Major League Soccer’s infamous summer slog of games has been especially unkind to teams across the league this season. Players have been pulled away from their clubs to take part in simultaneously ongoing international tournaments this summer, injuries have ravaged team depth charts and challenged depth across the field, and fixture congestion has depleted players of their fitness at an alarming rate halfway through the 2021 regular season.
The New York Red Bulls, though affected by each of these conditions, have just been downright bad over their nine-game stretch since the end of June.
After starting the season 4-0-4, the Red Bulls have accumulated just seven points and a 1-4-5 record since their 3-2 loss to the New England Revolution on June 23. They’ve been shut out three times over that stretch, including an uninspiring 0-0 draw against FC Cincinnati at home, and have dropped points from winning positions three times. They dropped from fifth place to eleventh place in the Eastern Conference standings over this ten-game stretch and now sit seven points adrift from the playoff positions and just four points from the bottom of the conference.
So, the question that’s been raised over these last few weeks is a simple, yet multi-faceted one: what’s causing this drop in form?
Red Bulls Pressing and Defensive Lapses
The dominant talking point of this discourse revolves around the Red Bulls’ press and whether their intensity has dropped off during this run. In terms of volume of pressures, data from FBref showed that the 226 pressures per game they averaged to start the season decreased to 213 pressures per game during the summer. The success rate of these pressures slightly increased slightly from 32% to 33% comparatively, but the number of pressures per game in the middle third also declined, from 106 to 92.
These drop-offs in volume of pressures per game are minor relative to the bigger problem, and that problem is the way they press. The Red Bulls have found success with their high-octane soccer through organized chaos in the press. If one player is too slow to react to pressing triggers with their teammate, that could be the passing lane the opposition uses to break out of pressure and attack the Red Bulls on the counter.
Chicago Fire’s first goal in their 2-1 win over the Red Bulls shows an example of both the right and wrong ways to press in the wide channels. Caden Clark does well to close off Gastón Giménez’s option to pass forward, but Wikelman Carmona opts to close a similar forward angle rather than the attempt to prevent the switch-field pass Giménez completes.
As that ball falls to Jonathan Bornstein on the opposite side, Cristian Cásseres Jr. cuts the passing lane to Elliot Collier and steadily holds Bornstein in position. However, when the ball does reach Collier, neither Cásseres nor Sean Davis make an ample attempt to press him as he takes several touches to turn in a circle and pass the ball forward to Chinoso Offor. It’s a systematic failure stemming from a too casual approach from Cásseres and a lack of decisiveness from Davis to either make the step himself or direct either Cásseres or Clark to make the press while he continues to cut the passing lane toward Chicago’s forwards.
Similarly, the first goal the Red Bulls conceded against the Revolution in their 3-2 home loss was a result of lackadaisical marking and defensive concertation. During this sequence, the Revolution to a good job of working the ball out of the Red Bulls’ press on the left side of the field and around their back line before attempting to go down that side again. They are successful in breaking through the press as the clip below shows, and DeJuan Jones picks out Gustavo Bou unmarked at the top of the box.
It’s a frustrating goal to concede because in the Red Bulls’ 2-0 home win over the Fire earlier in the season, they defend almost the exact same sequence perfectly and turn it into the sequence that eventually turns into Cásseres’ goal. Kyle Duncan is attentive to the movement of the player making the run behind him, and Frankie Amaya continues to track back if Duncan is beaten or unable to clear the ball out for a throw-in.
Ironically, the underlying statistics, per FBref, point to an uptick in the quality of shots the Red Bulls concede over the last nine games as opposed to their first eight. They projected 11.9 xGA in their opening eight games while the last nine games before Montreal had only produced 10.5 xGA, and their per game variation of the statistic also decreased from 1.49 xGA to 1.17 xGA. The one area where they have seen a negative uptick in recent weeks is the number of individual mistakes that have led directly to the opposition scoring against them.
Of the 12 goals they have conceded over this stretch, here are the ones that can be directly linked to an individual mistake:
- at Orlando (Chris Mueller): Sean Nealis caught in possession in the defensive third
- vs Philadelphia (Sergio Santos): Neither Amaya nor Fábio press Olivier Mbaizo, and Santos scores from the ensuing cross
- at Toronto (Ralph Priso): Carlos Coronel makes a mess of Yeferson Soteldo’s cross, and he gets beaten at his near post by Priso’s shot off the rebound
- at D.C. United (Ola Kamara): Duncan misplays a pass across the back line while D.C. press high, and the counter ends in a goal
- at Chicago Fire (Luka Stojanović): Cásseres leaves Stojanović completely unmarked at the back post off a throw-in for an easy finish
- at CF Montreal (Sunisi Ibrahim) Tarek whiffs on a headed clearance, allowing Montreal to bear down on the New York goal and create multiple chances including a goal.
The equalizer the Revolution scored at Red Bull Arena could also be chalked up to a poor foul given away by Duncan, but there was still an opportunity to defend the set piece. That accounts for half the goals the Red Bulls have conceded throughout the summer, whereas there were only three goals conceded directly linked to individual mistakes in the first eight games.
Offensive Deficiencies and Declines
On the offensive side of the ball, Struber’s team has improved from 10.1 xG to 11.9 xG but have continued to rue missed opportunities. Below are some offensive statistics of the midfielders and forwards who have been most prominent in the starting lineup over the two halves of the Red Bulls’ regular season thus far.
Because of Carmona’s limited involvement during the first eight games of the season, he did not play a full 90 across his two appearances in that time to generate per 90 statistics.
From this chart, the first statistic that stands out is the increase in xG per 90 both Fábio and Patryk Klimala had over the last nine games. It’s not surprising, rather, it’s disappointing as it backs the notion that they have been put in good positions to score and failed to capitalize on their opportunities throughout this stretch. Barlow’s also had an uptick in the statistic, but most of it is carried by the 0.3 xG he produced against the Fire.
