Chris Armas was hesitant to sum up the New York Red Bulls 2019 season as a bad year. Rather an “off-year” was the ruling on an underwhelming performance from the US version of the Red Bull model. Finishing 6th in the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls were knocked out in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
This tactical analysis will look forward to the 2020 season. Through a description of the tactics and statistical factors at play in 2019, this analysis will explain where the Red Bulls can potentially improve going into the next MLS season.
Firstly, it is important to understand the central idea behind the Red Bull set-up. The New York Red Bulls are an extension of the Red bull family which currently has teams in Austria, Brazil, Germany, and of course America.
The idea is to continue the Red Bull brand of football tactics and general operational philosophy. This involves playing a highly aggressive pressing and vertical style of football, with the term “fast football” used to describe the way of playing. This is due to the rapid progression of the ball up the pitch. If a loss of possession occurs, a typical Red Bull team will aim to win the ball back in under eight seconds. Due to the verticality of their play and quick pressing of the ball after ball loss, their teams tend to play football at a high intensity.
This has a knockdown effect on their recruitment and development strategies. The Red Bull teams look to bring in young and hungry talent, with a maximum age of 23. Speed is another word regularly seen in the Red Bull scout report. This is standard across the football teams and buys into their footballing philosophy and way of playing. This central philosophy is key to the New York Red Bulls.
With their philosophy in mind, the Red Bulls have looked to continue their approach in regard to recruitment. This involves bringing in younger players and ridding the squad of more senior and experienced pros. Therefore the biggest news of the off-season was most certainly the release of last year’s captain, Luis Robles. The 35-year-old has over 50 games in the MLS and was ever-present throughout last year.
Other notable departures include Bradley Wright Phillips, Jean Christophe Koffi, Vincent Benzecourt, Carlos Rivas, and Andreas Ivan. Michael Murrilo has just recently departed for Anderlecht SC with a reported sum of around 680,000 euros. Kemar Lawrence has also followed him out the door to the Belgian side.
The arrivals for the Red Bulls have been predictably young. Key signings so far include the return of Josh Sims on loan from Southampton, Mandela Egbo, and Dutch-based keeper David Jensen. The general theme however in the off-season for the Red Bulls has been the signing of numerous academy players and USL II players onto first team contracts. This comes as no surprise, with the Red Bull transfer strategy focused so strongly on youth development.
Chris Armas has tinkered with his formation more than his previous year in charge. They have tended to line up in a 4-2-3-1, however, in games such as against Montreal Impact and LA Galaxy, they have changed their tactical setup as a result of their pre-game analysis. It seems Armas took a leaf out of the Bielsa book as his side lined up in a 3-3-3-1 or 5-1-3-1 formation. In some games, they have altered this in-game with varying back four formations seen below.
The key themes
From watching the Red Bulls last year, there were some key themes that were present throughout. As mentioned before, the Red Bulls attempted to play quick and vertical football when in possession.
It is understandable therefore that the Red Bulls would have both lower possession than the average side, whilst also incurring more ball losses. However, their stats suggest that they need to still improve in this regard. This doesn’t necessarily mean wholesale stylistic changes, but rather improving in their ability to play vertical football. Their average ball loss per match came in at 119.1 losses. That is enough to rank them as the number one team in regards to ball loss in the MLS. Additionally, they are a staggering 20.27 ball losses higher per match than the next ranked team at 98.83.
From watching some games, it is clear to see why the side tends to lose the ball regularly. They press out of possession in extremely high intensity, swarming the ball. Therefore when they win the ball back, there are often many teammates and sometimes opponents in the surrounding areas. The Red Bulls tend to struggle in establishing possession immediately after regaining the ball as they fail to recognise and anticipate the moment of ball recapture.
In the image below, there are a few key faults that are evident. In this instance, Red Bull win the second ball. As they establish possession, you can see the trio of Alejandra Romero Gamarra, Daniel Royer, and Bradley-Wright Phillips.
The first key fault is the positioning of Wright-Phillips and Gamarra. Both are standing in the same passing lane. This has the knock-on effect of allowing D.C United to surround this area and win the ball back immediately. When establishing possession, it is important to have multiple passing lanes in order to give the man on the ball multiple options. This also increases the difficulty for the opposition to win the ball back as they must cover multiple options and cannot overload specific players. Shortly after in the image above, the ball is played into Wright-Phillips. Both the nearest men for DC swarm and win the ball as there are no Red Bull players who restrict their movement.
