The New York Red Bulls are currently finding new and exciting ways to be dreadful. In just six league games in 2016, they have managed to concede 13 goals. And they have scored only four times. And all four of those goals came in one game. And that game is the only one RBNY has won so far this season. And the other five matches have been lost.
A team that loses five out of six games is not good. A team that only scores in one out of six games is terrible. There is no discussion of chance creation or passing statistics that can obscure this fact. If you're not scoring or winning, you're not achieving either of the basic elements of what might be considered successful soccer. And if your defense is a fragile, panic-stricken, shambles-in-waiting: you won't even get the clean sheets necessary to at least guarantee a draw while you figure out what is wrong up front.
The Red Bulls cannot score and cannot keep their opponents from scoring: the Red Bulls are not playing good soccer. This is a sad but obvious truth.
We have watched this team in a rut before, many times - even under Jesse Marsch. Until the current stretch, the most challenging run of results Marsch had endured as head coach of RBNY was last season's May-to-June, four-game losing skid. It was a slump that threatened a hard-won but fragile peace with a skeptical fan base still bruised by the club's clumsy transition to its new era, and only somewhat pacified by an exciting and effective new playing style that had delivered a seven-game unbeaten streak to start the new season.
After the third match of that losing streak, Marsch had settled into a bit of a rhythm in his post-match comments. He wasn't happy - but he was steadfastly focused on the team's tactical system and playing philosophy. There was a plan: hold the course, trust the system, keep working.
Right now we have to stay strong with our beliefs and how we do things. We've had a lot of good days; today wasn't one of them. We need some time to get away a little bit, reflect on some things and come back with recharged batteries.
After the fourth consecutive loss of that run, he pivoted slightly to focus attention on himself and his commitment to the team's tactical plan:
It's a tough moment right now with five games and one point. That's not good enough, period. I have to take blame for that. I'm the manager here and there's one guy that has to take responsibility and that's me. I will look hard at everything from what we're doing tactically to what we're doing selection wise.
And he was vindicated. A scrappy win in the very next match snapped the streak. Having lost four in a row and five of its first 14 games, RBNY would go on to lose just five more league matches for the rest of the season and win the Supporters' Shield.
In 2016, as the current losing streak has persisted - with the 4-3 win over Houston providing false hope that the worst was over - Marsch's post-game comments have started to sound (understandably) less like the confident tactician of last season and more like a man simply bewildered by the staggering consistency of his team's inconsistency in both defense and attack.
After last week's defeat to Sporting KC, he was at a loss to explain the loss:
To be honest with you, I'm not sure how to explain it, right. I mean, I know that when I'm watching my team play that it's a good team and that we're, in many ways, we're executing game plans the right way, and in a lot of these games I think we come out in many ways as the better team on the day but walk away with not enough goals and giving up too many. So obviously that is a recipe for losses.
After this week's loss to San Jose, he was reduced to talking about his belief in...belief:
Yeah, the game was there for us; and I sound like a broken record because we've been in this situation with almost every game and we've managed to allow it to slip through our fingers. When you get in these ruts its can feel like it's a long period of time that you're dealing with and there's no one specific answer to get out of a rut when you're in a situation like this. It just takes guys to go on the field and play brave and play with belief and I can tell the team that I have belief in them all until I'm blue in my face but its up to them to now believe in that, its up to them to believe in themselves and now we need to step on the field and see more good performances.
He rallied gamely in response to the inevitable question about tactical adjustments, but after a strong start, ended up sounding more like a man trying to convince himself than one confidently sharing his convictions:
It's not tactics. It's not...it's not.
Marsch has made it abundantly clear that he is a system coach. We should know better than to ask whether he is considering a radical shift in tactics, though he does still get asked that question - and he remains willing to trot out the same talking points he has been delivering pretty much since he assumed control of the first team. As he told ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle before the San Jose game:
The more we commit to how we want to play and who we want to be, the better handle we're going to have on games, and eventually it's going to lead to success. These guys have heard this until they're sick, but this is how we do things, and we believe it.
Losses notwithstanding, there is currently no reason to believe Marsch will make any radical adjustment to the tactical identity of his team. The RalfBall Red Bulls are presumed to be here to stay. Lineup changes such as we just witnessed against San Jose? Certainly. Formation tweaks such as the recent interest in 4-2-2-2? No doubt. But a complete departure from the tactical system that has been implemented at every level of the club from academy to first team? Not impossible, just very, very unlikely.
It is entirely reasonable to be concerned about this situation. MLS opponents clearly have decided on a common plan to neutralize the current incarnation of RBNY: cede possession to the Red Bulls, force them to bring the ball forward, make them play through or around a packed defense, and strike on the counter. It is the plan Columbus used to beat RBNY in the 2015 playoffs, and it is the plan almost every opponent this season has used. It is risky to give an opponent the ball and an invitation to attack, but it has proved repeatedly effective. And it has a distressing tendency to produce exactly the sort of results we have been seeing this year: the Red Bulls will win all sorts of statistical categories, but they are largely being allowed to win them by an opponent that is happy to take the small share of a few stats in exchange for the win.
