Inspired by assistant coach Robin Fraser, New York Red Bulls flourish in new-look diamond midfield

HARRISON, N.J. – When Matt Miazga was sent off in first-half stoppage time of the New York Red Bulls' match against New England on Saturday, Mike Petke quickly had center back Armando warming up. An attacking player was about to be sacrificed in order for the Red Bulls to maintain a four-man back line.

Then, Petke’s mind was changed by assistant coach Robin Fraser.

Going into halftime with the idea of inserting a defender to give the Red Bulls their best chance of rallying from being down both a man and a goal, Fraser convinced Petke to do something a bit more unconventional.

Fraser thought it would be best to stick with a makeshift defense and alter the midfield to a diamond setup that would both force the New England Revolution to attack from wide positions and allow the Red Bulls to get numbers forward.

Petke quickly came to the realization that Fraser’s approach was the best one, and proceeded to pull the plug on the idea of reinserting a second center back. He instead substituted midfielder Eric Alexander to replace the injured Tim Cahill – and the performance that followed in the second half was one of the best that New York have produced this season.

“I give my assistant coach Robin all the credit, actually, but he was absolutely right,” said Petke after the Red Bulls scored twice in the second half to beat the Revolution 2-1. “He said, ‘We need to make their outside backs beat us,’ and he was absolutely right. It just clicked when he said that and we moved them right to a diamond.

“That’s why Robin is as good of a tactician as he is, and I think that really helped us tonight. We wanted [Revs fullback Andrew] Farrell to beat us. I love the kid, but I'd rather him have the ball going against us [than] [Lee] Nguyen or [Diego] Fagundez or somebody.”

The tactical adjustment – dramatically different than the usual 4-4-2 Petke deploys – saw Bradley Wright-Phillips lead the line up top with Thierry Henry playing behind him in a withdrawn role. Ambroise Oyongo and Lloyd Sam manned the flanks, Alexander shuttled in central midfield and Dax McCarty, who was superb in helping the Red Bulls pick up the three points, sat in front of the handicapped defense.

New York immediately were rewarded in that formation, as Alexander fed McCarty before the latter hit a sublime chip to spark the comeback. Looking like the team that was up a man, the Red Bulls continued to attack fervently until Wright-Phillips netted the winner – while also limiting the Revolution from doing much with the ball when they had it.

“I thought it was brilliant. I thought we played some of the best soccer that we played,” said McCarty. “When you’re playing in a diamond, you have a lot of options in the middle of the field, so when I get the ball I have a guy showing to my left, a guy to my right, Thierry buzzing in the middle.

“Sometimes when you play a flat 4-4-2, the roles aren’t as defined. Sometimes in a flat 4-4-2, things can get stagnant. You have two guys out wide waiting for the ball, you have two forwards waiting for service. And we haven’t really played like we should, and we haven’t played up to our best, in a flat 4-4-2.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com