The 2019 New York Red Bulls are off to a slow start. The Red Bulls secured only four points out of a possible nine to start the year 1-1-1. For fans, that can be tough to swallow coming off a supporter’s shield winning season.
A four-point haul under difficult circumstances. The Red Bulls had to juggle Concacaf Champions League and international absences during the difficult stretch. That hardly matches the alarm bells ringing on social media, but context is important. The Red Bulls fell behind against the San Jose Earthquakes, then struggled to get back into the match. They lost to Orlando City SC. Both clubs are expected to finish near the bottom of the table, and these struggles came at home.
Losing at home is particularly worrying, but the mood around the team remains optimistic. The theme around the club is ‘learning lessons and moving forward’.
Head coach Chris Armas addressed the media at practice Tuesday, stressing the importance of learning from their mistakes this season. For him, much of it revolves around adapting to challenges as they come.
“Every single game, whether that’s in training or especially on game days, is how quickly can you figure out the game and challenge on the day,” said Armas. “This game against Orlando, we talked a bit about it at halftime. The challenge is to understand the game you are in and figure that out. Stay focused, calm, and without frustration.”
Armas noted that OCSC looked to slow the game down and play the ball long as a way to disrupt the Red Bull style. Most teams that have succeeded against the high press era Red Bulls took a similar approach.
One difficulty the Red Bulls face is familiarity. The Red Bull system , well defined and rigid, makes the team predictable. Teams can study years of data to design their approach against the Red Bulls. Combating that, and maintaining their identity, is the next hurdle to overcome.
“If you think about the whole process, in 2015,” said Armas. “We were able to catch teams by surprise. Our style of play, playing fast, pressing, and counter pressing, it was very unusual in our league and different. Now, teams know exactly what we are going to do. We have to add some nuances… We have to add to who we are, with some pause, some patience, some movements, and moving the opponent a little bit. Just add some attacking principles that give our guys the weapons, the ideas, and the belief that we can hurt you in all ways.”
The Red Bulls other concern is scoring goals. Through three matches, the Red Bulls scored five goals and conceded three, a respectable haul. But the goals scored came in two halves, and the win over San Jose accounts for four of the five goals. That means the Red Bulls are shutout in four of the six halves they played this season.
“I think that you can look at that San Jose game, we scored on four crosses,” said Sean Davis at the Red Bulls Training Facility Tuesday. “We’re good at crossing and generating chances off low crosses at the near post. It’s easy for teams to scout that, and see that. We have to continue to find ways to be dangerous in the final third outside of crossing. So, it’s just on us, the players, to be more fluid in the attacking third, and generate chances not only from crosses, but shots at the top of the box, combination play, and possession. All different ways to make us dangerous and keep teams off balance. I think that’s going to be really important going forward this year.”
The ‘plan b’ concept remains elusive to the Red Bulls. The need to create a different look arose during the high press era as a means to negate teams packing numbers behind the ball and waiting for counter attack opportunities. Five years into the process, it is a work in progress.
Armas think that adjusting personnel and formations situationally is an approach that will yield results.
“You have Brad, you have Mathias, you have Brian White, and now you have days where structurally you look different and tactically you look different,” said Armas. “Are you trying to play behind? Okay then, maybe those days Andy Ivan, Derrick Etienne, and Marcus Epps feature. If it is a day that you are looking at creating a little more underneath, those are the days Danny Royer, Omir Fernandez, and Alex Muyl can factor in. So, different personnel can give us different looks for how we want the game to look. That will help us stretch teams, and maybe try to disorganize teams.”
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography