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How the Red Bulls' tactics lost the Union match

The system did not work against the Union.

If I gave you this set of stats, without any other information, who do you think won the game in question?

Team A Team B
Possession 66.10% 33.90%
Total Shots 15 7
Shots On Target 3 3
Shots Blocked 5 1
Passing Accutacy 79% 61%
Duels Won 70 54
Tackles Won 20 14

You would probably say Team A, and 99% of the time, you would probably be right. However, this is MLS, and this is the New York Red Bulls (Team A). Obviously you know the Red Bulls lost 2-0 to the Philadelphia Union by now. The Red Bulls dropped to 4-2-5 while the High Pressure system of Jesse Marsch failed to score. That system is now on a 218-minute (plus stoppage time) scoreless streak.

The question is how is this possible? It's very simple, the tactics being employed by the Red Bulls just aren't working offensively, and it can be seen in the first two minutes of the Union game.

Union Match - Play 1

Bradley Wright-Philips is the player circled here. This play early on was the result of a pass deflecting off the referee and bouncing to Sacha Kljestan (#2 in picture). This picture is less than a second after the deflection, yet Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is supposed to be up top in a 4-2-3-1 is a good 6 yards back of the front of the midfield. Mike Grella (#1) is wide, but Lloyd Sam (#3) is cheating centrally like he has been all year. Given Philly's shape at this point, this isn't terrible. There's room for everyone to move, and Kljestan can dribble the ball up field. However, the way the play unfolds, it does not work well for the Red Bulls.

Union Match - Play 2

Again, Wright-Philips is highlighted by a red circle. Here is what I see wrong with this play though:

  1. Lloyd Sam has stayed inside and drifted even more centrally. This clogs up the area that Wright-Philips is supposed to occupy up top.
  2. Mike Grella is where he should be, on the far side ready to attack the post. However, given the positions of Sam and Wright-Philips, he's making the defense's job easier. Moving a little wider would open up space in the center.
  3. Kljestan took the ball onto the left side due to Sam cutting in, however he generally plays centrally. He's a little out of his depth here.
  4. Chris Duvall is looking to make an overlapping run as he has all year. In and of itself, this isn't a bad move. Duvall is known to join the attack, but he's overlapping Kljestan, who generally doesn't play out wide. Additionally, because of Felipe Martin's position (#5), the defense is vulnerable.
  5. Felipe is supposed to be a defensive minded midfielder, playing like Eric Alexander did last year with Dax McCarty. Instead, he's on the tail end of the attack. Because of this, Duvall's position and that of Kemar Lawrence (off frame but about to join the attack), the Red Bulls have no defensive support on the wings.

Against a team like Philadelphia, this generally won't hurt in terms of the defense. They're not quick enough on a counter to take advantage (although...two unanswered second-half goals, etc. etc.). Against better teams, like the Red Bulls' next opponent, the Seattle Sounders, this could be deadly.

On the offensive side, the team's lone Designated Player, who scored 27 goals in 2014, isn't the target. I know Jesse Marsch wants Wright-Philips to contribute more than goals, and he can. Running down the field after a turnover though, with the ball out wide, your striker should be in a position to strike, not trailing your Right Wing by 6 yards.

If the Red Bulls want to score goals, they have a very simple task. Get Wright-Philips in front of goal. Keep Sam out wide where he's effective, and provide bodies through Kljestan and Felipe to support Wright-Philips. When plays unfold like this, with players not positioned to take advantage of their strengths, it's not going to be easy to break down defenses, even - as has just happened - that of one of the worst teams in the league.