The first part of this Tactics Edition of our RalfBall Files sketched the basic principles and features of gegenpressing, the simplest handle to apply to the playing style of Papa Red Bull's global soccer empire. But a system is only part of the way a team plays on the field. The most visible application of that system, the one that will often be referenced as though it is the system itself, is the formation of the players on the field.
Formations are often just a starting point for a team's work over 90 minutes. As the game unfolds, players may be instructed to take on different roles. Or the discovery of a particular strength or weakness may see a team subtly adjust to take advantage or compensate. Still, for better or worse, teams and their coaches can become associated with their preferred formation. It doesn't define the style of play nearly as clearly as some analysis might suggest, but it certainly does influence that style. There is a difference between a team playing three at the back and one playing with a back four, for example.
In this discussion of RalfBall's on-field manifestation for the 2015 New York Red Bulls, it is useful to look at formation as a starting point for identifying what RBNY might share, from a tactical perspective, with its European brother clubs. And it assists with the task of spotting the differences between the Euro and American Red Bull soccer flavors.
The RalfBall project seems very clearly to permit each club a certain amount of leeway in managing its own affairs on and off the pitch. As Ali Curtis has said, RBNY is not playing Jesse Marsch's system. But the team is playing to a week-to-week gameplan he draws up. And that plan is based on the players Marsch has available to him, not those in Leipzig or Salzburg (or Brazil).
What has been working for RBNY to date is, it would seem, is a RalfBall style with a Marsch variation. And it starts with the formation the Red Bulls' head coach likes to use.
In the time since Ralf Rangnick joined Red Bull, RalfBall's most famous and visible disciple has not been Ralf. It is Roger Schmidt - now in charge of Bayer Leverkusen - whose coaching genius is sometimes boiled down to one particular game: Salzburg's visit to Ajax in the 2013-14 Europa League. Salzburg won the knockout round match-up 6-1 on aggregate, but the 3-0 win in Amsterdam was perhaps the most eye-catching result of the two-game series.
Both at Salzburg and at Leverkusen Schmidt has tended to use a variation of a 4-2-2-2. The beauty of the formation is its flexibility and intricacy. Look below at how Schmidt sets up his side.
Jesse Marsch, on the other hand, is very entrenched in his use of a 4-2-3-1 formation. The team has played this formation almost exclusively for the entire 2015 season. Even on occasions when the team has started two strikers, Marsch has pushed Bradley Wright-Phillips out wide left to accommodate Anatole Abang as the lone forward.
This is where the first difference between the Schmidt style and Marsch's preference appears. Marsch likes to send out a particularly complicated version of the 4-2-3-1, but it isn't Schmidt's 4-2-2-2.
While the two formations are different, many of the same concepts appear. Both teams want to keep the field relatively compact and narrow. Effectively, this reduces the amount of space the players need to cover for their pressing game: (com)press the field before you press the ball, if you will.
For example, while RBNY may be set up in a 4-2-3-1, both wingers in New York (Mike Grella tends to play as an inverted winger, and Lloyd Sam has the freedom to roam inside) pinch in both offensively and defensively. This allows the team to stay compact, while giving the fullbacks room to defend and attack higher up the pitch. This functions in an almost identical way to Schmidt's 4-2-2-2, where the fullbacks start with a wide space already cleared out for them.
All RB teams are playing the same general counter-pressing style, but not necessarily in exactly the same way. Much like Ali Curtis adapted RalfBall's transfer market philosophy to build an MLS contender, Marsch has adapted aspects of Schmidt's system and the RalfBall way of thinking to MLS, adding elements that simply don't feature in the model favored by the European Red Bull clubs.
Perhaps the most striking example is pressing the goalkeeper. In Rene Maric's analysis of Salzburg under Schmidt, he points out the team's tendency to follow the European tradition of rarely pressing the goalkeeper. This is worth noting because the Red Bull style in Europe is most easily recognized as being (simplistically) all pressing, all the time. But it usually draws the line at attacking the goalkeeper. In Tom Payne's analysis of New York, he points at how aggressively the team, specifically Bradley Wright-Phillips, presses the 'keeper.
Why this fairly significant difference? Payne's analysis focuses on Marsch's deployment of his team as a sort of compact block of players, overloading the opponent and making almost all options other than the long ball (itself a risky play with regard to retaining possession) unfavorable for the other team. But there may also be a simpler answer: the relative strengths of European soccer and that played in MLS perhaps make pressing the 'keeper a more useful tactic in RBNY's league than elsewhere in the Red Bull soccer empire.
