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Should the Red Bulls be as satisfied with last night’s performance as they seem to be?

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Concerns that last night’s video-assisted 1-0 victory is the best we can hope for

New York City FC v New York Red Bulls Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

To hear Chris Armas tell it, the New York Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory Thursday’s night over New York City FC in a muted closed-door derby was an ideal performance from his team.

Unlike the view this site took on last month’s Atlanta victory which appeared to be a practical adjustment to a specific game and opponent, this victory against City appears (in Armas’ own words) to be his ideal form of a Red Bulls victory. A beaming Armas live on MSG said he was happy with what he saw during a dire first half in which City repeatedly carved the defense open and after the match stated “our principles showed up on the day...we looked like a mature team.”

If last night’s touch-and-go victory that required a comical goalkeeping error from Sean Johnson to squeak past a struggling NYCFC team is his idea of high standards being met, it’s not enough.

Problems reappeared (particularly in a first half where City saw clearly the better of chances) with the continued baffling deployment of Daniel Royer as a lone center forward. It’s misleading to claim the nominal winger Royer was playing as a false 9 in this formation since, like in last month’s losses, the eventual conclusion of the team’s attacks are not slick passing combinations through the middle but aimless crosses from deep to a 5’9” Royer with little nearby support. At worst it appears this new deployment is - like the deployment of holding midfielder Cristian Cásseres in an advanced ball-carrying 8 role - a ham-fisted attempt to get a player perceived as dangerous closer to the goal without recognizing any of the team movement that helps Royer and Cásseres score when not deployed as strikers.

His use of Kaku remains not only inept but increasingly insulting to the team’s highest-paid player, one who is routinely at the top of league-wide chance creation and pressing metrics. Armas seemed excited to state that his tactical goal from the outset was to use the team’s most talented player only as a chess piece late in the match. If Armas’ ideal win is putting a blunted midfield with Marc Rzatkowski on the pitch to wait out a game with static play before opening the game up with the team’s actual high-level talent, it’s a far more risky and cynical version of the one-dimensional but maximalist tactics of Jesse Marsch’s teams. When the entire premise of Armas’ managerial tenure is continuing and improving on Marsch’s setup, this is a problem both aesthetically and competitively.

Marsch’s teams embraced a certain ugliness and disrespect for aesthetics, but it certainly wasn’t the type of pragmatism that seeks to hang on for dear life and win 1-0. Marsch viewed every game as difficult, but not because he respected opponents as Armas repeatedly states, but because he wanted to beat them 5-0. This is no longer the same team that got upset with each other when they didn’t create precise cutbacks in the box for Bradley Wright-Phillips in a game they were already winning. It is a team aimlessly crossing from deep to an undersized winger deployed as a center forward and apparently satisfied with the product. Even the team’s once-feared pressing scheme had an arbitrary, non-holistic feel to it as pointed out by some observers.

The stats from the last two years bolster the impression that Armas’ ideal win is a game where you barely survive. Astoundingly, despite having a winning record over 68 competitive matches, the team’s positive goal differential under Armas is only 11. Under his leadership and principles this team either gets the first goal and hangs on for dear life or gets thoroughly outclassed. If this is the way Armas wants to approach league play, it is not a platform to get the best out of young players such as fullback Mandela Egbo, who made his club debut by being deployed as a cynical defensive gambit in an advanced wing position. It would be a waste of incoming talent like Dru Yearwood and Samuel Tetteh to have them chasing table scrap second balls from easily-defended crosses.

Perhaps this is a club and fanbase so desperate for the validation of a cup victory that this ideology can be seen as a primitive-but-practical approach to finally getting to that mountaintop. But if the hike up under Armas is not only this precarious but this joyless, is it really worth it?