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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: NYCFC Part III

The regular season’s third and final derby comes at a time of tactical flux for both sides

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC
The Red Bulls will hope to smother out NYCFC like they have other teams in recent weeks.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

Can a win be equal parts convincing and concerning? The 1-0 decision over Inter Miami seems to fit both of those qualities, but a gift horse cannot be looked in the mouth, especially this deep into the season. The New York Red Bulls are three points out of the final playoff spot, a position that would have seemed unfathomable but a few weeks ago. The six-match sprint will not be easy, but perhaps the team is, for once, performing the mythical task of peaking at the right time.

For the third time in five fixtures, the next opponent on the schedule is New York City FC, which has stalled over the past month. A single victory in the past eight matches has fans and media casually questioning the long-term prospects of manager Ronny Deila. A mere three points ahead of the Red Bulls in the standings, both teams don’t necessarily need this result, but they want it really, really badly. The Ant and the Grasshopper is apropos in any playoff chase, and time will tell which is which.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.


NYCFC leads the league in shots per 90 minutes and shots on goal per 90 minutes. Successful conversion is a little lower than desired but not enough to cause concern. The club also surrenders the least amount of shots per 90 minutes. To state the obvious, that is generally what a manager wants to see: opportunities are created, while the opponent has far fewer.

With statistics like those, NYCFC should be at or near the top of the table. Instead, the Pigeons are deep rolling, hanging onto a playoff spot by but a single point. The numbers are trending in a noticeably bad direction, which could ultimately end the season and Deila’s tenure.

“Do you know what a roller pigeon is, Barney?” asks Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in the film Hannibal (2001). “They climb high and fast, then roll over and fall just as fast toward the earth. There are shallow rollers and deep rollers. You can’t breed two deep rollers, or their young will roll all the way down, hit, and die. Officer Starling is a deep roller, Barney. We should hope one of her parents was not.”

NYCFC climbed high and fast up the league table, based on attacking and defending strength. The team is currently diving, plummeting as low as possible. Will the club pull out of the skid before hitting the ground and missing the playoffs? Do both statistical parents happen to be deep rollers?

The shooting numbers are dropping.

As is the team’s ability to prevent shots.

Ideally, NYCFC would fix one of those two issues. The decline may continue, but the end result will at least trend away from catastrophe. Of course, that may not be enough to overcome the continued errors at the goalkeeper position.


The high press has several well-known weaknesses, with every manager understanding how to break down 2012’s hottest new tactic. The keys are to bunker-and-counter, switch the field, hit long balls, and deploy a creative player capable of attracting defenders while dribbling through multiple lines. Many of these flaws are by design, a necessary risk taken when attempting to swarm passing lanes and create overloads.

Inter Miami exploited another flaw in the system, perhaps by accident. In the 15th minute, the team slowly entered into the final third, but found the entire area clogged with Red Bulls defenders. Possession was cycled, drawing out the pressing opponent, which was then quickly re-engaged by a long ball. If intentional, the whole sequence was pretty smooth and intelligent (via @NewYorkRedBulls publishing the TUDN USA broadcast).

1) Miami wins the second ball and takes possession into the attacking half.

2) The options aren’t there, with six – soon to be seven – Red Bulls behind the ball.

3) Lewis Morgan, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Kelvin Leerdam cycle the ball around looking for a weakness or another form of entry, but there simply isn’t any room.

4) Giving up, the ball is played all the way back to Aimé Mabika for a reset.

5) Usually, but not always, this results in a field switch because of the clearly available acres of open space. High pressing teams tend to leave the weak side open, although the Red Bulls already have Patryk Klimala rushing to cover. The entire formation is pushing forward, ready to chase the game, which forces a quick pass back to Leerdam.

6) The defender plays a long ball directly back into the most recent battleground, which breaks multiple lines. The area has been almost completely abandoned by the Red Bulls. The haste to press overrode safety and stability.

7) Gonzalo Higuain finds himself with the ball and plays a simple pass to Robbie Robinson, who has his shot blocked by Kyle Duncan.

The Red Bulls have turned the back line into the formation’s strongest unit, a previously impossible notion during the summer’s injury crisis. Had this sequence resulted in a goal, the fault would not have been with the players or the manager but the tactic. When the frenzy of the press dies down and settles into a half-field structure, the defending team can be drawn out and hoisted by its own petard.

That’s not a criticism but the reality of the situation. Klimala could have just as easily forced a turnover and sent an attack in the other direction. Soccer is a game of little moments, despite all attempts to turn proceedings into a grand chess match.


Anton Tinnerholm will not be available for the match against the Red Bulls. The Swedish right back ruptured his Achilles tendon against Nashville SC, a devastating non-contact injury. He is one of the league’s better attackers at the position, advancing the ball and notching three assists.

In past matches without Tinnerholm, NYCFC deployed the 3-5-2 formation. When playing out of the back, this adds an extra passing outlet, helping to beat the high press, while also managing to clog the middle of the field. The advanced wingbacks also enable field switches, stretch the field, and speed up counter attacks, which presents quite the challenge to the Red Bulls’ traps. The weakness is preventing counter attacks because the wide players can get caught too high, forcing the center backs to cover more width than usual, which opens up too much space behind the back line.

Against Nashville, Tayvon Gray entered the match for the injured Tinnerholm. The versatile 19-year-old defender is a highly accurate passer in possession and quietly dangerous in the final third. This is a big opportunity for the Homegrown player, who has the chance to Wally Pipp the starter, especially in a sporting world obsessed with the promotion of youth talent and securing future transfer fees. Andres Jasson and former Red Bull Chris Gloster could also feature, although neither has appeared in the past four matches.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.