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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: New York City FC

We preview this week’s two (2) matchups with NYCFC in a deluxe edition of our tactical preview

MLS: CF Montreal at New York City FC
Ronny Deila and NYCFC have been giving fans plenty of goals for both sides this season.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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

Inter Miami was flying up the table, with many ready to crown the next Major League Soccer super club. The New York Red Bulls stopped those discussions dead, claiming an easy 4-0 victory led by Patryk Klimala, Fábio, and someone named Omir Fernandez (I’m told he’s been on the roster since 2019). The barrage of attacking gusto was a welcome surprise after months of poor communication and a lack of cohesion in the final third.

Now, any team can have a single offensive outburst. The challenge is stringing together multiple convincing results, proving that the lessons are sinking in and there is hope for a brighter tomorrow. There are 11 chances left this season to do something, good or bad, after which begins what should be a period of transfer window chaos and uncertainty.

This week is a true oddity produced by this summer’s even-stranger weather patterns. There will be two Hudson River Derby contests, back-to-back matches against New York City FC – also known as two-thirds of a Tom Emanski. The Pigeons are fine, above the playoff line by four points and likely to reach the end-of-year knockout competition. These are the matches that Gerhard Struber needs to win if the Red Bulls are going to be a competitive team in this season or the next, before even thinking of attempting to win the league.

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

GOALS

NYCFC is going to score goals, likely a few of them. Averaging a second-best 1.75 per match, the team has only been shut out twice in 25 total fixtures this season. The form has dropped off just a little with three wins from the last nine, but a forgiving Eastern Conference allows for all manner of sins to be washed away.

Forward Valentín Castellanos first moved to MLS in 2018, continuing to stick around despite reported interest from Palmeiras. He has 13 goals and seven assists, while also being dangerous when dribbling at opponents. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Jesús Medina have combined for 15 tallies, completing the three-headed Cerberus.

Of the last nine goals, eight have come from either crosses or chipped passes. While several are on the initial attack, NYCFC is very good at keeping the focus in the final third. The team doesn’t press but manages to win the second ball or block clearances, forming a shell around the box. Possession is then quickly cycled before reengaging with a mentally and physically tired back line hoping to push up the field. The Red Bulls can be hit-or-miss defending in the air against possession, but that might not be as much of an issue with the taller pairing of Sean Nealis and Andrés Reyes.

BELOW AVERAGE DEFENSE

This could be a very good match-up for the Red Bulls, a team that tends to thrive on chaos and take advantage of final third scrambles. NYCFC struggles to clear the ball and deal with long passes, at times stumbling, tripping, and engaging in all manner of bad giveaways. Counter-attacks pose issues, particularly when the fullbacks are too advanced and slow getting back. The general 4-3-3 has so many disadvantages for those attempting to control possession and move as a unit, rife for exposure and exploitation. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson is also good for the regular mistake, such as running out of position or dropping the ball.

With all that noted, the onus will be on the Red Bulls to keep pace with the NYCFC attack. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem because the dog days are over and Gerhard Struber has conjured an attacking juggernaut from his charges. Perhaps that is an overstatement and there won’t be four goals every match, but the progress has been noticeable since the international break.

The most obvious and apparent change is the directive to play the ball to Patryk Klimala on the ground. He is no longer chasing as many wild one-part pass/two-part clearances, instead receiving better service that puts him in a position to head toward goal. In the above highlight, notice the work Fábio put in to open up space, drawing away defenders with a perfect run and proving his ability to co-exist with a striker partner.

Let’s go to the breakdown because I love to annoy the Managing Editor by making him copy and paste all of these images (via the Major League Soccer YouTube page).

1) Sean Davis steals the ball and triggers the entire action, in a firm rebuke of any who attempts to downplay his skill as a two-way player.

2) Wikelman Carmona receives the pass for the counter-attack. He has time, space, and a numeric advantage. Three-versus-four might not seem to be tilted toward the Red Bulls, but teams practice these exact scenarios for a reason.

3) Fábio draws two defenders, which is one more than necessary regardless of how big he is. The remaining two Inter Miami players are either too slow to the ball or well behind a streaking Klimala. That could be considered smart, proactive play in turn causing the opponent to make mistakes.

4) Now Klimala has acres of space. Carmona has a lane through which he can thread the ball.

5) One of the defenders that followed Fábio attempts to get back into position, but he is way too late.

6) Klimala loves to shoot from acute angles, which is a useful skill.

This is the type of vertical movement that typified Struber’s Barnsley teams, enabled by dynamic advanced midfielders. The quick counters require multiple players pushing forward, not just one or two chasing lower-percentage quasi-clearances. Those are still useful to keep the back line under constant alert, but passing the ball on the ground will always lead to more success and open up further attacking opportunities.

LESS PRESS

Have the Red Bulls backed off the vaunted press? During the summer, the players appeared tired as they constantly chased in an attempt to create traps. In the past five matches, the numbers are significantly lower (chart via FB Ref).

Statistics without context are meaningless, but that is a pretty sharp and sustained drop-off. Perhaps the Red Bulls are attempting to focus more on earning points than maintaining a rigid tactical identity. Maybe the opponents are dictating matches, with the players merely adjusting to whatever is demanded. This sort of debate can take on the qualities of a Rorschach test, but the current 2-2-1 run is certainly better than what came before, regardless of how much pressing is or is not involved.

IS THIS A DOUBLE PIVOT OR JUST A MIDFIELD PARTNERSHIP?

Whether the Red Bulls are lined up in the 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1, or 3-5-2 formation, the structure seems to be built around something close to a double pivot. The deeper section of the midfield calls for two 6/8 hybrids, equally capable of distributing hard tackles or shuttling in the attack. Perhaps more important than their action is their movement: when one abandons the area in front of the center backs or pushes wide, the other seamlessly slides over to cover. Imagine that the two are connected by 15 yards of rope tied around their waists, which both restricts and guides their overall spacing.

That sounds a lot like what Dru Yearwood and Sean Davis are doing, with the manager occasionally referring to the position as “two 6s.” The former is gaining more attacking responsibility, while the latter veteran has held that general stabilizing role for years. As Struber attempts to determine his best advanced midfielders, this pairing might do some damage next season.

The following are their respective maps for the match against Inter Miami (via WhoScored).

This is the Red Bulls’ passing matrix from the same match (via MLSSoccer.com).

We can observe a few things from these graphics. Obviously, Davis is far more involved in every facet of the game except the final third. Yearwood has his good and bad matches, but is trending higher in a more supplementary role. While the two rarely if ever pass to each other, that might actually be ideal. In a system that pursues vertical movement, there is little need for two players occupying the same level of the formation to have much interaction. Their roles are meant to be a quiet coexistence separated by an invisible wall, like my parents’ marriage.

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