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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Inter Miami

Phil Neville’s improved side will be a challenge on Friday

MLS: Inter Miami CF at Orlando City SC
Phil Neville is finally getting used to the Florida sun.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

New York Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Inter Miami CF

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

The wheels have fallen off the New York Red Bulls’ wagon. An achievable three points against a tragic Columbus Crew SC disappeared, frittered away under the lights at the hallowed grounds of Lower.com Field. While the 2021 season has yet to close, mere suggestions of playoff qualification become increasingly implausible yet still not impossible. The funny thing about dropping down the table is there are suddenly more opportunities to gain ground, like Mario Kart.

Time can be cruel. A month-and-a-half ago, the Red Bulls missed the chance to grab an easy win against a significantly weaker Inter Miami. Put away the jokes for now because manager Phil Neville has his team playing good soccer – not great but good, a sharp improvement over previous efforts. Since getting demolished by the New England Revolution, the Herons are 7-1-3 and aiming for a playoff spot after feasting on many of the league’s bottom feeders. The recent 1-0 victory over Toronto FC only served to solidify the turnaround, a flimsy reversal of fortune that would make Claus von Bülow blush.

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

CENTER BACK

Against Columbus, Andrew Gutman appeared to be playing center back. The 3-5-2 tends to employ a hybrid/converted fullback on the back line, typically on the left side for reasons beyond my comprehension. Was it a successful tactical move?

Here is his general positioning in the build-up (via MLSSoccer.com).

Here is his heat map, for a match in which the Red Bulls were generally on the back foot with Columbus dominating possession by design (image via WhoScored).

He was not at fault on the first goal. My culprit is Sean Nealis, around whom Alexandru Mățan effortlessly dribbled and hit a shot that eventually found Darlington Nagbe. Perhaps some will quibble over whether John Tolkin should have won the header, but he appears to have been unlucky in both the trajectory of the rebound and his slightly below-average height.

The second goal might be a different story. Gutman may have made a bad decision or two but maybe not. Let’s take a look (images via MLSSoccer.com).

(1) Columbus heads out on the break with advantageous numbers in transition.

(2) The ball is played to Harrison Afful. Gutman is kind of in no man’s land: too far from the ball to either tackle the opponent or close down the eventual passing angle.

(3) Afful plays what is either a deft touch or a dummy that leaves Gutman completely adrift. Miguel Berry is now in a full-on sprint toward the goal with great numbers.

The play isn’t over yet.

(4) The ball eventually finds its way to Lucas Zelarayán, who hits a low-percentage shot, his way impeded by a Red Bulls’ defense that worked hard to recover.

(5) Carlos Coronel makes the save, but the ball lands perfectly at the feet of Berry. Could the goalkeeper have done better to guide the rebound into a safer area? I don’t know enough about the position to answer that question and am quite sure nobody reading this post has any idea either.

(6) Gutman anticipates the shot and goes to ground. Berry instead opts for an outrageous cut back which frees up enough space to dart past the defender.

(7) Berry scores before the other Red Bulls can provide help.

Gutman is an interesting choice for a converted center back, considering his strengths tend to lie on the attacking side of the ball. His athleticism does allow for a wider range of motion, resulting in more pass interceptions and the potential to stop the ball further away from goal. On the above highlight, his pursuit – generally an asset – might have left the team exposed, although it’s easy to pick apart decisions long after they’ve happened, particularly when occurring on counter-attacks and box scrambles.

Fans should perhaps get used to Gutman at center back for the immediate future. Amro Tarek is off to Egypt. Lucas Monzón did not make the bench against Columbus. Issiar Dramé has yet to be announced and a little bird (his Instagram page) tells me he’s still in France.

OTHER ATTACKERS

During more dire times, Miami was a one-player attack. The only scoring option was Gonzalo Higuaín, with the Argentine solely determining whether the match would be a shutout. In such situations, front offices are faced with the uncharted options of impulse shopping or hoping the underperforming bodies gain form.

Miami made the latter choice, a decision that has worked. Rodolfo Pizarro scored three goals during the month of August. The Mexican international is benefitting from a move into a wider area, shifting from a boring distributor to a flashy finisher. Former first overall SuperDraft pick Robbie Robinson is also starting to make good on his promise, hitting the back of the net twice last month. The manager claims his success is “a culmination of a lot of hard work” and “maturity,” which are helping to provide a much needed overall balance.

Miami is hardly groundbreaking when pushing forward but does a few things well, a sort of mix between bunker-and-counter and high press. There is a focus on fierce counter-attacking, depositing long passes or diagonal field switches behind the back line. The front line likes to chase, collapse, force turnovers, and quickly transition. This is a solid style that is easy to implement and allows for moments of individual creativity without surrendering too much of the defensive shape, old school segmentation of position groups into separate spheres. “Route One” soccer is boring but can effectively bring the best out of ill-fitting parts.

FLAIR

On set pieces, the Red Bulls should possibly watch out for the seemingly innocuous trailing runner. Miami likes to do that thing where the ball gets played to the top of the box for a more open but still lower percentage shot. The move almost never works but is still something to monitor.

Check out this version (images via Major League Soccer YouTube channel).

(1) The Miami players are bunched in front of the goal, either hoping for a chaotic inswinger or maybe serving as a mass of decoys. Look at Blaise Matuidi. He is wide open because nobody considers him to be a threat when standing so far away, appearing to be waiting for mop up duties. Will he still enjoy that same amount of space by the time the ball reaches him?

(2) Of course Matuidi was no longer open, especially when he was on the far side of the field. Two defenders were able to reach him before the ball. The French midfielder got a shot off, but how often is that going to result in a goal?

(3) The ball deflects harmlessly off a defender and is eventually cleared. Maybe something more interesting could have happened but the volley off a corner is always difficult to put on target, even when not impeded by a wall of bodies.

This is the same concept, but with a smarter design from a more advantageous angle (Images via Major League Soccer YouTube channel):

(1) This seems like a normal free kick. I wonder what is going to happen with all of this empty space. Why are those players clumping in the far side of the box and isolating the closer area?

(2) Wait a minute. Who is this guy? (It’s Christian Makoun.) Where did he come from? (The defender was pretending to be an emergency stopgap in the event of a chaotic counter-attack.) Was all of that space opened up purely for his benefit? (Let’s see.)

(3) Makoun takes a touch and readies himself for either a cross to four of his teammates overloaded on the back post or a wild, speculative shot. What does he do?

(4) Makoun puts the ball into orbit. That’s a great design but terrible execution. What a pity.

Whatever one’s opinion on these particularly idiotic wastes of scoring opportunities happens to be, the actual mindset behind the attempts could bode well for Miami. A bit of pseudoscience but set pieces are said to be a bellwether for a team’s overall vitality. Managers are able to exercise control and design for this specific part of the game, while the less comfortably employed tend to let the details slip away as they desperately shore up functions pertaining to the run-of-play. Empowered players can demonstrate creativity, willingly engaged in some trickery and well-meaning flimflam without the fear of being yanked.

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