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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Philly Playoff Edition

Both teams have been dominant but not without their soft spots in recent weeks ahead of what should be a tense playoff matchup

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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

The New York Red Bulls are in the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Despite the competition’s name, there is only actually one tournament, falling over 2000 short of the promised total. Nevertheless, there is silverware at stake, alongside the hopes and dreams of 13 other clubs, ready to be immolated for the crimes of witchcraft or possession-based tactics. Time will reveal this year’s Matthew Hopkins, standing proud as champion and one of history’s great monsters before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1647.

The playoffs open with a trip to Chester for a match against the Philadelphia Union, now secure in the role as the Red Bulls’ tertiary antagonist. Last season’s Supporters’ Shield winners turned in another solid performance, pressing through the Eastern Conference to finish a distant second behind the New England Revolution. This fixture tends to receive billing as a battle between comparable styles, in which neither team focuses on the traditional possession play. Turnovers and vertical attacking are on the menu, and the table is set for two.

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

CROSSES AND DEAD BALLS

For all the due attention Philadelphia receives as a pressing team, many of the recent goals cannot be considered to be emanating from that style. Since playing the Red Bulls on September 29th, the Union scored an impressive 15 times, a 1.75 per 90 minutes rate that would be second-best in the league if extended over an entire season. Nine are from crosses and centering passes, while set pieces and penalties are the source of an additional four.

The former method should not come as a surprise with Kacper Przybyłko marauding around the box, waiting for his opportunity to strike like a big porbeagle (the great white of the Baltic Sea). A switch from the 4-4-2 diamond to the 4-3-2-1 has opened up space on the wings, where much of the build-up takes place. The targeted area appears to be at the top of the box, which should ideally be covered by the Red Bulls’ deeper midfielders. If the 3-5-2 fails the core objective of clogging the middle in any third of the field, then the formation might as well be abandoned.

Set pieces could present a problem, especially if the Red Bulls continue the trend of poor defending. Beyond surrendering Hany Mukhtar’s direct free kick goal from a terrible angle, the marking was generally poor for the entire match. The two-week international break should allow the team to refocus and fix those near post problems which have persisted for far too long.

Player-marking can sometimes lead to goals of this kind, as defenders are more focused on the opponent than moving toward the ball. The split-second decision-making and impulse to follow Prime Directive creates a vacuum of responsibility, resulting in general chaos and tap-in opportunities. A reactive ethos relies on the machinations of others, accepting that fate and control is someone else’s domain.

Perhaps zonal marking is the better choice, since players are incentivized to ignore the opponent and attack the ball (via Major League Soccer YouTube).

Then again, maybe there is no right answer.

CROSSES NO LONGER A PROBLEM, BUT-

For most of the season, Philadelphia had issues defending crosses and other aerial passes, despite marking well prior to the ball being played. Jim Curtin appears to have fixed those issues, surrendering fewer goals of that nature over the past month or so. Even more daunting to the Red Bulls is the “superb” transition defense, which was second best in the league according to MLSSoccer.com.

However, this is MLS with all understood limitations. Plug one hole and water shoots out another. The Union’s hot new problem over the past eight matches is the back line’s failure to properly clean up in the defensive third. Whether by being unable to clear, playing bad passes during attempted counter-attacks, or allowing scrambles to happen in the box, opponents are enjoying the free second chances.

The 3-2 loss to Minnesota United featured a comedy of errors, starting with the first goal.

This doesn’t have to be explained, but, please, enjoy anyway.

The third sequence capped off a dismal night and included a bad transition pass, a scuffed clearance, and defenders stumbling around like newborn colts.

I counted two, maybe three mental mistakes on this play against Toronto FC.

The Union followed that up with an own goal.

This is more of a second opportunity than a bad clearance, but New York City FC was able to capitalize on Decision Day.

There are also the subtle weaknesses of goalkeeper Andre Blake to consider. The 30-year-old was recently nominated for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, but the downsides to his game remain constant. He is not a box controller that will come out to meet crosses or lighten the load on his center backs. Also, as is apparent from watching Jamaica stack the box and provide a cushion to opposing attackers during qualifying, stopping shots from distance is an issue. While only having been beaten by a single long-range effort thus far, quite a few have banged off the post, skittered just wide beyond the reach of his outstretched arms, or resulted in appealing rebounds.

I think you get the picture and see how this certainly plays into the hands of Gerhard Struber’s ideal tactical plan. The high-energy Red Bulls like to cause and ideally capitalize on errors being made all around the final third, a real motorcycle-driving bad boy type that has no interest in creating beauty but wants to destroy everyone else’s good time. Philadelphia keeps screwing up at a tragic rate, as if making a desperate cry for attention from a parental or technical staff figure. Let’s see what happens when these two hormone-pumping young squads get liquored up on the magical elixir of playoff atmosphere and make some bad decisions.

Decisions, Decisions

After two weeks on the training ground, Struber has several personnel decisions to make for the playoff fixture. The once-forced selections due to injury and visa issues are now a challenge from the other side of the coin, the siren call of too many options. The manager’s choices will hold cataclysmic consequences and echo for all eternity, with infinite time having an expiration of next February.

The first choice is the formation. While Struber has been sticking to various forms of the 3-5-2 in recent months, his preferred 4-4-2 made a recent appearance. Expect the former structure to remain intact, but perhaps not as a true two-striker set-up.

For all of their unique talents and abilities, Patryk Klimala and Fábio still struggle to create magic together, only providing brief glimpses of a true partnership. The Polish attacker appears more focused on the long game, chasing through balls and banging around the box. This fails to mesh with the Brazilian’s tighter and more traditional style, which has yielded crucial goals but struggled to consistently keep up with the vertical play. Only deploying one likely requires the use of Caden Clark who has returned to prominence in recent weeks. Does Struber stick with the better fit for his system, ride the hot hand (foot?) that has scored twice in the past three matches, or damn the torpedoes of doubt by throwing both into the formation?

The less flashy but perhaps more important decision is at fullback. With the expected 3-5-2, Andrew Gutman should occupy the hybrid central position while John Tolkin settles out wide, unless Tom Edwards is selected to provide some grit and leadership in the high-pressure fixture. The right side is another quandary, as Kyle Duncan has become a true two-way player but still struggles to deliver the crosses and distribution of the on-loan Stoke man.

You know, if this was a real footballing nation, we would already know this information because someone would have sent a drone to spy on the Red Bulls’ training sessions.

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