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Welcome to RalfBall, or how the New York Red Bulls are embracing corporate synergy

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The New York Red Bulls changed in 2015. They had a new plan. They appointed a new coach. They adopted a new style of play on the pitch and team-building strategy off it. We call it RalfBall.

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In an interview with Pitch Pass on August 12, head coach Jesse Marsch addressed the New York Red Bulls' new approach to its affairs, on and off the pitch. Speaking to the on-pitch matters over which he presides, he made an important statement:

The first thing is that there is a man named Ralf Rangnick that is the sporting director of all of Red Bull football. He currently has been named the Leipzig coach as well. He has another gentleman that he works with named Helmut Gross.

And those two are kind of the soccer minds behind the overall philosophy of what's trying to get done at Red Bull.

That might be the first time any representative of RBNY has directly mentioned the philosophy driving the team's soccer operations since Ali Curtis took over as sporting director in Harrison. It is the philosophy driving the whole of Red Bull soccer. A philosophy driven by Ralf Rangnick. We call it RalfBall.

We all knew change was coming for the New York Red Bulls in 2015. Thierry Henry retired, Tim Cahill (eventually) bailed, Jamison Olave went back to Real Salt Lake, Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh - the man who had appointed the coach and put the pieces in place for the 2013 and 2014 squads - decided it was time for a change of scenery. Oh - and that coach, Mike Petke, was fired. It was perhaps the most unexpected event of the Red Bulls' off-season. A successful coach - the first to win anything of consequence for RBNY - pitched out by a neophyte sporting director for unsatisfying reasons.

The plan was to turn the team into a metaphor for its corporate overlords?

In a nutshell, we were told there was a plan and Petke wasn't the right man for it. Since we didn't know the plan, it was impossible to agree with the evaluation, and many - understandably - chose to disagree. Then Jesse Marsch was appointed - the day after Petke was fired - and he described the plan - insofar as it extended to the team on the field - as "an energy drink". Cue more outrage. The plan was to turn the team into a metaphor for its corporate overlords? And that involved shipping out its most loyal servant, the only guy to bring a trophy to the team in (at the time) 19 seasons of existence? This was madness. Madness made worse by Marsch's apparently flippant response.

There was a sustained period of supporter discontent, exasperation, even fury. Unkind things were said about both Marsch and the man who appointed him, Sporting Director, Ali Curtis. The man with the plan. Say what you like about Curtis - and many have - he has not shied away from difficult decisions. He made (or at least consented to) another one shortly after firing Petke: to face the music. Angry, often profane, discordant music at a Town Hall meeting with season ticket holders in January.

Curtis, Marsch, General Manager Marc de Grandpre, and first-team goalkeeper Luis Robles presented themselves for a live Q&A. The latter two men were frequently irrelevant bystanders at a meeting largely between confused and unhappy fans confronting the man who fired the most successful coach the club had ever had and the coach of an expansion team that lost 17 games in the MLS regular season in 2012 and missed the playoffs, who Curtis believed a better candidate for the job ahead. Because "plan".

Marsch managed to enhance his reputation by confronting the fans' outrage with a simple request: give me a chance, and if the results aren't right, I'll be gone. Can't fault that. Curtis, however, was found by many to be evasive, inclined to retreat into corporate double-speak, as though most fans don't go to work every day and encounter well-crafted, empty statements of the sort that MBA programs appear to believe carry meaning.

And we still didn't know much about the plan. Not from Curtis, who has talked about it a lot, often without revealing much. Here is a quote from an early interview with EmpireOfSoccer.com:

It’s always been trying to create a single identity that is clear and transparent not just for our players, but for our staff, our fans and our community. It starts with that identity and our vision, which is to build a lifelong connection between the club and community that transcends the sport. We have a mission of building a world class environment for our players and staff.