It is an approach made remarkable by its apparent uniformity (only Montreal, so far this season, has tried something different; that worked too because the something different was simply playing better than RBNY; Houston, conversely, can count itself unfortunate to have run into Felipe's best-ever shooting performance as a Red Bull). And that uniformity of approach by the opposition is made possible by RBNY's reliable adherence to its tactical identity.
Which is to say: sorry, Jesse, it is about tactics. It was about tactics when the team won the Shield and you won Coach of the Year; it is about tactics when the team is repeatedly getting clobbered by one simple plan to take the sting out RBNY's play; and it will be about tactics whenever we start winning again.
And the reason to be concerned about these tactics - tweaked in the off-season but apparently in ways that amplify the effectiveness of the preferred MLS response - is that we have now watched them fail repeatedly. The message of the off-season was RBNY was adding "sophistication". The implication: the team was adjusting to stay ahead of the inevitable adjustment by league opponents to a playing style most struggled to cope with in 2015. It hasn't worked out that way so far this season. RBNY's newfound "sophistication" is ineffectual: effete rather than elite.
Three points from six games is a less successful start than RBNY endured in its two worst seasons to date: 1999 (call it one win and two draws after the first six games - there were two shootout victories) and 2009 (also one win and two draws after six games). If you are not even keeping the company of your worst years, things are not looking good.
It is about tactics, and the tactics aren't working. We have seen three games (against TFC, KC and now San Jose) follow the pattern of RBNY's 2015 playoff exit. And Columbus didn't innovate the counter-tactic, it just executed it effectively. The rest of the league had an inkling RBNY would choke on possession, and so far that inkling has served the Red Bulls' opponents well.
Under these circumstances, it is not unreasonable to suggest the team might consider an alternative approach - especially while it copes with the added pressure of injuries to key players.
But it is equally reasonable for Jesse Marsh to stay the course. Whether RalfBall is a system RBNY has to play because Papa says so, or there is indeed "no mandate" as Marsch stated in the club's most recent Town Hall meeting with fans, now is not necessarily the time to abandon the core tactical plan. And we don't have to look very far into RBNY's history for supporting evidence.
In 2014, as in 2016, the Red Bulls entered a new season with the Supporters' Shield. Then, as now, they had retained much of the core of the preceding season's success (then, as now, that consistency did not extend to the center backs). And then, as now, they kicked off the year with much the same ideas about playing style that had won them the Shield the previous season - and ran straight into opponents who had seen it all before and spent the off-season thinking about how to neutralize RBNY. After six games in 2014, the Red Bulls hadn't lost as many as the current edition (only two losses), but they also hadn't won any games at all.
Nor did things turn around after RBNY finally won a game - at the seventh opportunity - in 2014. It was an up-and-down season, characterized by inconsistency, until Mike Petke finally made the decision to change up his tactics. That late-season change - shifting to a formation that better suited the talents and inclinations of the players in the squad - propelled the Red Bulls to six wins from their last nine games. And if that doesn't seem like much, note that RBNY had won seven times in 25 league matches preceding the switch.
One can certainly take that as evidence to support a switch in tactics as a way of turning around frustrating form. But it is also a reminder that a coach who has found success with a certain way of playing will often be reluctant to switch away from that style until absolutely necessary. Six games in to a 34-game season, tactical change is not absolutely necessary.
Marsch has consistently asserted his unshakable devotion to the playing style he was chosen to implement at RBNY. And while it is fair and reasonable to suggest it might be to time to look again at a system that is currently failing by almost every sensible measure, it is also fair and reasonable to say that the season is young and early adversity is no reason to back away from a long-term vision.
We are, effectively, in Phase 2 of RBNY's RalfBall era. It hasn't started nearly as well as Phase 1. But it is too early to say whether that is a problem with the specific features of "sophistication" (though problems are apparent), or whether practice will ultimately make perfect.
The Red Bulls are bad right now, there should be no debating that point. When a team is bad, there are often many options for trying to make it good. Reasonable people can disagree over which of those options are best, but only one of those people gets to pick the team and set the game plan. In this case, that person is Jesse Marsch. And he has been very clear about his thoughts on what is needed to turn results around.
When Jesse says it's not about tactics, he means it's not about tactics for him. He's sticking with the plan. He believes in it (or at least, he is paid to believe in it; we won't know his true commitment to this playing style until his next job) and he believes the players will eventually make it work. That isn't necessarily true, but it isn't demonstrably false either - not quite yet, anyway.
The Red Bulls are terrible but they are also only six games in to their season. The tactics could be changed, but they almost certainly won't be. Not yet; quite likely, not ever - not as long as Ralf Rangnick is running Papa's global soccer empire. And frustrating as it is to hear, Marsch has a point: this game plan won't get any better if it is jettisoned after six matches.
And that ideological commitment to a system of play suggests this season will be all about tactics for RBNY. For better or for worse, we can expect to watch this team try and try again to make RalfBall's Sophistication Variation work for the rest of the year. Players might change, even the coach, but the game plan almost certainly will not.