
Neither thriving defensively or offensively at present, there is no doubt that Torrent has played a part in organising some of the most beautiful and successful football the game has ever witnessed. And while the Spaniard may have dozens of great ideas on how to play the game, he must now foster a clear vision if he is ever to convince his doubters, both in the Bronx and further afield.