We see the words "identity" and "community" twice, some aspirational verbs like "transcends" in proximity to ambitious adjectives like "world-class". The plan is "clear" and "transparent" - except it really hasn't been, not in the sense of any single, detailed explanation. Later in the EoS interview, four points of the plan are presented. Detail! Nope. Two of them start with the word "discussing". "Discussing" is not a plan, it is the start of a plan. We might discuss whether I move to Timbuktu, but until we stop discussing it there is no plan.

It can be said that Curtis has a regrettable weakness for the ambiguous phrasing beloved by corporations and PR companies. And that certainly slowed his acceptance by fans he seemed ruthlessly committed to upsetting when he first arrived. But one doesn't judge a sporting director by his vocabulary. And when he isn't being asked to articulate a vision, he is generally quite plainspoken with the press. As is Jesse Marsch. We know a lot more now about the plan from their day-to-day interactions with media than any formal effort to explain it.

More importantly, the one thing the entire plan and club and fan base revolves around - the MLS team - is really good. As the 2015 regular season narrows to a thrilling finish, the Supporters' Shield race is wide open, among the front runners is RBNY. We have a good team. We have a winning team. The plan is working, probably a lot more quickly than expected. It's a good plan by the most reasonable measure: results on the field.

Curtis may not have offered too much detail, but we have a notion of the plan from piecing together statements over the last few months and the actions of Papa Red Bull over the past years. And, of course, simply watching the team on the field.

The plan is many things, some of which may be all down to Ali Curtis. The decision to not only repeat the Town Hall experience (on September 2) but make it a regular, scheduled, twice-annual event - that's a novelty that seems to fit well with Curtis's oft-professed desire to get the club more solidly engaged with its fan base. It is a risk, but it's unlikely the club will ever have to face an angrier group of supporters than it did in January, so the worst-case scenario has probably already been witnessed.

The more visible part of the plan, however, is the soccer. In 2015, we have seen a professional reserve team - NYRB II - established. The Academy has been brought closer to the pro set-up with greater exposure of its coaches and players to the first-team. The training facility is being expanded. And the on-the-pitch Red Bulls of 2015 play a defined style that Jesse Marsch likes to call "uptempo", and is often described as a high-pressing game.

The entire club, as we understand, is now unified under this style. Academy teams learn it, their senior players move into NYRB II, where it is played, and the top players from that squad will hope for MLS contracts with the first team. Fringe players on the MLS roster play for NYRB II safe in the knowledge that they are being asked to hone their skills in the exact same system that the senior team plays. When they get their chance in MLS, it will be in a role within a tactical system that they understand and have proven themselves able to to play.

This club is as closely aligned to Austria as it has ever been

In his Pitch Pass interview in August (seriously, listen to it - it might be the most important interview he's given since he joined the club), Jesse Marsch talked about the development of a "curriculum": guidelines for the sort of progress expected of players at each level of the organization. A transparent set of instructions that tells coaches what they are expected to do, and players how they will be evaluated for promotion through the ranks of the club.

That is a smart plan. That is synergy across all levels of the club. We can't find any example of Ali Curtis using the word "synergy" in public, but it does seem an apt description of his plan. This is the Synergy era of RBNY. But that synergy is not limited to the MLS club. The New York Red Bulls are part of a global soccer organization. And the evidence of its recent activities strongly suggests RBNY has finally been assimilated into the family. Fans who fear Papa Red Bull is apathetic about his American team, uncaring and insensitive to its needs: think again. The club is as closely aligned to Austria as it has ever been.

This is Papa's Synergy era. Certainly in terms of the soccer being played and the resources deployed to support it. The term "Red Bull soccer" is no longer a fanciful marketing slogan. It has meaning: a tactical identity applied to every professional club in the Red Bull family. Don't take our word for it, Ali said it:

In terms of style of play: that's not Jesse's style of play, that's the club's style of play.