This leads to the second point. If Gamarra is to make a penetrating run in behind the opposition defence, this would cause the backline to potentially drop as they are wary of the threat in behind. In particular, Gamarra could make a run into the vacant space behind number 27 for DC united. This would cause this player to drop or Gamarra could receive in behind their defensive line. Additionally, this would then leave a passing option directly to the right of the ball possessor. However because there is no penetrating run, the left-back for D.C United steps forward onto the player directly in front, his intentions being to restrict the passing options. This was one of the many factors which lead to the Bulls giving the ball away in this instance.
Anticipating transition moments
Another key point to understand in transition is the importance of anticipating the next moment. If the team in ball possession looks as though they are likely to lose the ball, players can begin to anticipate this and move in ways to support their teammate if the ball is eventually won back.
In particular, it is important to make immediate movements as well for an establishing pass. An establishing pass refers to a pass which occurs immediately in transition, moves forward, and allows the team in transition to vacate the area where the ball has been regained. This area is usually cramped with players and therefore it is important to move the ball away as soon as possible. Often Leipzig will press with their central striker intact, so there is an immediate long vertical passing option.
In the instance below, Red Bulls are in the midst of regaining possession. At this point, Wright-Phillips isn’t involved in the pressing phase. Even when the ball is won back for the Red Bulls, he is still walking. He fails to shuffle across and provide an establishing pass for the Red Bulls.
Eventually as seen below, the ball goes into the vacant area where he should have been situated. These faults are vital for the Red Bulls to fix if they wish to be more efficient in possession. In particular, when their game is based on dangerous transitions, they need to be able to move forward and establish possession quickly.
Established possession play
New York Red Bulls not only incur a high amount of ball losses, but they also have the second lowest amount of possession for the league with 44.4%. This comes down to their philosophy in regards to playing forward as quickly as possible.
However, we have seen in the other franchises some alternative ways to play vertical football. Most of the other Red Bull sides will play grounded, vertical passes into the strikers or midfielders. However, the New York side tends to play more lofted passes and aim to win the second ball. This is a key reason for them having a huge amount of ball losses.
In the image below, defender Tim Parker receives the ball. It is fairly evident where the ball will go, due to the positioning of the players. The nearest midfielder doesn’t attempt to make a passing lane. The left-back is also tucking into the middle of the pitch.
This seems to be pre-planned from Armas, with both players aware that the ball will go long and in the air. They, therefore, are planning for the next phase of play.
The former international has set up a net of sorts, in order to win the second ball. We can see the five players evenly spread around the ball. The issue with this style is that it is far less controlled than say a vertical yet grounded pass. The second ball from a lofted pass can land in a much wider area of opportunity than a grounded pass. This means the team tends to lose the ball more by using this build-up method.
An alternative method could be that the nearest midfielder in the first image creates an open passing lane into the strikers. The net would remain somewhat similar, yet a grounded pass could be played. The Red Bulls could then look for up-and-through options or win the ball back immediately. The defensive transition would be stronger as players get closer together knowing exactly where the ball will be.
This is just one method which Armas could use in order to improve the Red Bulls in possession. Whilst his style isn’t primarily focussed in this game moment, the Red Bulls need all the help they can get if they wish to challenge for the title. By improving their possession play, they may be able to increase the number of chances created through established possession. Established possession goals were few and far between for the Red Bulls, especially in the latter stages of the campaign. Improving in this area could potentially help them to score more goals and self-evidently win more games.
The New York Red Bulls had a disappointing year, to say the least. Being a New York team places big expectations on Armas’s side. The pressure has continued to mount with the transfer movement so far in the off-season.
Armas’s side mainly struggled in both the transition to possession and established possession phases. If the Red Bulls can improve this facet of their play, they could potentially see an improvement in their fortunes this year. It will be interesting to see whether we see a shift in their style of play, in particular, whether Armas continues with a fairly direct style of aerial build-up play. Either way, Armas has lots of work to do in this off-season.