Look at the top goalies in MLS (leaving Luis Robles out of the conversation): Nick Rimando, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, and David Ousted. All of them are outstanding shot-stoppers. With the exception perhaps of Rimando, their actual ball-at-the-feet footballing skills are not so well regarded.
Think to all the times that MLS goalies have sprayed punts, goalkicks, and easy clearances into the stands and out of bounds. MLS tends to select for 'keepers who are great with their hands, but not so clever with the ball at their feet. Even younger goalies coming up in the league, like Houston's Tyler Deric, seem to be not particularly skilled at controlling the ball with their feet. This may not even be a bias within MLS (for 'keepers who are great shot-stoppers over more rounded players of the position); it might simply be a reflection of the available talent willing to settle in the league. We often see young 'keepers with better technical ability, like Zack Steffen, snatched up by European teams.
American 'keepers can and do prosper outside MLS. And European 'keepers - like Ousted - can and do prosper in the North American league. But those 'keepers in MLS tend to be less confident footballers than their counterparts in leagues that place greater value on that aspect of the position.
Understanding of this sort of difference is the reason, we assume, Papa has all-American leadership in charge of his US-based team. In Europe, although 'keepers may be not as technically skilled as outfield players, they are still reasonably skilled with the ball at their feet - at least sufficiently that the odds of panicking them into an error simply by charging at them aren't really worth the effort.
The same cannot be said for MLS goalies (though consider Luis Robles - who played in Germany for a several seasons - and his almost too-casual approach to shrugging off hard-charging forwards; he's clearly not bothered by oncoming pressure, even if some fans have hearts in mouths as he appears to dawdle over a clearance). In Europe, a 'keeper worth pressing might be the exception; in MLS, a 'keeper not worth running at is arguably the exception. A foreign coach starting out in MLS might take at least a season to notice this feature of the league; Marsch seems to have instructed his players (or player - it's mainly BWP doing this particular work up front) to make it the rule of their pressing game, with the policy relaxed for specific opponents or situations.
In an MLS-based counter-pressing scheme, pressuring the 'keeper can pay dividends:
In New York's most recent match against Columbus, Crew 'keeper Steve Clark was one of the Red Bulls' best chance creators. He was repeatedly pressured by RBNY, most notably on the play that led to Bradley Wright-Phillips' match-winner. Mike Grella and BWP charge after a back-pass to Clark, who hurries his clearance and passes the ball straight to Connor Lade. The ball is in the back of the net seconds later.
Forcing turnovers as high up the pitch as possible is at the core of the RalfBall philosophy. And if teams in MLS are susceptible to pressing the 'keeper, it makes sense that Marsch would have his players chase those opportunities whenever they can.
Pressing the goalie also has a second benefit: ripping up the other team's playbook. Since the 'keeper often isn't pressured, teams can get used to being allowed to reset out of the back by using set passing patterns from 'keeper to the defense. By pressing the goalie, RBNY is disrupting the pattern from the beginning, forcing the opponent to think under pressure in a situation which isn't usually pressured.
And as bad as MLS goalies are in these situations, MLS center backs are not that far ahead in terms of managing to control the ball under pressure. Watch that flub by Tyler Deric again. Did Deric mess up massively? Yes. But did the pressure from Orlando lead the center back to hang him out to dry? Most certainly. All of this comes from attacking a weak link: slow, predictable passing patterns between a cluster of players who aren't particularly good with the ball.
Another specific tactic that Marsch appears to have deployed for his work with RBNY is the 4-2-3-1 formation itself. Given the success of Schmidt's 4-2-2-2, it would not be at all surprising if that particular approach becomes standard for all of Red Bull soccer.
But you need the players to make it work. It is a complex system of roving midfielders who hunt the ball. The system is intricate and varied, and seemingly chaotic. If you don't believe me, just look at what Salzburg did to Ajax in realtime:
Now compare it to how it looks when the video is broken down in slow motion:
This is Marsch's first season in charge at RBNY, and he was hired relatively late in the MLS offseason. He overhauled the team's pressing, defensive ideas, and positional responsibility, and there have been ongoing changes to the way the club operates with regard to the integration of its academy and reserve teams into the overall coaching set-up and playing philosophy.
That is a lot to ask a squad to get used to, especially when you add in the fact there was a bit of a clear out in the off-season, so the players also had to get used to each other. Marsch's use of the 4-2-3-1 looks a lot like a prudent decision to frame all of these changes within a familiar context.
