Watching the New York Red Bulls this season proves itself to be a frustrating proposition. Especially for most fans of the MLS team. There is a noticeable defensive drop off across the field that leaves the team vulnerable to dangerous counter attacks.
Teams mostly look to play over the Red Bulls high press, and without every piece operating at 100%, the result is catastrophic failure. The opposition’s tactical approach is not new. Many teams that journey to Red Bull Arena look to exploit the Red Bulls’s weaknesses in similar ways. This season, there is a specific problem area dogging the team, and dedicated fans of the New York Red Bulls II should recognize the issue.
The Columbus Crew presented the latest test case against the Red Bulls system. Their success against the system provides key performance indicators to analyze. Here’s what the Crew looked to do:
The approach clearly worked. The Red Bulls struggled all night to deal with the Crew’s counter attack. Zardes created space behind the center-backs with his runs, but that is merely a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. So what is the cause of these issues? It isn’t a simple answer, and it relies on the understanding of how the Red Bulls system is delicately balanced.
Here’s what I noticed, paying particular attention to the goals conceded:
House of straw
First, let’s talk about the wingbacks. Chris Armas started Amro Tarek at left back. The speedy center-back’s insertion into the lineup came out of necessity, Lawrence not fully fit for the match, and as reward for a clean sheet the previous weekend against Orlando City SC. The Crew recognized this as an area they should attack, and they regularly looked to exploit the space in behind.
Tarek is not a left back, and naturally struggled positionally throughout the match. On the team’s first goal, the Crew caught Tarek pushed up field, leaving Luis Argudo free to make a run in behind Zardes. Remember, the plan was for the Crew to stretch the backline by playing to Zardes, and then collecting second balls, knockdowns, or passes one level back.
The image below shows the start of that play. Tarek is highlighted, as the distance he left between himself and Argudo:
This specific run created a number of issues for the Red Bulls backline in the first half. The run from Zardes helps pull Long out of the center and take him out of the play. Because Tarek was caught up field, that leaves space between Long and Tim Parker that Argudo can take advantage of. Argudo simply has to trust Zardes wins the first ball, and finish his chance.
The issue of getting caught upfield has been problematic for the Red Bulls for many years. That Tarek is not used to the position in the system only compounded problems on that side. In the second half, the Red Bulls adjusted and Tarek played a deeper position by design.
House of sticks
As a result of looking to be more defensively responsible on the left side, the Red Bulls opened themselves up on the right. Michael Murillo’s attacking sensibilities make him an asset offensively. He dribbles well, serves in well-placed crosses, and can overwhelm defenses on overlapping runs. His attacking prowess also serves to create gaps on the Red Bulls backline. Teams that are patient and have speedy wingers that are good on the dribble can take advantage of that space.
On the Crew’s second goal, Murillo is caught upfield. The inability for Derrick Etienne Jr. to close down Héctor Jiminéz means Murillo must make a decision. Go to the ball and try to stop Jiminéz on the dribble, or cover Argudo’s run. Murillo first hesitates, giving both Jiminéz and Arguo additional time to play the ball.
When he does decide to make a play, Murillo attempt to cut off the pass and misses, taking himself out of the play. Just like the first goal, the wingback’s defensive lapse forces the center-back, Parker, wide, leaving space in the middle.
The third goal contains a different defensive lapse, but still contains the issue of center-back displacement. The end result of the goal was largely blamed on Marc Rzatkowski, and he deserves his share, but Aaron Long creates the problem that led to the goal. View the GIF below.
Long moves up field in an attempt to win a header. Despite his aggressive attempt, he never had a chance to win it, and his momentum leaves him well up field as the winning goal develops. The same space opens up behind the backline now that the defender is missing. Rzatkowski tries to cut off the pass, loses Zardes and the rest is history.
House of bricks
Is the system broken? No. Why?
Because the hallmarks of the system are still in place, but the execution this season has been inconsistent. Last week, before the match, the players and Armas carried a similar refrain. To fix the issue short term, the Red Bulls may be forced to play a bit more cynically. Fans of NYRBII might remember similar defensive issues from 2017 and 2018. The commonality between those teams, poor defending on the wings.
Kemar Lawrence is the Red Bulls best defender, but he has struggled to stay healthy this season, as well as missing time for international duty. Michael Murillo remains inconsistent. When he is “on”, he is one of the best in the league on both sides of the ball. When he is “off”, he is a massive liability. The combination of both wingbacks having a poor game exposes the center-backs, and makes their efforts look poor.
Again, look at the form of NYRBII center-back Jordan Scarlett last season versus this season. With better defending on the wing, the center-backs benefit from remaining centrally, making it easy to shore up holes as teams attack. A pedestrian NYRBII team a year ago is playing at a much higher level, a direct benefit of having a more consistent defensive group.
But even at their best under Jesse Marsch, the Red Bulls struggled against the same teams, Columbus, Chicago, Orlando, Vancouver, and Montreal. All teams that are setup to play defend and counter against the Red Bulls.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography