The New York Red Bulls defeat to Santos Laguna in Concacaf Champions League play seemed fated before the match began. Santos came into the match, heavily favored following a 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena. Additionally, Santos carried a perfect home record in CCL play.
Yet, the morning after, the defeat needles at Red Bull fans, because the team nearly completed a miracle comeback. The expected loss became a devastating loss. The gloom and doom after such a loss hangs heavy over the team. The lessons learned during the course of the away leg serve to help the Red Bulls turn their attention to MLS league play.
The Good – Breaking the bunker
The Red Bulls started the match ferociously. Needing two goals to overturn the leg 1 result, the Red Bulls responded well to the challenge. Over the first five minutes, the Red Bulls strangled Santos, limiting them to 35% of possession and scoring their first goal of the match. In many ways, the start looked similar to the Red Bulls start in leg 1. The main difference being the goal scored.
The Red Bulls combination play created a lot of problems for Santos. Short passes between lines lulled Santos defenders, then runners off the ball helped spread the compact defense apart. This can be seen during both Red Bull goals in the match.
On it’s own, this seems unremarkable, but breaking down a compact defense is something the Red Bulls struggled with ever since Jesse Marsch took the helm in 2015. Team’s could rely on sitting deep, staying compact, and bypassing the midfield to quell the Red Bulls high press. Santos did all of that, and the Red Bulls still scored two in a must win game immediately.
The Bad – Wasting chances
The game really changed after the second goal, but THE moment that changed the match came in the Santos 18-yard box. In the 23rd minute, Connor Lade played a perfect ball to Bradley Wright-Phillips in the box. Wright-Phillips had time and space to finish the chance. Santos sat stunned, waiting for the inevitable. Instead, the shot went straight to Jonothan Orozco.
The Red Bulls failed to put another shot on target for the rest of the match. In fact, they managed just a single shot in the remainder of the first half, and none in the second. The difference in quality between Santos and the Red Bulls can be found in this simple fact; Santos finished their chances and the Red Bulls did not.
A third goal so early in the game would have poised the game for a furious bunker and survive from the Red Bulls. All the pressure would have been on Santos, especially after walking out of Red Bull Arena on a two away goal advantage.
Wasting their chances, home and away, forced the Red Bulls to continue to look for the game winner. It meant they couldn’t remain compact, and had to continue to try to press. That played hell on their preseason legs, and by the 60th minute they were gassed. It was only a matter of time before Santos picked them apart.
The Ugly – Icarus
The biggest talking point in the match came in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, needing fresh legs and a spell of possession, made a double substitution. Mathias Jorgensen and Derrick Etienne entered the match.
Chris Armas made a clear decision to push for another goal to decide the match rather than take their chances in a penalty shootout. Ultimately, it unbalanced a team teetering on the edge, and led to an embarrassing four goals conceded in nine minutes.
Even during a spell where Santos had consistent possession and pressure leading up to the sub, they failed to do much with it. From the 55th minute until their first goal, Santos didn’t register a shot. After the sub, Santos had five of their six shots on target in the match, and four of those ended up in the back of the net.
During the latter parts of the match, a coach playing it safe would have brought on Marc Rzatkowski for Florian Valot. The veteran midfielder is adept at providing defense bite, and holding possession. Both teams struggled with the heat as the match wore on, but removing a box to box midfielder for a an attacking midfielder left the Red Bulls unbalanced and prone. Santos smelled the blood in the water.
The question is, should Chris Armas have played more conservatively or push for the win? The question will burn in the minds of Red Bull fans, players, and surely the coaching staff.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography