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RalfBall: Tactics Edition - The System

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"Uptempo", "High Press": is that really all there is to RalfBall on the field?

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RalfBall is here. The construction of the New York Red Bulls under Ali Curtis is similar to how RBs Leipzig and Salzburg are being run under former/current Sporting Director (now manager of Leipzig) Ralf Rangnick. Don't take my word for it, take these words.

But if Papa Red Bull is building a giant global soccer club that manages its affairs on and off the pitch in much the same way from Austria to Germany to Brazil to the USA, it isn't simply a question of unloading a prefabricated template at each destination. While the teams are unquestionably playing and being managed in similar ways, it would appear there is reasonable license for local variations. This makes sense: the system needs to allow for innovation (otherwise it will get stale), and what works for a team like Leipzig - chasing promotion to the Bundesliga - might not necessarily translate perfectly to a team like RBNY, working in a different sort of league model in MLS.

So we expect coaches at each Red Bull team to have their own version of the RalfBall system. The RB teams clearly have a great deal in common, and they equally clearly have points of departure from each other. RBNY, for example, is putting its own unique spin on Ralf Ragnick's system, marrying the concepts of the overall strategy to the tactics necessary to survive and prosper in MLS. Just like Ali Curtis has adapted the RalfBall formula to the rules of MLS, Jesse Marsch has been given the freedom to tinker with the boss's system. So far, this think-global-act-local strategy is working.

This year, Marsch has been hailed as a tactical guru, which is a little overstated. He works for (or with - Rangnick is not, technically, Jesse's boss) a tactical guru, and is applying a style of play that has been growing in popularity in Europe for at least a decade. One day, Jesse may be regarded as a master tactician in his own right. Less than a season in to working with RalfBall is not that day.

Still, Marsch has to run this team with these players and Ralf isn't hanging over his shoulder helping out. RBNY's success on the pitch is down to its players and the coaching staff that prepares them each week. Jesse Marsch is due plenty of credit: implementing a complex tactical plan and changing the coaching philosophy of an entire club is a long-term project; he has delivered a title contender in year one (he inherited a title contender, to be sure - but it was rapidly dismantled in the off-season).

It is because he is constrained by RalfBall's guidelines that his success is particularly remarkable. He has spent the season, we think, trying to show Papa Red Bull he's getting the plan off the ground and trying to win results that bring the supporters back to feeling good about their team. He has done that, and that is arguably a more difficult job than any coach in MLS has had to do this season.

Unlike coaches that are not tied to a global tactical philosophy (i.e. every other coach in MLS), Marsch probably doesn't have much flexibility: if he can't make RalfBall work, Papa will find someone who can. The margin for error is therefore very slim, and RBNY's position at the top of the league with two games to play is ample proof of the fact that the team has made fewer errors for most of the season than the other 19 teams competing in MLS.

The new system has the Red Bulls riding (and pressing) high. At the beginning of the season many expected the Red Bulls to be fighting just to get a play-off spot; instead, they are top of the league with two games to play. The measure of how far RBNY has come since it dramatically blew up its 2014 squad and atomized supporter optimism at the same time: it will now be disappointing if all the Red Bulls get out of this regular season is a playoff spot. In itself, that turnaround in expectations is a mark of success, regardless of whether there is another trophy in the cabinet at the end of October.

Further, at this moment - October 16, 2015 - Marsch is coaching the most successful team in the Red Bull system. RBNY is top of its league table (with two games left to play).

source: mlssoccer.com

source: mlssoccer.com

FC Liefering (Salzburg's reserve team, effectively) is currently third in the Austrian second division. Salzburg is second in the Austrian Bundesliga (though first place looks to be a matter of time, in current form). Leipzig - managed by Ralf Rangnick himself - is fifth in Germany's 2. Bundesliga. (RB Brasil seems to be in its off-season at the moment.)

A snapshot of Papa Red Bull's RalfBall empire in mid-October 2015 shows RBNY enjoying the most obvious success. How exactly is Marsch doing it? What exactly is RalfBall in terms of tactics on the field? Where can we see the spin Marsch has put on it to get the best out of the players he has and the games they have to play?

We'll start to unpack those questions with a basic look at the tactical philosophy at the center of Red Bull's global soccer masterplan.

This is how we do

There is specific difference between a system and a formation. The teams in Salzburg, Leipzig, and New York (and almost certainly Brazil, though we find it difficult to get information on RBNY's South American cousins) might play quite different formations from each other. But the systems that are being played in Red Bull Europe and New York are all variations of a playing style most often referred to by its German name: Gegenpressing. It translates most readily as "counter-pressing". And it is a popular style with many, many variations.

The following description will strike some as deficient, but consider it an introduction to a tactical philosophy that is discussed daily all over the soccer media and evolves constantly in the hands of coaches like Roger Schmidt, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, and yes, Jesse Marsch. (See? It sounds kind of silly to put him in the same bracket as those other guys - give him time. But he is MLS Coach of the Year, do not doubt that for a moment.)

