My favorite 45 minutes ever watching the Red Bulls play (the Shield-clinching second half against the Fire notwithstanding) came on an unceremonious night in August last season. After Matt Miazga picked up a red card late in the first half, the Red Bulls went into halftime down a man and down a goal against a strong New England Revolution side. Whether from direction by Mike Petke, Robin Frasier, God, or some combination of the three, the team came out in the second half with a diamond midfield in the place of the flat four of the first half. In other words, the team lost one player, but were now playing with two more men in central midfield than they had when they were playing with eleven.
Despite the man deficiency, the advantage in the middle of the park led the team to dominate the second half, score two goals, and win the game. Neither Petke nor Marsch have played with a diamond midfield since, and perhaps that's for the best. The tactic put all of the team's resources in the middle of the park, while leaving Chris Duvall and Ambroise Oyongo isolated on the flanks, who against most teams would be overwhelmed by a wide midfielder and an overlapping fullback. The Revs, however, failed to adjust, with fullbacks Andrew Farrell and Kevin Alston stubbornly refusing to overlap, leaving the entire back four to defend against a lone forward, Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The Revolution team the Red Bulls will play on Saturday is, in many ways the polar opposite of that team. Last year, the Red Bulls changed their formation from being wide and spread out -- with their wingers, Lloyd Sam and Oyongo, holding onto the touchlines -- to a much narrower, centrally focused shape to combat the strength of the Revs in the central midfield. This year, the Red Bulls will be concentrating their resources in the middle from the start -- with their wingers, BWP and Sam, playing inverted -- while the Revolution will look to create chances from the wings. Will the Red Bulls force the Revolution, in the reverse of what transpired last year, to push more numbers centrally, or will the inverse occur, with the team moving away from their compact shape to spread the field?
About the Opponent
The key to the Red Bulls' strategy in the August match was the hesitance of the New England fullbacks to overlap and join the attack. Enter Chris Tierney and London Woodberry, two of the most effective attacking fullbacks in the league this season. Although the Revs lost the game, Tierney found lots of space on the left wing against NYCFC's diamond earlier this year, firing off 8 crosses, many of them uncontested by Blue Team defenders. Woodberry, an FC Dallas academy product, has been an unexpected revelation on the right side of defense, providing a much greater attacking threat than Farrell, who has slotted into the middle of the backline alongside Jose Goncalves.
The Revolution's midfield is also much more inclined to create chances on the wings. Last year's MVP runner up Lee Nguyen has been a shadow of his former self this year, shifting the creative burden to the wide areas, where two out of Teal Bunbury, Diego Fagundez, and Juan Agudelo will start. If those names scare you, they should. If you realize the Red Bulls' best three fullbacks are out on international duty or with injury, you might let out a horrified gasp.
Now, for the good news: New England have lost five in a row across all competitions, won only once in their twelve games since the two teams met in early May, and will be without arguably their best player, the injured Jermaine Jones. On top of that, their greatest offensive threat -- the dangerous wingers -- are also a defensive liability. That news might inspire a bit more optimism among fans if they could count on Kemar Lawrence, Chris Duvall, or Roy Miller to exploit that weakness. Alas, that burden will fall on the shoulders of Connor Lade and Anthony Wallace to provide an extra bit of offensive firepower to create 2-v-1s in wide areas.
How to Beat
As just mentioned, the play of Wallace and Lade will play a large role in determining the team's overall success on Saturday night. None of Bunbury, Fagundez, and Agudelo are willing defenders; Bunbury got torched by Oyongo's overlaps in last year's matchups, Fagundez lost his starting spot last year due to his lazy tracking back, and Agudelo is a striker forced wide by Charlie Davies' stellar play at center forward.
This vulnerability provides the most obvious weakspot for Jesse Marsch to take advantage of, and he will no doubt count on his reserves to get the job done. One possible wrinkle in his plans could involve playing the upstart Sean Davis at right back, far from his natural position but a possibility Marsch has mentioned in the past. Davis provides more of a presence in possession and on the attack, but it would be a risky gambit to play him in a new position for the first time against such an arsenal of attacking threats.
The disadvantages of benching Davis include not only include starting the inexperienced and unproven Anthony Wallace -- one senior team appearance after failed stints with Dallas and Colorado -- but also playing Connor Lade. Now, I love Connor Lade. I got his jersey this year, he's in my Twitter pro pic, and I may have thrown a temper tantrum when he was loaned out to the Cosmos last year. But against the Revs, Lade does not match up well.
Coach Jay Heaps will look to take advantage of Lade's short stature by putting Teal Bunbury up against him on whichever flank Lade lines up on. Bunbury plays as a somewhat unconventional "target winger," which means the Revs will throw long balls up to him all day long, a smart strategy considering Bunbury hulking stature compared to the fun size of Lade.
Furthermore, the Red Bulls number 5 is at his best going up against teams who make games into track meets, spraying balls into space on the counter. Lade's speed makes him well suited to play against these types of opponents. However, New England do not prefer to play like this, even if they are a counterattacking team. Rather, the Revs like to play the ball long into the final third, get it down on the ground, and work combinations in the final third. For a classic case of the Revolution executing this strategy -- and Lade struggling to cope -- see below.
Admittedly, Lade plays a very small part in that play, and is caught up field after a sloppy midfield turnover from Dax, but Lade will have to raise his game in order to deal with the threat of the Revolution's winger, as well as the overlapping Chris Tierney, while allowing Lloyd Sam to prioritize his role in the offense over his defensive responsibilities.
With Sam fully healthy, Wright-Phillips back on track, Dax McCarty playing on 10 days rest, and Sacha Kljestan rounding into form, the Red Bulls should control the midfield against a Revolution team without a sure partner for Scott Caldwell in Jones' absence. If Lade and Wallace can get their jobs done, they will force the Revolution to be the ones adjusting. Otherwise, Jesse Marsch, harkening back to Petke's performance last August, will need to be flexible, a trait he has thus far been unwilling to demonstrate.