The New York Red Bulls will not be happy with their poor performance in Sunday afternoon’s draw against D.C. United. Over the last two matches the Red Bulls played, they surrendered six goals. That’s nearly 20 percent of their total goals conceded on the season.
Red Bulls Draw D.C. – Three things I noticed
Matches like this are frustrating for Red Bull fans, and rightfully so. But I’m here to tell you, it is not all gloom and doom. There are some strong positives to take away from the match, and they don’t start and end with Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Here are three things I noticed:
Alex Muyl: Super Sub
“All he does is run.”
– Various fans
Alex Muyl receives plenty of criticism. Rarely does said criticism not include the infamous line above. “Muyl can’t shoot,” or “Muyl can’t pass,” usually proceed the line about running.
The obvious benefit of a player with a tireless work effort is usually attributed to that player’s defensive contributions and importance to the Red Bulls high-press system. And while this is true, it ignores important off the ball movement.
The second goal in the draw against D.C. exemplifies the benefit. Take a look at the GIF below:
Muyl makes a diagonal run into the box as Wright-Phillips drifts to a wider position. But pay attention to Oniel Fischer. Fischer must follow Muyl into the box, giving a half second more time for Wright-Phillips to receive and settle the ball before his shot. Without that space, there is no goal.
Andreas Ivan does the same thing on the right wing to allow Michael Murillo space to make the pass. The rest of the play is just execution. Both Murillo and Wright-Phillips are proven offensive weapons. All they have to do here is execute, and they do.
Muyl also deserves plaudits on the game-tying assist in this match. His first touch has failed him numerous times in the past, but when it matter most, it was silky smooth.
The way he stutters briefly after bringing the ball down makes Fischer slow down momentarily. That buys Muyl a second of space to turn Fischer and play a cross in (With his weak foot!) to Wright-Phillips.
Let us also give praise to Aaron Long. That pass into Muyl needed inch perfect accuracy and he got it.
Can Muyl lean into the super sub role and be a difference maker off the bench? If he can, that is a dangerous weapon to have during the playoffs.
Kàku pulling the strings in a different way
Over the last month, the once prominent assist machine suffered a strong drop in output. In fact, Kàku last assist came way back in July.
The biggest change in that time is the leadership. Jesse Marsch left the club to Chris Armas. During Armas’ leadership, the biggest significant change to the Red Bulls attack comes from chances generated by Kàku. So if Kaku is gerating more chances per game, why is he not showing up on the stat sheet?
The answer comes from how the Red Bulls offense changed under Armas.
Teams are figuring out better ways to guard against what the midfield maestro does best. In the first half of the season, teams were still adjusting to the way the Red Bulls’ playmaker ran the offense. He leapt out to a massive lead in the assist category picking team’s apart and pinpoint passing into the final third.
Now, when Kàku receives the ball, teams are looking to cut out his passing lanes. This approach is extremely effective. The Red Bulls of years past might even wilt under the circumstances. Instead, the Red Bulls in 2018 are figuring out a different way to maximize the midfielder.
Two of Sunday’s goals are generated by Kàku, but in very different ways. First, let’s take a look at Wright-Phillips opener:
The deflected free kick pops out to Kàku. He creates space by turning Luciano Acosta, then makes a run towards the 18-yard box. D.C.’s defense collapses centrally to cut off a pass inside. Recognizing the shift, Kàku looks out wide. His ball into Parker springs the play that creates the goal. When Kàku changes the focal point of the defense, Wright-Phillips goes unmarked. Bill Hamid makes a big mistake dealing with the header from Parker, and Wright-Phillips capitalizes.
On the second goal, Kàku’s influence is much less obvious.
As Murillo makes his way up the field, the ball pops out to Kàku. All the midfielder has to do is react first and distribute. Earlier in the year, he might have attempted to dribble up field and look for a direct pass towards goal. This time, he just simply redistributes the ball wide to Murillo, and then sits in a deeper position in case he has to help defend should the attack break down.
These little changes makes the Red Bulls offense a bit less efficient, but creating different looks and opportunities makes it harder to game plan against. Another positive sign ahead of the playoffs.
Defensive decision making
The Red Bulls defense caused a fair number of issues over their last two matches. Despite the positives highlighted above, the biggest worrying sign heading into the final stretch of the regular season is the defense.
What has been solid all year suddenly looks a bit shaky. Tim Parker and Aaron Long share the blame, but the outside backs should shoulder more of the fault. All of the goals scored against the Red Bulls in D.C. came at the hands of poor defending from the flanks.
On the first goal, Kemar Lawrence is at the midfield stripe as the ball turns over. He casually starts to jog back towards his goal, then notices Paul Arriola sprinting passed him. At this point Lawrence breaks into a sprint. He catches up to Arriola but pauses to see what Luciano Acosta is going to pass the ball. Acosta plays in Arriola, and the early shot beats Robles.
The second goal starts with Murillo getting caught upfield. Much like Lawrence previously, Murillo sprints back to catch up to Joseph Mora. Murillo is able to catch up to Mora, and the midfielder turns back up field, drawing Murillo with him. Mora plays the ball back to Luciano Acosta. The latter takes Murillo out of the play, playing the ball forward to Yamil Asad.
At this point, Murillo gives up on the play. Acosta gets the ball back and switches fields. The Red Bulls crunched numbers on the right side of their defense. Switching fields left Oniel Fischer time and space to send in a perfectly weighted cross to Wayne Rooney.
Confusion between Murillo and Andreas Ivan led to the issue here. Murillo follows the ball rather than the man. It is unclear if he though Ivan should track Acosta, or if fatigue played a part. When Murillo follows the ball, Acosta runs free in behind him and he can’t catch up to the midfielder. Taylor Twellman calls out Aaron Long on the play, but he was hardly at fault. Long trusts his goalkeeper and keeps the passing lane blocked.
Murillo still had an opportunity to close down Acosta, but he jogged half-heartedly after him. With no other defender closing him down, Acosta simply waits for Robles to make the first move. The finish carried a high degree of difficulty, but Acosta executed, and the Red Bulls paid the price.
The Red Bulls have their work cut out for them, but fans should try not to lose perspective on the positives from these types of matches. Too many times in the past, this is a match the Red Bulls lose. Even in 2018, conceding the first goal has been difficult for the Red Bulls to overcome. They showed strength in resolve to come back three times in this match, and a road point is a road point. The playoffs loom large, and the Red Bulls still present a challenge to any team they face in the Eastern Conference.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography