In capturing the Supporter’s Shield, the 2015 New York Red Bulls led MLS in goals scored with 62, as their nearest pursuers followed with 58. For this year’s team to even approach the success of last season, they might have to ramp-up the offense even more.
As the season progressed, the buzz-worthy phrases of RalfBall and high-press became very much en vogue when discussing the Red Bulls. An oversimplified explanation of the these phrases is that heard coach Jesse Marsch deployed his men, specifically his midfielders and striker, as a cohesive, defensive-pressing unit. By using attacks to create pressure on their opponents, the Red Bulls were able to force mistakes, create turnovers and turn that into offense.
In 2016, Marsch may be looking to turn that pressure up into overdrive.
Much of preseason talk has revolved around Gonzalo Veron and Marsch implementing a 4-2-2-2 formation as a needed change of pace when teams begin to park the bus against NY as witnessed during the 2015 postseason. It remains to be seen if the 4-2-2-2 with Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips as the two strikers will used to supplement the standard 4-2-3-1 Marsch ran out week-in and week-out last season or become standard operating procedure. (We’ll have to wait a little while longer to find out as Veron works his way back from a minor hamstring injury.)
One thing that will not change however, is the role of the front-six in the high-pressing system to shield the defensive back-four. And the task of being the linch-pin to the press will again be charged to Felipe Martins.
As we saw last year, and especially in this passing chart from Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal versus D.C. United, Felipe’s displayed the dual abilities to clog up the middle of the park and break up the opponent’s attack while also being an adept passer that can instantly start the Red Bulls’ offense.
With Felipe as the anchor of the front-six pressing unit, NY was able to apply a tremendous amount of pressing on their opponents in their own half of the field.
As the front-six provided the pressure, RBNY was able to coerce their opponents into bad passes in their own half. They were so good that their opponents completed passes at a rate of a full two-and-a-half percentages points worse than against any other team in MLS.
NY’s greatest asset in their defensive scheme was their attacking pressure.
Entering the 2015 season RBNY was set on deploying a brand-new center back unit featuring a new acquisition (Ronald Zubar) and a returning player (Damien Perrinelle) who saw sporadic action the previous season.
While things didn’t go exactly according to plan as the Zubar/Perrinelle pairing became a partnership between Perrinelle and Matt Miazga, the latter duo excelled in closing down space and working extremely well together. However, that wasn’t the case from the outset.
Like most center back duos, the Mizaga/Perrinelle partnership needed time to gel and the best protection during their growing pains was RBNY’s front-six.
RBNY enters 2016 with a brand-new center back partnership featuring a new acquisition and a returning player who saw sporadic action the previous season (Is that an echo?)
Following the departure of Miazga to Chelsea and with Perrinelle still out for a while longer due to knee surgery, the Red Bulls are set to deploy Zubar and new acquisition Gideon Baah as its starting center backs. So far, the only other center backs on the roster are Scott Thomsen and Justin Bilyeu, a pair of rookies, with Karl Ouimette taking the role of the grizzled vet at the ripe old age of 23.
With a group of center backs sporting health concerns and inexperience, Jesse Marsch may be looking for even more pressure from his front-six than he did in 2015.
If the Red Bulls can get the breakout season from Gonzalo Veron that they are hoping for, they may see the benefits of a bolstered attack result in an even more productive season from Felipe. And if the Red Bulls can get that, they may have found a new way to shore up their defense via their offense.
Much like 2015, the 2016 New York Red Bulls begin their season with defensive quality and depth questions. In order to replicate another successful campaign NY may have to truly unleash the hounds by exhibiting even more offensive pressure and dynamism than they were able to last season.
There is a saying that sometimes "the best defense is a good offense" and the New York Red Bulls may be aiming to take that even greater extremes.