What do we call this system? It's not JesseBall, though Marsch has proved himself an extremely adept disciple. SynergyBall does it a disservice: it is not a system designed for Red Bull's desire for corporate efficiency; it is a very well known, widely adopted, much respected, extremely influential, school of soccer tactics. At Red Bull, its principal architect is a man who made his name as a coach through his deployment of the system: Ralf Rangnick. Remember what Jesse said to Pitch Pass:

The first thing is that there is a man named Ralf Rangnick that is the sporting director of all of Red Bull football...He has another gentleman that works with him named Helmut Gross.

And those two are kind of the soccer minds that behind the overall philosophy of what's trying to get done at Red Bull.

We are playing RalfBall.

Is this important? Well, if you're a fan of this club and want a sense of where it might be going, then it is useful to have an understanding of the strategy it is following. Petke's firing was a baffling and abrupt switch away from something that seemed to be working. The confidence of Curtis, Marsch, subsequently even the players, was difficult to comprehend. What plan could be so good to justify effectively binning two years of success? Answer: RalfBall. And Papa's confidence comes from the fact he has been watching RalfBall for some time.

That's not Jesse's style of play, that's the club's style of play -Ali Curtis (BigAppleSoccer.com)

In April 2005, Red Bull GmbH bought SV Salzburg, a top-flight Austrian football club founded in 1933, and rebranded it: FC Red Bull Salzburg was born. In March 2006, it was announced that Red Bull had acquired an MLS team: the MetroStars were renamed the New York Red Bulls. In November 2007, Red Bull Brasil was established, starting out in the fourth-tier of the Sao Paulo state championship. Red Bull Ghana was founded in 2008. In 2009, Red Bull acquired the playing license of fifth-tier German club, SSV Markranstadt, and created RasensBallsport Leipzig e.V. - subsequently known as RB Leipzig.

The creation of Leipzig also came, reportedly, with a goal: the new ownership would invest 100 million Euro over a 10 year period, and hoped to be in the top flight of German soccer within eight years.

In less than five years, Papa had built himself a soccer empire. He had top-tier teams on both sides of the Atlantic, what appeared to be feeder clubs in Africa and South America, and a club targeting entry into one of the top leagues in the world - the Bundesliga.

I don't know why Dietrich Mateschitz, co-founder and de facto owner (he has 49% of shares, it says here) of Red Bull GmbH has reportedly never visited his American soccer team - but he was certainly busy building his football family for at least the years 2005 to 2009.

And the family moved fast. The club Papa essentially obliterated and replaced with FC Red Bull Salzburg had enjoyed one period of sustained success - in the mid-1990s - since its founding in 1933. Papa appointed Giovanni Trapattoni head coach in June 2006, and the Austrian Bundesliga title for the 2006-07 season was won. Trapattoni moved on to coach the Republic of Ireland national team at the end of the following season, and Co Adriaanse guided the team to the 2008-09 league title. Adriaanse left, Huub Stevens took RB Salzburg to another Austrian championship in the 2009-10 season. When he didn't repeat the trick the following year, Stevens was out and Ricardo Moniz arrived. Moniz won the league and the club's first Austrian Cup title in 2011-12. Four league titles and a cup in less than 10 years; SV Salzburg had won three league titles (and three Austrian SuperCups - a competition shelved in 2004) since 1933.

Over in America, the trophies were harder to come by, but Papa's RBNY made it to the MLS Cup final in 2008 - its closest brush with winning the championship. RB Brasil had moved up to two divisions, to the second tier of the Sao Paulo state championship, by 2011. RB Leipzig won promotion in 2009-10 under Tino Vogel, the coach it inherited from the club Papa dissolved to make his German team - SSV Markranstadt. A new division brought a new coach (Vogel is currently coach of Leipzig's reserve team), Tomas Oral - who had managed to get FSV Frankfurt to 2.Bundesliga in 2008-09. Oral couldn't get RB Leipzig promoted. He was replaced by Peter Pacult for the 2011-12 season, coach of Rapid Vienna from 2006 to 2011, a stint that included the 2007-08 Austrian Bundesliga title. Still no promotion for Leipzig.

