Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.
The New York Red Bulls opened the season with a 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City. Undone by a catastrophic two minutes, Gerhard Struber’s trademarked tactics and personnel choices were on full display, letting loose a bombardment of vertical long passes and speculative crosses. This was not a gradual implementation, but the challenge of a steep learning curve that will last many months and likely result in the departure of several more players. To paraphrase Danny Boyle’s 2000 cinematic adaptation of The Beach, “Get better or transfer; it’s the hanging around in between that really pisses people off.”
This week’s opponent is the LA Galaxy. Led by the recently-hired Greg Vanney, the five-time MLS Cup champions began the season with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Inter Miami. The club made several key acquisitions in this ongoing transfer window, four of which started in the opener. This is a different squad than in years past, more grounded and intelligently built, with intriguing players to surround the star power of Jonathan dos Santos and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.
Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch:
1) This might be the “right” opponent
The Red Bulls’ high press du jour thrives on opponents attempting to play the sport the “right way.” The LA Galaxy hits all the checkpoints: maintain the lion’s share of possession, play the ball out of the back with high accuracy, use a high line to trigger an offside trap, and step directly to the attacker. This, of course, is not the proper way to combat the gegenpress that transitions into vertical movement, which is designed to disrupt conventional tactics. Even Inter Miami – Mr. Magoo might consider the Herons efficient, up-tempo, and pragmatic – was able to force turnovers in the final third, leading to several goal scoring opportunities.
Vanney can make one of three choices. The confident, proactive option is to operate under the self-assured assumption of being the better team, unbothered by whatever parlor tricks are conjured by the Austrian software salesman. The second is the most reasonable decision: back off the offside trap, focus the possession on field switches and line-crossing passes that surpass the Red Bulls’ midfielders. What’s behind door number three? The Galaxy could cede control of the game to the high press, focusing on bunkering and countering, a proven strategy to secure three points against a team with a dominant overarching strategy but can sometimes struggle to carve out space in a compact final third.
2. Sean Davis has adjusted to the new tactics but is he what management wants?
Against Sporting Kansas City, central midfielder Sean Davis was a different player than in past years, changing his game to meet the base characteristics desired by Gerhard Struber. He was constantly involved in the build-up, pushing higher up the field, and playing more advanced passes than ever before. In the opener, the 27-year-old captain hit 25 passes traveling a distance of 30 yards or further, with a dozen heading into the final third. Last season, his highest single match total of long balls was 12.
No longer expected to serve as a metronome or steadying presence, Davis was constantly pushing the match forward with mild success. He did not lose the ball, avoided time-wasting dribbles, and had a few long passes that should have resulted in more dangerous attacking opportunities. The eye test and brief statistical examination have been passed, but will that matter in the long term? The Red Bulls continue to pursue signing central midfielders, potentially signaling an upcoming end to his time at the club, regardless of on-field performance.
3. More goals for Chicharito?
In one week, Chicharito matched his two-goal scoring tally from the entirety of 2020. Despite being the Man of the Match and generating the desired headlines that partially influenced his original signing, the 32-year-old barely touched the ball and was hardly involved in the proceedings. With only three total shots, can he maintain such efficient productivity as a pure finisher wholly reliant on his teammates?
The answer is dependent on what the Red Bulls do before the ball even has the potential to reach his feet. As noted by Regal Soccer, Vanney deploys an “aggressive possession-based but fluid style with an emphasis on attacking the wide space,” often aided by winger overloads and fullback overlaps in the build-up. Ignoring the hypothetical aberration of a dismal performance, every team creates a few opportunities and Chicharito will have at least one opportunity in the final third. Presumed starting fullbacks Andrew Gutman and Kyle Duncan – both decent at pass blocking – are tasked with limiting the number of crosses. Automatic selection Aaron Long could be paired with Sean Nealis again, as both have great aerial games and thrive against more deliberate teams.
What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.