Simply, however, the general idea is to use defensive pressing, specifically as a cohesive unit, to create pressure on the opponent. Pressure forces mistakes, generates turnovers, and those turnovers are engineered in areas of the field where - if all is going to plan - it is possible to drive forward quickly to goal.

A gegenpressing team is often hunting for the ball as close to its opponent's goal as possible: the high press.

More specifically, after losing the ball, the counter-pressing team will press with the intention of gaining the ball back quickly. Within five seconds is often the target. Lose the ball, force the other team to give it back to you, dictate the pace of the game: uptempo.

In a recent New York Time's piece, Marsch called his team the "anti-Barcelona": this is a common description of gegenpressing, which came to prominence as a sort of antidote to Tiki-Taka.

Simply counter-pressing doesn't make you a gegenpressing team, necessarily. All soccer teams have strategies for regaining possession, and counter-pressing has become a highly visible and important part of mainstream tactical thinking.

Go deep enough down the tactics rabbit-hole and everything starts to look a bit the same: the game is always about putting a ball into a net, after all. Barcelona's signature style is high-pressing and uptempo too: the Tiki-Taka team will swarm an opposing ball carrier to win the ball back quickly. It can be described as gegenpressing. Despite being a high-press side, however, Barcelona is known for its patience in possession once they get the ball. To Barcelona winning the ball back is a victory in itself, and a core tenet of Tiki-Taka is possession is the best defense: the other team cannot score if it cannot get the ball.

Gegenpressing in its most frequently used sense seeks to turn an opponent's ability to keep the ball into a weakness to be exploited. In very, very simple terms: Barcelona is at its most dangerous with the ball, while Gegenpressing teams are a threat without it. Here's Marsch talking to the New York Times about his Red Bulls again:

We actually try to command the game with field position, without the ball.

Here is Arrigo Sacchi talking about the strategic application of pressing:

Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard. It’s about controlling space.

Not coincidentally, Ralf Rangnick and mentor (and current Red Bull soccer consultant) Helmut Gross have a shared enthusiasm for the work for Arrigo Sacchi. As described by Paul Simpson in his piece for The Blizzard, "Echoes in Eternity", on the subject of influential soccer tacticians:

In the late 1980s, shortly after Rangnick and Gross met, they became obsessed with Sacchi's Milan, buying the most expensive video player on the market and watching tapes of the Rossoneri's matches so often the machine wore out.

Positioning and selective pressing can, when effectively deployed, force the possession-obsessed opponent into decisions made for the sake of keeping the ball - and those decisions can lead to situations an adept counter-pressing unit can exploit to force mistakes and score goals. (Most particularly, aggressive pressing targets the moment immediately after a turnover, when an opponent is thought to be least comfortable since it is the time to switch mindset from defense to attack.)

Counter-pressing...is not as chaotic, wild, or random as it appears

A misunderstanding of counter-pressing is that the team is constantly pressing. Is there a lot of pressing? Yeah. Is there a lot of running? Yeah. Particularly in the RalfBall style. But it is not as chaotic, wild, or random as it appears.

Counter-pressing schemes rely on certain triggers to instigate pressure and pressing itself. The use of triggers allows the team to press as an organized unit. And it allows players opportunity to rest. Gegenpressing wasn't developed in reaction to Barcelona's Tiki-Taka system, but it is a neatly opposite tactic in many ways. If Barcelona and its tactical analogs use possession as a way to slow the game when necessary and rest, counter-pressing units can likewise use the time between triggers to catch their breath (as long as the positioning is sound and the opponent contained).

These triggers can be something as simple as a backwards pass, a midfielder receiving the ball with his back to the opposition or a pass  from the center back to the fullback. The number and type of triggers depends on the coach. Here, for example, is a video displaying some of Liverpool's triggers under (former coach) Brendan Rodgers.

So while the pressing and pressure may seem random and chaotic, that is the desired effect (to be unpredictable and to panic the opponent by forcing quick decisions) of a carefully planned system.

The specific system, of course, is laid out by a specific coaching staff and executed by a specific set of players. How well players balance their limitations with the requirements of the system, and how well a coach plans around the players on the roster rather than the Platonic ideal of a gegenpresser - this will determine the success or failure of a particular system, and by extension the perceived success or failure of its coach.

One example of how particular players must be allowed to adapt can be found in the stellar play of Damien Perrinelle (who also gets a solid assist from the best hair on the team). Perrinelle has been the steadying presence in a defense seemingly constantly in flux. Matt Miazga and Kemar Lawrence are often away on international duty; Ronald Zubar is often injured; Chris Duvall went down mid-season, requiring an exploration of the roster's back-up right back options.