To recap, at the end of the European 2011-12 season, Papa Red Bull had five RB-branded pro soccer teams. There was reason to be cheerful: RB Salzburg had just won the first double in its history; RB Leipzig had finished third in its league - missing out on promotion but it only lost five league games all season; RB Brasil had finished third in in its league in 2012. RBNY had been retooled and installed in a new stadium (a project Papa inherited when he bought the team, completed in time for the 2010 season). It still had no trophies, but it had some big names (Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez) and was consistently making the playoffs - there was certainly no threat of falling back to the dark days of the 2009 season.

We're not sure what was going on with RB Ghana's league performances in 2012, but it was expelled from the Red Bull family in 2014, after being relegated in 2013.

We want to pull a red thread through the two clubs -Ralf Rangnick on synergy between RBs Salzburg and Leipzig (Die Welt)

If there was a time for Papa to stand pat it was 2012. It would have been reasonable to see the Red Bull soccer glass as half full, but he apparently decided it was half empty. Salzburg couldn't get into the Champions League; Leipzig and Brasil were treading water in the lower leagues of their respective countries; RBNY couldn't win anything meaningful. With the possible exception of RB Ghana, every team in the Red Bull system had a new head coach by 2013.

More significantly, with hindsight, Papa appointed Ralf Rangnick as Sporting Director of both the Salzburg and Leipzig clubs in June 2012. Officially, that has been his position until he was appointed head coach of Leipzig in May 2015. But this is the man Jesse Marsch described as "the sporting director of all Red Bull football." Whatever his title, Rangnick is the most influential tactician in Papa's soccer family, and that influence was felt almost as soon as he was hired, at both Salzburg and Leipzig, on and off the pitch.

If you think what happened to RBNY in the 2014 off-season was harsh treatment of a successful coach, consider what Ralf did in the summer of 2012. Ricardo Moniz had just won Salzburg's first-ever league and cup double. He was replaced by Roger Schmidt, fresh off a season guiding Paderborn 07 to fifth place in 2. Bundesliga in Germany.

Elsewhere, Peter Pacult had an Austrian championship to his name and had improved Leipzig's performance from the previous season; Alexander Zorniger - who had just had his most successful season in charge of fourth-tier SG Sonnehof Grossaspach - replaced the Austrian. There was also a freshly rebranded reserve team for Salzburg - FC Liefering - starting out in 2012/13; Peter Zeidler, who had been managing Ligue 2's Tours took responsibility for the newest member of Papa's soccer family. I don't know if Ralf had a hand in it, but RB Brasil also got a new manager for 2013.

Rangnick had been appointed with a special responsibility - ostensibly limited to the Austrian and German RB clubs. His job was to not only help the teams get better; it was, as he told Die Welt (through the magic of Google translate), "to pull a red thread through the two clubs." His goal was to develop a united system for both clubs. And he brought in coaches who shared that philosophy (Zeidler, for example, was one his assistants when Rangnick managed Hoffenheim). There was nothing necessarily wrong with what Moniz or Pacult had done for their respective teams, they just weren't considered the right fit for Rangnick's plans. Sound familiar?

Rangnick introduced a full-scale reorientation of both Salzburg and Leipzig to align with his soccer philosophy. In that interview with Die Welt, in June 2013, Rangnick outlined several elements of his plan (all imperfectly translated below by Google).

Ralf on playing style:

Aggressive forward defending and pressing. Playing in private possession and directly to the front, lateral and back passes are rather not so much in demand...The aim is to develop teams, no soloists.

Ralf on integration of tactical thinking across all levels of the playing and coaching staff:

It was one of the main tasks in the past 10 months, to ensure in Salzburg and Leipzig in both the first and second teams, and even at youth level that exactly this kind of football can also be seen. Of course, we are only 10 months, and the play is not the level of Bayern, Dortmund or Barca. But we want to get at all locations trainer or develop itself, convey to the players exactly this style of play.