The 4-2-3-1 is a familiar formation to many fans and players. It was employed by Mike Petke in the latter part of his final season with the team. Not only that but the 4-2-3-1 is the most common formation played in the Premier League right now. It's fashionable and understood by most players around the world. At RBNY, the core starters - Luis Robles, Chris Duvall (when he was fit), Dax McCarty, Lloyd Sam and Bradley Wright-Phillips - all played it in 2014. Connor Lade, Damien Perrinelle and Matt Miazga were also fringe players in last season's squad. By staying in a 4-2-3-1, Marsch gave the players a familiar base to build on, helping them to adjust to what must have been a potentially overwhelming flood of new information.
This could be one of the keys to Marsch's success. For example, in some circles in Germany, it is suggested RB Leipzig's relatively slow start to the season might be explained by Ralf Rangnick's system and formation: the players spent the first few games of the year getting used to Ralf's tactics (he took over coaching the squad in the summer). Overloading players with new ideas can leave them too focused on following instructions and not focused enough on following the game they are in.
By playing a 4-2-3-1, the team's compactness and passing triangles are more apparent than they would be in a 4-2-2-2. Rather than overload his players, Marsch instead has decided to integrate RalfBall with a tactical framework many of his players know well.
The 4-2-3-1 is probably not the end of RalfBall's evolution in MLS. Marsch likes to talk about the distance yet to be traveled by the team on its journey to a new on-field identity. There is evidence of growing chemistry and increasing tactical fluidity simply from watching the players on the field. And future generations of RBNY players are being groomed in the academy and NYRB II to play a system the current MLS squad had to switch over to abruptly.
Perhaps the ultimate goal for Marsch is a true 4-2-2-2 with intricate movement and even more arrows on the tactics board. Perhaps he has a different vision. We'll find out in due course. Whatever the formation, the swaggering fluidity of a Schmidt-type team must surely be the ambition of every coach in the RalfBall system. And that fluidity is as obvious when Schmidt's players have the ball as when they are seeking it back. Consider the moment his Leverkusen side really introduced itself to the Bundesliga, by scoring in less than 10 seconds after kicking off against Dortmund in August, 2014.
Often this year we have seen RBNY play and press in what could be regarded as a 4-2-2-2.
For Red Bull fans, it is an increasingly familiar sight to see Grella or Sam - the nominal wide-men in the formation - pushing forward to press alongside (occasionally, ahead of) BWP. When one man pushes forward, the other will tuck inside with Sacha Kljestan, providing defensive cover and compactness. And, sometimes, with a full back crashing the open space out wide and a narrow cluster of players in the middle, that means you have a man in position to put a second ball into the net.
I believe we are watching the early development of a 4-2-2-2 system in the second half of this season. Indeed, consider the way the players lined up at the kick-off in their most recent match, against Philadelphia.
Mike Grella and BWP are the front line of the press at kick-off, with BWP sprinting to keep up once Grella breaks free with an unexpected interception. Kljestan lags behind, not because he is relatively slow (though he is) but because it appears to be his role in the formation - he's not sprinting, he's tracking the play and holding a position relative to the front two. Sam starts several yards back from the halfway line, clearly intended to hang back. Felipe sprints to the middle of the field, then stops.
When Grella shoots, only BWP is level with him. This is the first seven seconds of the match: everyone is fresh, the coach's instructions are top of mind, Grella is hardly the fastest man on team - if other players wanted to be closer to the action, they could be. But they are not.
Ali's signings this year have pointed in the direction of trying to develop a squad capable of playing 4-2-2-2 as well. Gonzalo Veron and Shaun Wright Phillips are both wingers by trade. However, both have a flexibility that allows them to wear the multiple hats needed in a 4-2-2-2 formation.
Even earlier signings like Sal Zizzo and Grella point to a type of attacking player with the intelligence or experience that would be needed to adapt to the Schmidt tactical plan. Both players have spent significant time abroad playing soccer. Both are now starters, with Grella increasingly looking the most solidly comfortable RalfBall player the team has (his pressing game has become increasingly relentless).
Perhaps a diverse soccer education recommended these players to a team seeking to transition to RalfBall. The longer this system persists, the more the squad will fill out with players groomed to play in it or selected specifically for their suitability to its requirements. But this season was the start, and the roster needed to be filled quickly with players who might be able to adapt quickly.
And still, the fact of the matter seems to be Marsch has recognized that the 4-2-2-2 is not possible right now. He has fielded a 4-2-3-1, but delivered a style of play that is unquestionably in the tradition RalfBall wants to establish. We have been watching ideology mixed with pragmatism: RalfBall with a side of what it takes to win in MLS. The team may transition to a new formation, it may never fully embrace anything other than the 4-2-3-1: it seems clear there is no requirement for the teams in the Red Bull soccer family to be identical, just similar enough to be able to learn and benefit from each other.
