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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Columbus Crew

New York runs into another team that can’t figure out how to outscore the other team

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls
Patryk Klimala may see his lone striker role from the DC game continue.
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 came thundering out of the international break against D.C. United, scoring a goal in the first five minutes of the Atlantic Cup rivalry match. Patryk Klimala displayed a renewed vigor, Dru Yearwood was the star midfielder, and Carlos Coronel pulled off a save that should be an instant inclusion in his highlight reel. Things were going well for the team, but then the wheels seemed to fall off. Not rapidly as has often been the case, but the energy settled and kept settling until reaching an awkward, submerging stillness that drowned Gerhard Struber’s side in a 1-1 draw. There’s soon to be an empty table waiting at 13th place in the Eastern Conference, and it comfortably seats the whole party.

The next opponent on the calendar is Columbus Crew SC, less than a month after the last meeting, which is coincidentally the Red Bulls’ only victory since July 3rd. The 2020 MLS Cup champions have fallen out of a playoff spot and desperately need to string together some positive results. The league is getting stronger and more unpredictable, with success likely to not be replicated from one season to the next. With relegation not a threat, perhaps the more successful clubs will recognize the importance of cycles and capitalize at the peak years, as the New England Revolution are doing now.

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

BAD DEFENDING

Columbus has lost eight of their past nine matches, with the defense being pointed to as a culprit. Widespread injury issues have disrupted cohesion and potentially led to increased mistakes, as opponents continue to wreak havoc in a variety of ways. Playing through the international break did not help, as team captain Jonathan Mensah was forced to quarantine after World Cup qualifying with Ghana.

“I think what I’ve seen is we’re always right there and we’re organized, but we’re just making mistakes in moments, and a lot of it is just getting 11 guys who can perform under pressure,” manager Caleb Porter said prior to last weekend’s match against Inter Miami CF. “With more options available, that’ll help for sure… I finally have options to pick a group that I think, not think, I know will be up for it, and not nervous about it but excited for it, and ready to go and get the job done.”

A reasonable reader could perhaps infer that the Crew has a few players not completely buying in or struggling as the season slumps downward. Porter has been forced to constantly shuffle his back line, using almost as many different combinations as there have been matches. The lack of… anything has been noticeable. Check out this goal from Chicago Fire FC in mid-August:

Let’s really look at this goal (via the Major League Soccer YouTube channel):

(1) Luka Stojanović ambles down the wing and floats through three defenders to play a pass;

(2) Brian Gutiérrez receives the ball in an acre of space, with the opportunity to make a million correct decisions, such as turn and shoot;

(3) The teenager makes the technically correct but situationally wrong choice by hitting a quick wide pass to Jonathan Bornstein;

(4) Who in turn plays the ball back to a still wide open Gutiérrez because Darlington Nagbe – the most splendiferous of midfielders to ever exist – decided marking was beneath his station;

(5) The shot is deflected and falls to Stojanović, who scores before the two (2) defenders can muster a full reaction.

The Crew had eight men (and a goalkeeper) in the box during almost this entire sequence. Despite the clear numerical advantage, nobody is able to stop the ball, use their body to mildly provide a physical inconvenience to an attacker, or do anything other than watch another three points sail out the window. By comparison, each Fire player had the time and space to dance the Watusi.

There is nothing remotely tangible to be pulled from such a highlight. Any lessons would be hollow because everyone is simply ball watching or flailing. To quote Burn After Reading, “I guess we learned not to do it again.”

NO STRIKERS

The Crew’s strikers have combined for nine (before Miami) goals this season. Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry have scored four times apiece, while offseason signing Bradley Wright-Phillips has only found the back of the net once. The former Red Bull is not providing his trademark injection of offense, perhaps not receiving the service to which he is accustomed and finds necessary to succeed. Porter has taken to chastising the outside backs and wingers, claiming those two groups need to produce more.

Columbus at least has attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayán, who admittedly struggled against the growing Inter Miami juggernaut. The 29-year-old Argentine has seven goals and two assists this season, desperately trying to keep his team afloat with several incredible set pieces. The problem will be on free kicks, particularly when there is the chance to shoot from straight ahead. Multiple goalkeepers have been frozen to the line, watching helplessly as the ball moves around the wall. He is less effective during the run of play, but that is likely due to the aforementioned attacking issues.

Oh and by comparison, the Red Bulls have received eight total goals from the striker depth chart. Two of those are penalties. That is worse than the Crew, a team that, as previously mentioned, is in a bit of a panic over the lack of production at the position. Perhaps some questions need to be asked in New York, particularly in light of not having someone comparable to Zelarayán.

ON THAT NOTE

Struber started the match against D.C. United with a 4-3-2-1 formation. Patryk Klimala played as the lone striker and looked fairly decent throwing his body around and linking up with Dru Yearwood for the goal. More important, he was able to play in a way that appeared more suited to his skillset, appearing comfortable making wide runs and slipping around defenders in a diagonal manner.

“The idea [was that if Patryk was central], we bring him more in good moments… with good forward running behind the last line,” Struber said after the recent match. “Caden [Clark] and Wiki [Carmona] with [their] creativity [and] also with [their] good moves can drag out the center backs and create space behind. And I think we can see this in the first half… [With] a little bit more luck, we can use this better.”

A brief perusal of Klimala’s time at Celtic and Jagiellonia Białystok yields a similar opinion, with a particular skill of shooting from wide angles. His first goal at the Scottish club appears to be the ideal Struber was pursuing. Against Hamilton Academical, the striker made a diagonal run from the middle of the field, latching onto a long, low pass from the center back. (Highlight starts at 6:40.)

Going back even further, Klimala was focused on diagonal play during his transformational loan at Wigry Suwalki, scoring 13 goals in 27 matches from July of 2017 through June of 2018 in the second-tier 1 Liga. “[I like] active participation in a positional attack,” he told 2x45. “When I was [there], I did not take part in building the action. I only used perpendicular balls, which I received from my teammates.”

Despite becoming more of a complete player with age, Klimala has expressed a preference for that particular type of movement. The diagonal runs appeared to be working against D.C. United, leading to at least some moderate success. Perhaps Struber will continue to put the striker in a more comfortable position with additional advanced midfielders, alleviating the stress of being forced into a creative role. However, that does not leave a lot of room for Fábio, who is growing more marginalized and declining in influence with each passing week.

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