The New York Red Bulls are off to their worst start since 2016. Naturally, Red Bull fans are furious at the state of the team.
The slow start places the Red Bulls in a tough spot to start the year, but their is still plenty of time to right the ship. To do so, the Red Bulls must look at the areas the are struggling in 2019. Looking at the underlying numbers, a few items jumped out as having a major impact on the team.
The Red Bulls defensive struggles are overstated. Despite the inability to hold a clean sheet seven matches into the regular season, defensive lapses start further up the field. The midfield is losing the ball in deeper positions, leading to added pressure on the defense. Increased possession for Red Bull opponents in advanced positions on the field leads stresses the Red Bull system. Just as the Red Bulls pressed opponents to create scoring opportunities in year’s past, opposition teams chance creation increases under these conditions.
The long game
But there is a bigger problem, and it is plain to see. Looking at passing statistics, particularly by pass type reveals the Red Bulls are attempting more long balls with less success in 2019.
So far, the Red Bulls are attempting 11.2% long passes in 2019 versus 10.8% in 2018. That is not a significant increase. However, they completed 29.9% of their long passes thus far in 2019, and completed 35.1% in 2018.
Across all positions, defensive players on the Red Bulls are the only ones that increased their long pass percentage, and each of them suffered a drop in accuracy. Aaron Long and Tim Parker increased their long ball attempts by about 2-3% and dropped in accuracy from by an average of 3%.
Additionally, Aaron Long’s short pass accuracy fell in 2019 by nearly 10% on 4% fewer short pass attempt. Backline distribution is critical to the Red Bull system, and with short and long passes failing, the Red Bulls are struggling to get the ball up field. Long, in particular, proved vital to the Red Bulls backline in 2019 because of his defensive prowess, but his distribution was equally important.
Good touch / bad touch
Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Daniel Royer are the Red Bulls main goal scorers. Their fortunes intertwine with the team’s fortunes. When they struggle, the Red Bulls struggle. When the shine, the Red Bulls shine.
In 2019, both Royer and Wright-Phillips have struggled. Part of the their issue stems from the point mentioned above. Aimless long balls are partly responsible, but are not the only reason. Ball control struggles are also an issue.
Wright-Phillips has already had 18 unsuccessful touches in 2019, or 22% of his total of 79 from 2018. He’s currently on pace to have 102 total, an increase of 29%.
Royer’s unsuccessful touches in 2019 are also high. Royer has 14 unsuccessful touches this season, also about 22% of his total in 2018, and on pace for 79 overall. If the defense does successfully play a long pass, the inability of the front line to control the ball negates the approach.
Defensive actions dropping
The two issues above are critical points the Red Bulls need to address. When the defense cannot distribute and the attackers can’t control the ball, it is hard to control the match. But in the past, the Red Bulls haven’t relied on those facets of the game as a means of control.
Instead, pressing teams into turnovers and creating scoring chances from those turnovers is the Red Bulls bread and butter. The inability to press effectively is the main culprit this season, and there is not an easy stat to point towards to pinpoint.
However, you can still find markers of their ineffectiveness in the stats. Combining tackles, interceptions, and clearances per match, the Red Bulls are way off the mark in 2019. In 2018, the Red Bulls averaged 109.1 defensive actions per game across the roster. In 2019, that number is sitting at 89.6.
Interceptions and tackles are the main culprits. Losing Tyler Adams factors into it, and the backline is struggling mightily in these areas with his loss. Adams often helped shield the backline, but also created opportunities for defensive actions with his pressing, even when he was not involved in the end result. Aaron Long, and Tim Parker are both down in those categories as a result.
How to fix it
Fans watching the games are quick to point the finger at the offense and defense, but it is clear the real problem is in the middle of the field.
Tyler Adams did three important things for the Red Bulls. First, he pressed with ferocity and kept teams from controlling the middle of the field, forcing the ball to wider positions. Both Aaron Long and Tim Parker thrived in those circumstances. They cleaned up attempts to get the ball back into central locations and patrolled the air well.
Second, he helped ferry the ball forward from the backline. Adams held a deep position just above the defenders, and remained an easy outlet for defenders looking to move up field. His passing was mostly very clean, even when pushing the attack. Both Marc Rzatkowski and Cristian Casseres Jr. haven’t been as clinical in similar pursuits.
Third, he helped win second balls. When the team did play long, the relied on Adams to help win knock downs, maintaining possession and relieving backline pressure. Sean Davis has not done as well playing the 6 role with the team. His passing is clean, but his defensive instincts are not on par with Adams.
No single player should be responsible for fixing these issues, but distributing those responsibilities properly is important. Casseres takes over the Adams’ role in the press, Davis takes over Adams’ role in distribution, and Marc Rzatkowski takes over Adams’ role in winning second balls. That plays to all three players strengths, and could account for the Red Bulls central midfield in Kaku’s expected absence.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography