The MLS season has not exactly started the way the New York Red Bulls wanted. Two games into the season the Red Bulls are 0-2. This is in stark contrast to the team’s hot start last year where they went 7 games unbeaten, yes 4 of those were ties, but they still went 7 games without losing. So what is different between this year and last year? The element of surprise.
Last year, the Red Bull’s started the season off hot with a new system. Teams weren’t sure how the Red Bulls were going to play. As teams got more and more tape on the Red Bulls, they were able to game plan for the press. Teams are figuring out the Red Bull’s pressing system, structure, and doing their best to negate it.
Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact have both laid down distinct ways on how to negate the Red Bull’s press, their key to success. With their high energy, the team’s forwards, wingers, and midfielders harass the other team trying to force turnovers in dangerous positions. These turnovers lead to chances and chances hopefully lead to goals. There is a level of risk involved. If teams are able to negate the press, your defenders are left on an island and things like this happen.
Toronto, for example, negated the press by giving up possession. The Red Bulls had 63% of the possession in the game, not because the Red Bulls are Barcelona but because Toronto wanted them to have the ball. This was the same strategy used by countless teams last year. The concept is dangerously simple: the Red Bulls can’t press the other team if the other team doesn’t have the ball. In doing so, Toronto took the away the main source of the Red Bull's chance creation, which are turnovers. The Red Bulls thrive in chaos; after turnovers, the Red Bulls strike quickly because the defense is not organized.
By giving up possession, Toronto stayed organized, compact, and forced the Red Bulls to break down a bunked 10 man defense. Sacha Kljestan, Felipe Martins, and Dax McCarty are good all around midfielders, but none of them are elite chance creators. Once Toronto regained possession they ensured that there would be no dangerous turnovers. How? By kicking the ball very very far forward to Sebastian Giovinco. Toronto was able to then bypass the press by forcing the ball over the top where the Red Bulls defense was isolated.
Montreal, on the other hand, did not give up possession against the Red Bulls. Montreal is in unique position of having a team of very good passers of the ball. While Toronto bypassed the press by going over it, Montreal bypassed the press by going around it. The stats may indicate that Montreal tried 94 long balls, these long balls were not the same as Toronto. With passers like Harrison Shipp, Ignacio Piatti, Eric Alexander, and Calum Mallace, the Impact are able to move the ball with quickness and accuracy. This was the key to Montreal defeating the press.
The Red Bulls press is about overloading the middle of the field. This overload is created by the weak side midfielder pinching in. However, Montreal was able to consistently find the man outside, and never allowed the press to develop as they were quick to switch field back to the open man on the weak side. It didn’t look like the Red Bulls were pressing Montreal because Montreal didn’t let the press develop. Look at the passing chart that Matt Doyle included in his assessment of the game. Even though the chart is only from the 83rd minute on, they are representative of the game. Montreal was able to pass their way around the Red Bulls press.
While it is concerning that the Red Bulls weren’t able to adapt in game, it is important to remember that the Red Bulls are missing Gonzalo Veron. Veron, last year's mid-season acquisition, was a key part of the Red Bull’s new wrinkle in their system, the 4-2-2-2, that we saw on opening day. Without Veron, the Red Bulls look a lot like last year's team. With Veron the Red Bulls have a creative athletic presence that terrorizes defenses and helps creates the chaos that they thrive on. It’s also important to remember that it is only the second game of the season. They don’t give trophies for winning games in January, as long as the Red Bulls make the postseason they’ve got a chance, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Dominic Kinnear and Bruce Arena. Losing isn’t fun, but it doesn’t matter if teams have us figured out in March, as long as we have them figured out in November and December. I think we’ll be fine.