Perhaps the signature tactical flourish of Jesse Marsch's brief career at RBNY has been his deployment of Sacha Kljestan in the #10 role on the pitch.
At the start of this season, when Once A Metro submitted its contribution to Big Daddy SB Nation's MLS preview, we got a note from one of the Big Daddy SBN editors: "You have Kljestan and Felipe the wrong way round."
It was a reasonable point from anyone familiar with the reputations of those players: Felipe is (or was) regarded as an attacking midfielder; Kljestan is (or was) more effective in a deeper role in midfield. If you have those two players in your squad, you put Felipe in an advanced position and let Kljestan help run the show from the halfway line. OaM's assessment of RBNY at the start of the season was that Sacha would be playing as a #10 and Felipe as a d-mid. Cue Big Daddy SBN's disbelief.
But if you watched RBNY in preseason, you couldn't sensibly suggest the team was going to line up any other way than with Kljestan forward and Felipe back. It was just difficult to explain why Marsch had apparently decided to flip his two prized central midfield assets.
Marsch played Sacha as a #10 and Felipe as defensive midfielder for most of preseason, and has stuck with that plan for the entire regular season. Repeatedly, Kljestan's role this year has been referred to as a non-traditional #10. It is, however, a very traditional approach for RalfBall.
Schmidt and Rangnick tend not only not to deploy a traditional #10, but the 4-2-2-2 means there is no one even in that space. As Rene Maric points out, RalfBall instead rotates the responsibilities normally associated with that position between the two inverted wingers.
Jurgen Klopp, perhaps the master of the counter-press, has said the emphasis in the system is to not have a true playmaker. He once told FourFourTwo that the "[counter press] is the best playmaker there is. The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball."
In Marsch's 4-2-3-1, the playmaking responsibilities are relatively evenly distributed between the two wingers and Kljestan, with BWP occasionally dropping back to provide additional creative spark. By having Sacha in the #10 position, the Red Bulls automatically have a passing outlet: he hangs back a lot, more often the link than the leader, holding possession or contesting second balls. Sacha leads the team in assists, but that is in part a reflection of his effectiveness as a set-piece taker. On the field, he is part of the attacking front four, but he is the least out-and-out attacking player of the group.
Importantly, however, Kljestan brings a #6 mentality to the #10 position. For most of his career at Chivas and Anderlecht, Klejstan played #6 or #8. This means that it is more natural for him to move into space for the ball, more like a holding midfielder and establish possession rather than quickly turn into space to play the killer ball. As a #6, Klejstan's preference to establish possession allows players like Grella, Sam and BWP' to play creator.
This is not unique to Kljestan either. Sean Davis seems to be being groomed for the same role. He has regularly been used as Kljestan's replacement in the formation, though he is equally comfortable spelling McCarty or Felipe. Davis, much like Kljestan, has traditionally been deployed as a #6 or #8 (for Duke, his college team) and brings the same mentality to the position.
Marsch didn't put Kljestan in the #10 spot because there was nowhere else to put him. Kljestan is a lynchpin of the formation. He can lead the high press, bringing a more combative mentality to the heart of the opponent's defense. He can drop deep and ping passes and crosses up to the front men. And even his weaknesses are strengths in this system. Sacha's first touch can be a little leaden. He dribbles with the grace and flair of a bar clearing out at 4:00 am. That scrappiness and unpredictability can be costly - like the moment when he ran into trouble against Columbus and Justin Meram picked up the turnover and ran through the entire RBNY back six.
But it is also invaluable to have his particular skill set in that particular position on the field. For every occasion he loses the ball in an advanced position, there is one where he will win it back. And, at his best, he knits the front four together with simple, decisive passing and intelligent movement. For example, consider this goal against the New England Revolution:
The core four attackers finish that move very narrowly clustered around the middle of the penalty area. Kljestan starts as the deepest of the four, receiving Lloyd Sam's pass and letting the winger cut inside. He finishes as a dummy runner, doing just enough to distract defenders from the fact Sam is unmarked. Ultimately, BWP takes the pivotal creative role in the sequence, while Grella and Sam end up combining like a seasoned strike partnership.
Kljestan tends to alternate between being an advanced destroyer and being the ever-available outlet pass for attacking colleagues who then push ahead to receive the ball from him. He is not the most reliable finisher on the roster, but his movement is intelligent and his instincts suit the needs of the team: a player who will find a way to get the ball to one of the three major attacking threats in the formation. A traditional playmaker would not bring the same effectiveness to the hunt-and-destroy aspect of the role; a pure d-mid would not bring sufficient creativity.
