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RalfBall: Jesse Marsch's Town Hall Comments

Jesse directly responds to the RalfBall question.

The town halls for the New York Red Bulls have become a regular event where fans get to ask questions on any topic they wish. Questions on in-stadium experience, parking, and the such are fairly normal. One topic brought up at the town hall last week though caught our attention: RalfBall. The topic was brought up by Mark Fishkin (of the Seeing Red podcast) when he asked this question for Jesse Marsch. (see above for video of the question & response)

Can you talk about the playing style that you guys have put together; the high press, young players, lots of energy and 90 minutes; and how it relates to the global Red Bull soccer organization way of playing? We've heard terms bandied around like "RalfBall", and so I'm curious, is it "RalfBall" that we're playing, or is it "Ali/Jesse Ball"?

Before we get onto talking about Jesse Marsch's response to Mark's question, let's take a quick look at what we've wrote about RalfBall so far. For those who don't know what I am talking about, RalfBall is the self named system (because we didn't know what else to call it) that has seemingly been developed by Ralf Ragnick. It's an overarching term to cover tactics, formation, player acquisition, player management, and more. Most of what we've written about can be traced back to the former Sporting Director at RB Salzburg, and now manager at RB Leipzig. We've detailed most of the aspects of his philosophy in our first RalfBall article, but here's a quick summary of the two main points.

  • High-tempo, high-pressure playing style. Have the offense/midfield as far as the field as possible to force turnovers as close to the opponent's goal as possible. Control possession, when you lose it, immediately pressure the opposition to get the ball back. (Gengenpressing)

  • In player acquisition: focus on younger players, preferably under the age of 30. The playing style is demanding and younger players are better suited to deal with the physical nature.

Jesse had a lengthy response to Mark's question, which I won't reprint here for the sake of brevity. Jesse starts off by talking about a shared resource system. This is something we have heard about plenty of times from Curtis & Marsch and fits in with some of the pieces we have written. Marsch then went on to say:

You know, when Ali made the decision to move in a new direction, I think he knew that we needed to, you know, align ourselves with our global properties and that he needed to find a coach that fit more now into the style of play that was being integrated in different places with Red Bull.

This has been the crux of the RalfBall series. From all evidence we've seen, there is a plan to have all Red Bull teams to play a similar high-pressure, high-tempo style. It seems that New York is following the trend given the play on the field in 2015. The messages was clear at the first town hall by Marsch, "So, when we met, he saw the way I wanted to play was what I described as high energy, and I think that's when I described an energy drink; which everybody loved."

Marsch went on to say that there wasn't a mandate to fit the same style of play that Leipzig and Salzburg are using. There's no reason to doubt Jesse, but that doesn't mean that he isn't implementing something similar. He's a coach who wants to play in the same way that (it seems like) the overall Red Bull organization does, and has seemed to buy into the overall philosophy.

This isn't to say that Marsch doesn't deserve any credit for what happened in New York this year. While he is implementing a system in New York that seems to be the same one used in Leipzig and Salzburg, he still needs to put the work in locally to make it possible. In 2015, New York had a lot of turnover. They had a new coach in Marsch, and a new GM in Curtis. They had a total of 5 regular starters from the 2014 season start on opening day 2015. They had a bunch of new faces and a new system to learn. To take all of that and win the Supporter's Shield is no small feat.

The same credit goes to Ali Curtis. He was obviously hired because he knew what could be done in terms of MLS and player acquisition/management. He swindled New York City FC when he loaned away Ryan Meara to obtain Sal Zizzo on a permanent basis. He brought in Sacha Kljestan for DP money and used Allocation to make him a off the books DP (going by MLS Player Union numbers) before Targeted Allocation Money was a thing. He brought in an up and coming attacking talent in Gonzalo Veron for a smaller fee than he got for eventually outgoing Matt Miazga. Which is remarkable since attacking talent is generally valued higher. MLS should've created a General Manager/Sporting Director of the Year award in 2015 just to give it to Ali Curtis.

Marsch at one point said, "That's what I think Ali and I and Mark are trying to do, is create something that fits within the Red Bull system but is also very unique to what is in MLS and who we are and how we coach." Marsch, Curtis, and their staff are doing that. Sean Davis and Tyler Adams were recently training with the European clubs, a sign of how our local talent (academy) is drawing attention. Marsch said that Leipzig used a New York set piece in a game the weekend before, which is a sign of how the local implementation is being looked at to improve other teams.

While we use the term RalfBall, it is meant as a catch all for WHAT New York is doing, but not the HOW. We can talk about how a 4-2-2-2 formation used in a preseason game aligns with a formation used by Leipzig, but that doesn't mean New York is going to be using the formation the same way.

Marsch and Curtis are certainly doing things their own way to make it work in New York, and the effort is not going by unrecognized. They are also borrowing resources and ideas from Leipzig and Salzburg; something any Coach & GM in their position should be doing. In return, Leipzig & Salzburg are starting to look at how they can leverage the team from New York, and borrowing set pieces will be just the start.

There may not be a mandate to follow the formation, tactics, and playing style of Leipzig and Salzburg. It's hard not to notice however that the current iteration of the New York Red Bulls is borrowing heavily from the counterparts in Europe. We may be falling in line with the way the game in played by Salzburg and Leipzig, but we're doing it our own way, and that's the takeaway we should have from Jesse's response to the RalfBall question.