With the news that the New York Red Bulls will be without the services of defender Damien Perrinelle for the remainder of the MLS Cup Playoffs, most eyes are now on his replacement, Ronald Zubar. While Zubar has an opportunity to show why New York brought him in prior to the start of the season to be a defensive bedrock, there is another player the Red Bulls will continue to rely on to off-set the loss of Perrinelle: Felipe Martins.
Heading into the season it was assumed that RBNY captain Dax McCarty would be the main shield of the defensive line and Felipe would be more of a playmaker. What transpired was Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch deploying Felipe in a more defensive role while using McCarty as the starting point of NY’s attack from the back.
As shown in the chart below, the majority of Felipe’s successful passes this past Sunday against D.C. United in Leg 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal occurred right in the middle of the field. From season’s start, Marsch placed Felipe in a more advanced defensive midfield role with the primary job of breaking up the opposition’s attack before it even starts. Once New York gains possession, the ball is at the feet of one of their best passers in the middle of the field with a plethora of options in front of him. Felipe’s 82% passing completion percentage puts him in the upper echelon of MLS midfielders and is even more impressive considering the high number of desperate passes he must make due to his defensive role.
With Marsch having parked Felipe in the middle of the field, it has allowed McCarty free reign to roam the entirety of the field to find the game as evidenced by his successful passing chart from Sunday.
By no longer being tasked with solely shielding New York’s defensive line, McCarty has taken advantage of his new found freedom, notching a career-high in assists with eight this season. His goal last Sunday wasn’t too shabby either.
Turning Defense Into Offense
Throughout the season fans have, at times, lamented the play of New York’s midfield additions. Those feelings have stemmed from the belief that Jesse Marsch had been playing them out of position and an expectation of their play that wasn’t being met.
However, much like Sacha Kljestan, Felipe has done exactly what Marsch set him out to do.
Felipe’s first task is to be the main disruptor in the midfield of RBNY’s high-press. Marsch has used Felipe’s tackling ability, in conjunction with his passing ability, to short-circuit the oppositions attack, win the ball, and get it quickly and accurately to the wing players. In 2015, Felipe saw his tackles per game increase by 60% from his previous career high in 2013. Felipe’s defensive presence has been key to the Red Bulls’. His tackling ability combined with his passing ability has allowed RBNY’s high press to quickly turn defense into offense.
Kljestan may have led the team in assists with 14 (good for fourth in MLS), but the offense is still set up to get the ball on the wings to Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella. Having Felipe right in the middle orchestrating that has been a driving force in New York’s Supporter’s Shield-winning campaign.
Ronald Zubar is tasked with replacing the ninth-ranked player overall in MLS according to WhoScored.com. While that seems like a tough ask, having Felipe in front of him will greatly assist Zubar as the Red Bulls continue their pursuit of an MLS Cup title.