Also:

We made coach development in the area where we have brought together all the coaches in just the past 10 months, four workshops. The Scouting Association is aligned across and not specifically for only one club. Also in the medical field, we work closely.

On team-building:

And we have to find exactly the players who fit in with us. That's something we have changed: we want future only commit players who play only or sporting reasons in Leipzig and Salzburg. Because at this time, the right career move is just for them. And not for financial reasons or because the area is so beautiful. We want to find players and shapes that can accompany us for the next stages of development.

Also:

Hoffenheim is a good example. For better or for worse. Has more consistently Hoffenheim set to young, talentd players since 2006, the more successful it was. These conditions do not make any sense if you do not have diamonds, no blue chips that you develop. It's gotten so that youthfulness is a sign of quality. Even in international football. Look at Bundesliga or the Champions League final at the younger, the better.

And:

As long as I'm here, this will be the way. We are committed for next season no player who is 28 or 30 years old.

The RB Leipzig squad for the 2015/16 season has three players aged 30 or older, the rest are 26 or younger. The current RB Salzburg squad has five players over 28, of whom three are over 30.

Finally, Ralf on transfer policy:

I told Dietrich Mateschitz that I make a single transfer, I would not settle, if it were my own money. We will not make any crazy things and not playing Monopoly.

And:

An example: If we want a player like Sadio Mane, which cost a relatively high peel pick, then I speak to Mr. Mateschitz and explain to him that I am convinced of the players and you can develop it and perhaps sell profitably, I propose to do it, and he said at the end: Okay, do it.

Sound familiar? "Aggressive forward defending and pressing", an emphasis on getting players and coaches at all levels within the organization to adopt the same tactical approach, building a team of young and willing players rather than potentially recalcitrant stars, an emphasis on youth and financial prudence in the transfer market.

Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis don't get too deep into tactics talk publicly. For the most part, media coverage of the team has been satisfied with "uptempo" and "high press" as descriptors of the style of play. But the website Spielverlagerung cares deeply about tactics. The site's Tom Payne writes for RBNY's official site from time to time. Here's his conclusion about the Red Bulls' tactics this season, from a piece the club reportedly refused to publish on its own website for fear of providing opponents with too much information:

With what is becoming common across all teams of Red Bull, Jesse Marsch’s team are developing an exciting system based around their high block and compactness without the ball and their vertical-orientation and pace with it.

Here is Ali Curtis, to Sports Illustrated, on integrating the style throughout the club:

High pressure, aggressive. We press. We hunt. We go forward. High tempo. High pressure. High energy … We’re trying to get on the same page as to what this needs to be, so that we can give this to the U-12 coach, the U-12 player, the U-14, U-16, U-18, the USL team as well as our first team.

Here is Jesse Marsch - in that Pitch Pass interview again - talking about the way Red Bull has thrown open its doors to welcome RBNY fully into the soccer family:

When you talk to people that have been in Red Bull for eight years, they've never seen Salzburg and Leipzig open their scouting networks, open their coaching networks, opening their player pool networks, you know, their medical networks - all these different things.

And here is Curtis describing transfer policy to BigAppleSoccer.com:

We don't want to go out and sign players just kind of at the end of their careers, so to speak. At least that's the prototype at the end of the day, there's always slight nuances, parameters and boxes you want checked but you really got to evaluate everything in real time.

And:

In terms of younger guys, we have such as an aggressive, high-pressing, active style of play – a lot of times you want to make sure you have layers can keep up with the physical demands for that which is maybe why you lean towards who are a little younger.