Davis has similar qualities: a blunter weapon in the #10 spot than is traditionally deployed, but no less effective for it. Both the players have shown they respect the cerebral side of the game.
Kljestan's pedigree and play indicates that he's a thoughtful player, who can determine who is in the best position to make a play. Anyone who has watched Davis with NYRB II or in his limited role with the first team can recognize that he is special. Even as a rookie, Davis has shown a high amount of awareness on the field, creating time and space for himself with not only his movement, but also by exploiting defender's tendencies and instincts with quick feints and shimmies. In time, Davis may prove to be the better fit for the system, but Sacha is no stop-gap. And he is also an essential bridge to whatever RBNY's future holds.
Kljestan and Davis represent a concerted effort by Marsch to bring the RalfBall system to MLS: they are non-traditional #10s in the Rangnick tradition of eschewing the #10 role.
While the firing of Mike Petke fits squarely into Ralf's past as a Sporting Director (a successful coach who just didn't fit into his vision), the hiring of Marsch looks like a sort of departure from Rangnick's formula. Marsch, while young and thoughtful, was not exactly an unknown from the lower divisions (like Roger Schmidt) nor a coach molded by Rangnick himself (Salzburg head coach Peter Zeidler is a former Rangnick assistant and was promoted from coaching FC Liefering to run the top-tier Austrian squad). Instead, Marsch was a coach with experience of MLS, a reputation for tactical intelligence, and an interest in youth development.
Perhaps this is what separated Marsch from Petke in Ralf's eyes. It seems probable that the integration of RBNY into the Red Bull global soccer system has long been part of the plan. Andy Roxburgh started a lot of the work that delivered the club a professional reserve team and training facilities capable of supporting the various squads that are now unified by a single tactical vision. And Roxburgh took over RBNY shortly after Ralf joined Red Bull and started to link Leipzig and Salzburg to one system.
One wonders if Petke was fired not despite his achievements but because of them. He was successful with RBNY because he was a pragmatist. The style of play Petke described before his first season was a free-flowing 4-3-3; it was shelved after one disappointing game in Portland. Over two seasons, stars like Juninho and Tim Cahill were not allowed to let their needs or wants come before the coach's desire for wins. If something wasn't working, it was (eventually) changed. And that approach led Petke to a Supporters' Shield in his rookie season and as good a playoff run as any coach of RBNY not named Juan Carlos Osorio has ever had.
Petke won the Shield with a conservative 4-4-2 and almost got to MLS Cup with an attacking 4-2-3-1. He got his team behind whatever tactic seemed to get the results required - and he stuck with that tactic only for as long as it seemed to work (or until it became impossible to deny it was not working).
But Ralf tends not to want successful coaches who think they already know how to win games to run his Red Bull teams. Rangnick, even as he approaches 60, has the instincts of a revolutionary. He wants to upset the established order. He seems to prefer relatively unknown coaches who share his outlook and will be willing to win games the RalfBall way. Those that do - like Schmidt - have gone on to bigger things. Those that don't have been replaced. What doesn't change is the system. A coach with a track record like Petke's - the only right system is a winning system - might not have recommended himself to a project that requires absolute commitment to the success of a particular style of play.
At the same time, Red Bull's soccer masterminds appear to have understood they needed specific knowledge of MLS in place at RBNY to manage the transition to RalfBall. The two main individuals responsible for that transition are a rare blend: both experienced and somewhat fresh-faced.
Ali Curtis has never been a Sporting Director, but the number of people on the planet who understand MLS better than he does probably wouldn't fill a starting lineup. Marsch is not a coach with a history of success in MLS. Nor did he really have a defined style of play that would potentially challenge the primacy of RalfBall in the Red Bull system. But he is an experienced coach in MLS and beyond: he knows the league, knows its players, knows the college game and the US national team set up also.
We believe Marsch was not the club's first choice, but his performance in his first season makes it difficult to argue that he wasn't the right choice. The most reasonable measure of performance is results, and results have been more than reasonably good.
While Petke's firing in itself hurt RBNY, the hiring of Marsch and Curtis shows Red Bull's growing understanding of MLS. At some point between 2006 and 2014 (one suspects earlier than we might imagine), the objective became to bring RBNY into the global Red Bull soccer family in a much more direct and meaningful way than ever before. Curiously, that appears to have led to hiring decisions more respectful of MLS's unique conditions than ever before. We can at least hope they will lead to results more successful than ever before.