Second-Guessing Hans Backe will be a regular Tuesday feature on Once A Metro during the 2011 season.
The New York Red Bulls have added five players in the transfer window, drafted six more, and the club is apparently still looking for another central defender or central midfielder and a right back. With all of these moves, Hans Backe will have a much larger squad to work with in the coming season and shouldn't have as many problems with injuries forcing players out of position, although whether there is depth in quality throughout the team is not yet clear.
Backe used a variety of formations last year; an orthodox 4-4-2 was the most common but he shifted to a 4-4-2 diamond in the latter part of the season. New York also used 4-5-1 and 4-4-1-1 in some away games, and 4-2-3-1 at home against Real Salt Lake. Fortunately, Backe never rolled the dice with a return to Juan Carlos Osorio's three-man defenses, and long may that continue.
With the safe assumption that the Red Bulls will use a flat back four in front of Bouna Coundoul, that leaves six slots ahead of the defenders. The orthodox 4-4-2 still has a strong hold on MLS, so we can expect to see it at some stage of the season, but there are three essential questions Hans Backe needs to answer in figuring out what the Red Bulls' default set-up will be for 2011.
First, should Thierry Henry play as a lone striker? The French forward is obviously an excellent player and probably the most talented in the team, but he is not necessarily suited to playing up front on his own. With Arsenal he usually worked ahead of a second striker or advanced #10, with Dennis Bergkamp and later Robin van Persie the best examples. At Barcelona Henry frequently played wide on the left, most frequently in the Treble-winning season of 2008-9.
The Red Bulls do not have any player with a comparable skill set to Bergkamp or van Persie, and the one-game experiment of Henry as a left winger in a 4-2-3-1 (at home against Real Salt Lake) did not go well. Playing Henry with another out-and-out striker is an option as well, although he never totally clicked with Juan Pablo Ángel in a 4-4-2. Of the strikers available for the Red Bulls, the next most talented is Juan Agudelo, but playing him with Henry in a two-striker system poses at least one potentially serious problem: both Henry and Agudelo tend to drift wide left and cut in from that side. Playing two left-sided out-and-out strikers could unbalance the Red Bulls' attack.
Balance isn't a necessity in formations -- when Henry was with Arsenal, the left side was markedly stronger than the right, and last season Bayern Munich reached the Champions League final with one of the best right-sided combinations in Europe (Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben). However, those teams had much better fullbacks on the stronger side of the pitch, and the Red Bulls' biggest weakness is in the left back slot.
Second, will a three-man central midfield dominate possession or simply congest the middle of the pitch? This question is closely linked with the first. A pair of strikers up top with a back four in defence means a team must play only two central midfielders or sacrifice width on at least one side of the pitch. A lone striker almost always comes in tandem with a three-man central midfield, be it in the form of a 4-2-3-1, a 4-1-4-1, or 4-1-2-3 (in the last case there would be two wide forwards in addition to a lone central striker).
The Red Bulls certainly have the quality in midfield to play a central trio. Joel Lindpere, Tony Tchani, Mehdi Ballouchy, Rafael Márquez and Jan Gunnar Solli are all worthy of a starting place in an MLS midfield, while Matt Kassel, Carl Robinson, and John Rooney should be capable replacements.
The answer to this question basically boils down to how Backe wants to play; are the Red Bulls better off trying to dominate possession or play a more reactive style? This column prefers the former, as it takes pressure off of the defense, but the latter can be an effective strategy when executed properly with the right players. Unfortunately for Backe, the Red Bulls' general lack of pace would make playing on the counter difficult, although not impossible.
Perhaps the best aspect of playing a three-man central midfield was on show in the latter part of the 2010 season, when Rafael Márquez's ability to drop into the defence gave more freedom to both of New York's fullbacks. The Red Bulls were able to shift quickly from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 3-5-2 and push up on the flanks.
Third, what is the best way to create width with this group of players? Before Dane Richards "drank confidence" (his words) and started blowing away opposition fullbacks with striking frequency, the Red Bulls had a real problem with stretching play across the pitch. As it is, Richards is the only proven winger on New York's roster -- Brian Nielsen may come good and Joel Lindpere played very well as a left midfielder, but Nielsen has not shown that he can stay healthy and play well over the course of an MLS season, while Lindpere is better in the middle.
This problem is compounded by the lack of an attacking fullback on either side of the defense, although Teemu Tainio or Marcos Paullo could yet fill this void. When a team doesn't have attacking fullbacks, its width must come from further up the pitch, either in the form of wide midfielders in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, or wide forwards, as in a 4-3-3 (or similar variant). Dane Richards could probably fit in on the right in either situation, although he should tend to stay back more when out of possession and break past the opposition fullback.
The left side is the real problem, and compounds the Red Bulls' lack of a solid left back. Without a credible attacking threat further up that side of the pitch, an opposition winger will not track back as much, and the right back behind him will also have more freedom to get forward. Jan Gunnar Solli started wide on the left against Atlante and Chivas and performed well, but the Red Bulls would surely fare better with an out-and-out left winger -- or playing Juan Agudelo as an wide forward on that side.
Any formation is a delicate balance between the talents of a team's best ten outfield players, their possible replacements, and the coach's desired style of football. There can be some debate about exactly who those ten are, but Tim Ream, Márquez, Tchani, Lindpere, Richards, Agudelo, and Henry are surely among them. This column is a strong supporter of Márquez as the midfield anchor, because of his long passing ability and the fluidity it gives to the Red Bulls' formation, but Hans Backe seems inclined to play the Mexican captain in central defense alongside Ream.
Tony Tchani has been preferred to Márquez in the defensive midfield slot, with Solli, Lindpere, and Richards the three more advanced midfielders ahead of him. Henry has been partnered with Agudelo and has claimed that he is happy with playing the Bergkamp to the young American's....Thierry Henry.
For Backe, the answers to this column's three questions appear to be that Henry is better suited to playing off of another striker (so far he has played almost exclusively alongside Agudelo), a three-man central midfield is not necessary, and that two standard wingers can provide the necessary width. Will the system stand the test of an MLS season? Like all Red Bulls fans, we are itching to find out.