The conundrum from the Klimala-Fábio partnership not quite finding its stride yet also has to do with their styles of play clashing. They both excel at being a target striker who can utilize their ability to hold up play, bring the midfielders into the build-up play, and feed a forward who’s willing to run in behind or stretch the opposition’s back line.
Struber’s tried to use Klimala as the more direct striker in this partnership, but the tactical shift has only produced two goals from open play, and one of them required three attempts to beat Alex Bono. As the clips from below demonstrate, there is an odd deficiency in Klimala’s decision making once he enters a prominent goal-scoring zone, whether that be taking extra touches in the box or shooting from a difficult position when a teammate is open in space.
Fábio’s poor goal-scoring form has also carried over into his general hold-up play as well. The Brazilian failed to control an incoming pass 19 times and was dispossessed just nine times over his first eight games for the Red Bulls, but he’s since failed to control an incoming pass 28 times and been dispossessed 27 times over the team’s last nine games. This has often been more a result of lack of support from midfielders and the incessant long balls sent down the field for him to run on to, though, and the game plan for Fábio can’t be to get the ball to him in unfavorable positions and hope he can make the most of it with his technical ability.
Outside of these two options, the Red Bulls only have a very raw player in Tom Barlow and an aging Daniel Royer who can be that more direct forward but don’t quite provide a solution strong enough to fill the short-term or long-term future of the position as a starter. Royer averaged the highest xG per 90 minutes during the first eight games of the season, hitting 0.39 xG during that time, but is yet to score a goal this season and has been out of the team due to injury since May.
The early season production from both Clark and Cásseres has dried up as well, removing the paper that covered over these cracks in the Red Bulls’ offense earlier in the season. Their drop-offs in form could not have come at a worse time for Struber’s side either after Clark was sidelined after an appendectomy and Cásseres was pulled away from the club for nearly a month while playing for Venezuela in World Cup Qualifiers and Copa America.
While it’s clear his mobility and sharpness on the field have been hampered by the added game time and travel while on international duty, Cásseres’ underlying numbers haven’t shift negatively or positively since the summer schedule started. His ball progression on the dribble and through passes has remained constant but given his lack of goal-scoring prowess prior to this season, it should have been expected that his scoring boot would fall off at some point.
Clark has suffered from the overreliance of an exhausted Red Bulls side turning to their 18-year-old starlet in hope that he can produce something from nothing. His ball progression stats have gone up as a result, but the numbers regarding his chance creation have steadily declined during this return from injury.
The supporting cast in midfield has taken strides in their individual development, but it’s not done much to relieve the added pressure on Clark and Cásseres to produce. Amaya and Yearwood possess known creative qualities, but both are still adjusting to the rigor of Red Bulls soccer and polishing the defensive side of their games in Struber’s system. Likewise, Carmona’s development from his first two appearances of the season to now took off at an impressive rate, but he’s been too wasteful in front of net to provide the extra threat in front of goal.
Lack of Rotation and Uncontrollable Factors
Squad rotation is instrumental to any MLS side to make a run for a trophy let alone the playoffs, and that’s especially true for the Red Bulls playing their energetic brand of soccer. Struber’s used 20 players over the summer as opposed to the 27 he used throughout the first eight games of the season, and the back four and front two have primarily stayed the same over these last nine games while there has been a bit more rotation in midfield.
Davis, Clark, and Cásseres accounted for 67.7% of all minutes played by midfielders to start the season, but Clark’s injury and Cásseres’ international responsibilities, forced more delegation of minutes to the likes of Carmona, Amaya, and Yearwood as of late. Those three players have accounted for 46% of minutes played by midfielders over these last nine games as opposed to just the combined 19.7% of minutes played during the first eight games. Carmona has been the most obvious beneficiary regarding minutes played during this stretch, going from just 25 minutes played to 609 minutes played in a baptism of fire to first team action.
Florian Valot was just recently traded to FC Cincinnati, Youba Diarra continues to be out with an injury he suffered after the first game of the season against Sporting Kansas City, and Cameron Harper hasn’t been able to iron out the raw aspects of his game the way Carmona has due to ongoing injury problems. Omir Fernandez has been used sparingly off the bench and Edwards has stepped into the base of midfield at times, but Struber’s team has become heavily reliant on six midfielders.
Five of these six midfielders are still under the age of 23 as well, and three of those midfielders – Clark, Carmona, and Yearwood – are still acclimating to being key pieces of a first team. Fernandez is also still 22 and hasn’t had a season where he’s been in and out of the starting lineup either, so a lot of the mistakes and lapses we’re seeing from exhausted under-23 players are also derivative of their inexperience at this level of the game.
Struber and the Red Bulls have also just been hit with the injury bug over this entire season, losing Aaron Long to a season-ending Achilles injury as well as losing other starters and depth pieces like Sean Nealis, Andres Reyes, Andrew Gutman, Diarra, and Royer at various stages of this season. D.C. United went through a similar injury crisis at the beginning of the season and during their pre-season as Hernán Losada imposed his style of play on the team, and the Red Bulls may be suffering from injuries because of the lack of pre-season games they played.
It’s been an ugly run for the Red Bulls this summer. Playing fullbacks at center back has not been ideal, and the fumes our young midfielders continue to run on make it no surprise that results have suffered. The rest of the 2021 regular season is going to be a season that tests the mentality of players and patience of fans, but it’s one worth withstanding once a step is taken backward to see the big picture. There are issues across the field with this team that have warranted criticism of players and Struber, but it’s also important to acknowledge the intangible factors that play heavy roles in what has been a transition year for the Red Bulls.