Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.
The New York Red Bulls lost to D.C. United by a mere 1-0 margin, but the emotional fallout points to a greater sense of frustration within the team. Manager Gerhard Struber expressed disappointment after the match and admitted the team was “not ready in many… battles.” A similar opinion was shared by team captain Sean Davis, who refused to make excuses. The injury crisis has decimated this team, now four points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The point of no return has not been reached, but the hour is drawing near.
The journey remains difficult. For the third time this season, the opponent is the New England Revolution. Bruce Arena’s team is running away with the Eastern Conference and likely the favorite to claim the Supporters’ Shield. Despite missing players with international duty, the train has kept driving forward with three straight victories. While this match features two clubs moving in different directions, playing at Red Bull Arena instead of Gillette Stadium at least slightly boosts New York’s chances.
Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.
THE LEAGUE’S HOTTEST PLAYER
The Red Bulls backline is struggling right now, unable to compensate for a rash of injuries. Unfortunately, the opponent happens to feature Gustavo Bou, who is the league’s hottest striker. The 31-year-old Argentine has scored eight times in his past nine matches, which includes a brace last week against CF Montréal.
Pleasing the fatalists, Bou will punish defenses in a variety of ways. He can shoot from distance, win headers, pounce on loose balls, and make the feinting inside-outside runs that put opponents on the wrong foot. His defensive work rate is also fairly high for a striker, helping to transition between both sides of the game.
Against New England, the Red Bulls back line could be in even greater shambles than normal. Sean Nealis has showed signs of returning but was not in the match day roster against D.C. United. Tom Edwards, already playing out of position, exited the previous fixture with an injury. Would Struber opt for Mandela Egbo, Jason Pendant, or Sean Davis at center back? Could an emergency loan be made from the USL reserve team? None of the options are ideal, but the game is played on the field and not in the lineup sheet.
NEW ENGLAND DEFENDERS DON’T WIN THE BALL
If there is one area in which the Red Bulls attack could thrive, it’s in hold-up play. The New England back line is not the best at winning aerial duels and loose balls, also failing to strip or force opponents into low percentage opportunities. A player can carry the ball in the final third for longer than he is used to doing, taking as much time as needed to draw defenders, open up space, and find a teammate. The absence of Revolution center back Henry Kessler also downgrades the strength of this group.
Normally, Patryk Klimala and Fábio are quite decent at hold-up play, both in chasing down the ball and shielding off defenders. Against D.C. United, this part of their game was sorely lacking, despite the Red Bulls holding far more possession than normal. When the striker duo is failing in their unique duty as distributors, the sporadic nature of their scoring comes sharply into focus. The job against New England should be simple (all images via MLS YouTube):
A) Center the ball,
B) Hold possession and draw defenders,
C) Find the open player for a shot.
I’m sure it’s slightly harder than that, but Montreal exploited that general flaw multiple times. The players just couldn’t finish. Someone on the Red Bulls – Caden Clark, Dru Yearwood, the aforementioned strikers, etc. – is bound to be due for a goal.
A GAME FOR TOLKIN
With potent right side attacker Tajon Buchanan either at or completing international duty, the defensive burden for fullback John Tolkin should be at least slightly lessened. The Canadian is a handful, requiring full attention that would have limited the young Homegrown player’s ability to push forward in the attack. Instead, he should be free to venture into the final third and maybe improve on what has been a weaker aspect of his game.
For all of Tolkin’s many assets, he has yet to make any real impact on the offensive side of the ball. A mere two attempted crosses per match is simply not good enough for this vertical system in which fullbacks are asked to perform herculean feats of involvement requiring elite fitness. However, he is in the 89th percentile for shot-creating actions, so perhaps there is no great need for improvement. As much as Kyle Duncan is discussed as an attacker, he apparently creates far fewer opportunities. The battle of eyes versus numbers shall remain locked in eternal combat, a victor never to be declared.
What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.