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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Columbus Crew

What to look for on the field as the Red Bulls look to end their slump against the defending champs

MLS: Nashville SC at New York Red Bulls
Gerhard Struber is desperate for answers as the team’s form continues to slide.
Dennis Schneidler-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 mounting quite the campaign of shock and awe, demonstrating the overwhelming power to find new and confusing ways to disappoint. Like a traveling carnival, the team comes to town, performs some impressive feats, but all anyone remembers are the clownish antics. At the moment, Johnny Mercer would struggle to find any positives to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate, although there are plenty of negatives to e-lim-in-ate. Visiting Columbus Crew SC presents the opportunity for a bounce back or increased momentum for the roll down the table.

Speaking to the turbulent year-to-year nature of Major League Soccer, Caleb Porter is struggling to replicate last year’s championship form. Currently at eighth in the Eastern Conference, the team is fighting for the final playoff spot. This is yet another crucial fixture for the Red Bulls to gain ground, a rapidly diminishing resource. Coming off shorter rest from Sunday’s 1-0 loss against Chicago Fire FC and being forced to travel, this should be a weakened opponent ripe for plundering of three points.

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

STRUGGLING TO CREATE CHANCES

Columbus is one of the weakest teams in the league when creating opportunities in the final third. Lucas Zelarayán does well enough to generate attacking chances, but his teammates provide little support otherwise. The goal numbers are similarly terrible, having scored a mere 21 in 19 matches, which is worse than the notably misfiring Red Bulls.

Zelarayán, meant to be a creator, is the team’s leading scorer. Gyasi Zardes has underperformed, although perhaps his form will be revived by recent national team success. Depth options Bradley Wright-Phillips and Erik Hurtado have also failed to make an impact. The attack has somewhat picked up in recent weeks, coincidentally coinciding with terrible defensive showings.

Columbus may be struggling from the run of play, but the team is exceptionally well-drilled on set pieces. The attackers draw a lot of fouls and capitalize on corner kicks. By comparison, makeshift groups with little cohesion tend to struggle with defending dead ball opportunities. I’m not sure if that describes any particular clubs in the New York metropolitan area, but any falling within those bounds should probably be on full alert.

THE BACK LINE

When a marriage is failing, the best course of action is to throw a child into the mix, preferably several. Keep adding more until this sinking ship magically gets fixed. Defenses work in much the same way.

The New York Red Bulls started the CF Montréal match with a five-player back line, which proved to be quite the smart strategy. The entire formation was able to quickly shift to catch up to field switches or fast breaks, with the fullbacks or third center back already in place. Tom Edwards was all over the field, and his subpar aerial duels were covered by the two taller partners. The four-piece option appeared to allow more penetration throughout the second half, struggling to deal with, well, everything.

Gerhard Struber was in an unenviable position, as Sean Nealis had returned from a long-term injury. Rather than risk aggravation and mindful of the player’s growing fitness, he opted to insert Cristian Cásseres Jr. into the match at halftime. While the midfielder had perhaps his best performance in recent memory, the overall team shape suffered from removing the extra center back. Curiously, a supposedly healthy and ready-for-minutes Andrés Reyes was available on the bench, remaining untouched and unclaimed like a package of Jelly Krimpets on the convenience store shelf.

For now, maybe Struber should stick with the five-player back line. Regardless of personnel, make sure there are as many defenders on the field as possible. Every dam breaks eventually, but the Red Bulls can at least delay the inevitable for as long as possible.

BAD PERFORMANCE

Prior to this season, there was a specific player that I would have chosen as the favorite to have a breakout year in 2021. Despite prodigious talent, he has not, appearing to become more disconnected and uninvolved with each passing match. Not every signing is going to be a success, but to experience such a drastic drop in form speaks to either a talent issue or a failure by management.

The match against Montréal was possibly his worst performance of the season. There were no ugly, rash fouls or devastating giveaways in the defensive third, but it was. You probably didn’t notice because you’re not as smart or observant (or handsome or funny) as me.

In the 65th minute, he failed to stick with his mark or block the passing lane, almost leading to a scoring opportunity. A few minutes later, an opponent easily dribbled past him. While not directly responsible for the first Montréal goal, his giveaway in the final third destroyed the Red Bulls’ attack and eventually resulted in the finish by Sunusi Ibrahim.

Several players have taken a step back this season, a disappointing pattern under a coach who was brought with the reputation of a talent whisperer. Perhaps some will move on at the end of the season, maybe most. This particular Red Bull can do better, but there are fewer chances with each passing week.

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