It's the same thing. Every aspect of the core thinking driving RBNY's tactical and organizational transformation in 2015 stems from the philosophy Ralf Rangnick started to implement at RBs Salzburg and Leipzig in 2012. Even the abrupt firing of a successful incumbent coach to be replaced by a relative unknown fits the pattern of Rangnick's modus operandi in Europe. Indeed, Jesse Marsch made it sound as though Papa (or, more likely, Ralf) had signed off on his appointment in his comments to Sports Illustrated back in April:

I think their attraction to me was that they felt I was a guy who was going to come in and, through the grassroots, from the bottom up on the soccer side, help make this thing better. I think over the years, going after the big names and high-profile coaches led them down treacherous roads.

Those comments were made in an article that made big play out of the 300-page plan Ali Curtis has been touting since he joined the club. The article comes close to crediting The Plan for almost everything that has been done at RBNY this season. In fairness to Curtis - and indeed Marsch - he has never made a public statement that I can find taking credit for the philosophy behind the new-look New York Red Bulls. Curtis talks about his plan plenty (less so recently), he talks about the changes at the club, and he credits the plan for getting him hired, as it apparently contains a personal view about how to run a football club that convinced Papa this was the man to carry RalfBall forward in America.

If you think you've read a statement where Curtis or Marsch claims responsibility for the new Red Bull approach - read it again. You're probably reading the words of the journalist behind the story, not a direct quote. They're not hiding the reality of RalfBall, it's just often being framed as their invention.

We check in with everything that is going on over there and some of the people there on a weekly basis -Jesse Marsch (PitchPass.com)

Given the striking similarity of almost everything happening at RBNY in 2015 with the changes at Salzburg and Leipzig in 2012, the only question remaining about Curtis's plan is whether it is in fact simply a case study of the revolution Rangnick led at Red Bull three years ago.

But the conclusion that RBNY is playing RalfBall is not damning of either Curtis or Marsch or anyone connected with Red Bull soccer on either side of the Atlantic. It is a proven and successful system. Rangnick is a respected tactician - that is why Papa appointed him. And Curtis has done extremely well translating the off-field elements of the philosophy to the MLS context. It is Papa's Ralf's plan, but Papa Ralf isn't here. Curtis is tasked with its execution. He showed his commitment by taking the flak for firing Petke. And as those Rangnick quotes above demonstrate, often a few things get lost in translation; Curtis seems to have accurately transcribed RalfBall to MLS without losing much of anything.

Equally, the fact Marsch is as much working to a prescribed system as the Academy coaches for whom he is developing a curriculum does not invalidate his work. He has to manage and motivate the players and balance the demands of the system with the abilities of the players he has in his squad. In short, he has to be a coach. And most coaches work within constraints: Mike Petke was handed a squad he hadn't had a say in putting together and told to win something; Jesse Marsch has to make RalfBall work in MLS, or Ralf will find someone else to do it.

Marsch is also doing extremely well and he's only really getting started. Rangnick isn't telling Jesse how to coach, just what to coach: the style of play and philosophy he must implement. Adapting the style to his roster and making them effective against MLS opponents is how Jesse will make his name as a coach.

And RalfBall disciples are hot commodities: Roger Schmidt is one of the most praised coaches in Europe; Alexander Zorniger was let go at Leipzig this year and is now the head coach at VfB Stuttgart. The sacked coach of a 2.Bundesliga side taking over a team in the division above? That is the power of RalfBall.

But RalfBall should perhaps change the narrative surrounding the club this season a little. We know from an interview with Andy Roxburgh by Aaron Bauer for this site that many of the organizational changes made this year were already in train under the previous regime. Roxburgh presided over important work in bringing the Academy closer to the first team, prioritizing the signing of promising young players, and developing plans for the USL team that were implemented after his departure.

If you like what you're seeing from RBNY this season, and you should (disgraceful treatment of Petke being the one exception) - then you have Papa Red Bull to thank for it. Because Papa appointed Rangnick. And we're playing the game the way he sees it now.

Welcome to the RalfBall era of RBNY.

I know what you're thinking: why didn't they do this in 2013? That and more in the second installment of our RalfBall series. Stay tuned.