Perrinelle himself gets a load of yellow cards and is often called for fouls that seem likely to get him into trouble with the ref. In some teams, that would be cause for him to be dropped in favor of a player who is less likely to find himself on the wrong side of the referee. But Perrinelle is an essential part of RBNY's back line. Many of his bookings can be attributed to his relative lack of speed, but he compensates often with excellent positioning. Unfortunately for him, that frequently makes him the last line of defense (because he's anticipated a break down in the line and is covering for the absence of a colleague in a key area). And when he's the last man back or covering for an out-of-position teammate, he can get forced into a footrace, which is not his strength.

Many of his cards, however, have arrived because of his role in Marsch's counter-pressing system. Perrinelle usually gives his mark a big buffer because of his (lack of) speed. But he will occasionally come forward and aggressively press. Those moments are somewhat predictable: if you see a ball played in to an opposing forward with back to goal, expect Perrinelle to come in close, aggressively trying to win the ball back or stop the play from developing. That's almost always a tackle from behind, and he's very often whistled for it - and sometimes carded.

But he does it often enough it seems clear this is not some reflexive urge to get the ref's attention or boneheaded failure to grasp the fact tackles from behind are high risk. He's following an instruction, as part of RalfBall's high-risk, high-reward strategy.

When the system fails, it can be catastrophic. We saw this most memorably in Orlando's 5-2 demolition of RBNY in Red Bull Arena. In its own way, OCSC used the Red Bulls' tendencies against them, deliberately giving the ball to the home team and picking off mistakes to launch quick counters that frequently caught the defense out of position. It is a flaw Marsch needs to address, as we seem to be seeing almost every RBNY opponent attempting much the same tactic.

But perhaps the most obvious solution to the problem - drop the center backs deeper so they can better cover the counter - goes against the thinking at the core of the playing style. If the defensive line sits deep, the field isn't compressed as effectively and there is too much space for an opponent to play into to get out of trouble. Drop your defensive line deep and counter-press aggressively and you'll make the problem worse, not better: your opponent will have huge gaps to use to play around you.

The risk of the high line, as OCSC showed, is the press fails and you get shredded by the counter. But if you depart from trying to compress the field, you depart from one of the key elements of the tactic, and then you might as well play a different style entirely.

This is why we are repeatedly told whenever the team seems to be slumping that there is no turning away from the tactical plan.

They are trying to tell you something...

They are trying to tell you something...

And this is why Perrinelle keeps getting picked despite all his cards. If you have faith in a system of play, you don't abandon it when it fails. You stick with it and determine to execute better. Mistakes will happen. Of course, adjustments will be made - but the overall philosophy seems unlikely to change.

High-pressing, uptempo soccer, forcing turnovers and scoring goals: RalfBall

And, of course, the plan is not to be frantically chasing back to stop an opponent's counter. Most triggers in the high-press system are further up the field. Something is very wrong with the system if the center backs are doing most of the work.

The team engaging in counter-pressing capitalizes on pressure in a few ways. First, by playing a high line, the team makes the field smaller. This means that the opponent may be forced to play a low-percentage ball over the top - ideally giving possession back - or the effort to keep possession on a compressed field forces the opponent into a mistake. And by playing high up the field, it is more likely that mistake will occur close to the opponent's goal.

Further, since the counter press is often triggered by the loss of possession, the gegenpressers are hoping to be swarming their opponents before they have the chance to reset.

Ideally, the opponent has been forced close to its own goal, is under quick pressure that fractures its shape and positioning, and coughs up the ball in positions that make it vulnerable to a quick counter strike. High-pressing, uptempo soccer, forcing turnovers and scoring goals: RalfBall.

Again, this is where the system is different than Barcelona's Tiki-Taka ethos: winning the ball back isn't an end in itself; it is about winning the ball in the right areas, under the right conditions for a quick surge past a vulnerable opponent.

So much so, that if the gegenpressers find themselves in an awkward situation offensively but the opponent's defensive shape looks ripe for a counter-press, a deliberately misplaced pass is itself a tool to engineer a quick swap. Let the other team have the ball, thereby pulling the trigger to win it back, hopefully in a better position this time around.

For example, by passing the ball into space and forcing the defense to retreat:

The team can do the same thing by passing it to an opponent:

And if all else fails, the gegenpressers can settle into their defensive block and wait for the next trigger.

That is Red Bull soccer's core system, filtered through Ralf Rangnick's particular interpretation (he is generally associated with an unusually frenetic pace and aggressive style) and further modified by coaches at each RB club for their own leagues and squads.

RalfBall is, broadly speaking, gegenpressing. Which means RBNY is a gegenpressing team. And with that established, we can move on to consider how Jesse Marsch and the current crop of Red Bulls have been applying the philosophy to their own particular tactics during this season - which you will find in part two of this Tactics Edition of our RalfBall Files.

If you want to know more about counterpressing, click here and make sure to follow @ReneMaric.