With their playoff hopes on the line, the star-studded New York Red Bulls were in need of points in a hurry. And the timing last weekend couldn’t have been worse: a visit to steamy Dallas, without a handful of their biggest impact players.
Winless in eight straight league games, Hans Backe was running out of time to reclaim New York’s mojo. So at Pizza Hut Park, he cranked the cynical meter up to 11. This was ugly soccer, and he knew it. It was regressive play for a team that typically keeps the ball on the ground, preferring pace and possession over the rough and tumble.
Saturday’s plan in a nutshell: “Defend, defend, defend and play a little bit dirty and cynical,” Backe said afterward.
“We had to defend a lot but we did it well,” he explained. “This is the way we probably need to do it on the road. … Fill in for each other and play a bit dirty.”
That may not win him a voting membership on Commissioner Don Garber’s new Positive Play initiative, but it did help the Red Bulls win three huge points. Here’s how it looked from a tactical standpoint:
Personnel dictated everything, with four important Red Bulls starters missing: suspended defenders Rafa Márquez and Jan Gunnar Solli, along with injured defender Roy Miller and ailing striker Thierry Henry.
On the other hand, Luke Rodgers’ reintroduction to the starting lineup handed Backe the ace he needed for a doctrine of defend-and-counter. Rodgers isn’t the biggest fellow, but he plays like one, ever the willing target outlet. His timing on the checking runs toward midfielders and his willingness to accept the punishment make it work.
Once that worked a time or two, Dallas center backs George John and Ugo Ihemelu had to respect his work, chasing out a bit farther than they might like and occasionally getting pulled apart.
That opens a smidgen of space for balls over the top. That’s not usually the Red Bulls’ preferred way forward; it’s generally a changeup for a team that prefers to exploit Henry or Dane Richards in individual matchups. But one of Stephen Keel’s probing balls out of the back sneaked through to help provide a 1-0 lead.
Elsewhere around the field, individual roles shifted as Red Bulls ship changed overall course. Take holding midfielder Teemu Tainio, who generally makes his mark as a linking presence. For this one, rather than focusing on smooth connections in possession, Tainio turned into a Finnish wrecking ball, prioritizing his role as a midfield destroyer. His starting position on defense was closer than usual to center backs Tim Ream and Keel.
Tainio’s recessed positioning helped provide some additional cover for the less-experienced Keel. And Tainio’s positioning provided one additional boost: Ream and Márquez are strong passers who can ably find their targets over longer distances. Keel may not have the confidence or the passing savvy to locate Tainio over those longer stretches, so the Finnish midfielder wanted to make the outlet connections a little more accessible for his young, fill-in center back.
On the outside, Backe asked right back Chris Albright and left back Carlos Mendes to stay put. Perhaps Albright could have been a little more adventurous since he didn’t have Brek Shea to deal with (FC Dallas’ dangerous left-sided attacker was suspended for this one), but Backe wanted to be extra conservative in this one.
Same for Mendes, a center back who was needed for emergency duty on the left. Since Mendes probably doesn’t have a big back of attacking tricks anyway, movement forward would be something of a lost cause.
Dax McCarty, nominally positioned at the top of a midfield diamond, worked back more than usual, pouring more effort into defensive support for Tainio rather than worrying about his next chance on the ball. (After halftime, McCarty basically set up alongside Tainio in an even more protective stance.)
Joel Lindpere on the left tucked inside even farther than usual, more or less conceding the left flank when the Red Bulls got the ball. Since counterattacking was going to produce all the chances for the visitors, he didn’t need to expend bunches of energy getting wide, looking to stretch Dallas’ defense across the field and searching for chances to combine with his left back.
So with the mission accomplished in Dallas, will this be the Red Bull way going forward? Doubtful. While Backe praised his team’s gritty effort, he’ll surely want Henry back in the lineup. Same for Miller and Solli. And even Márquez, who has borne more than his share of criticism in the Red Bulls’ bummer of a summer, seems destined to get right back on the field.
For all that commendable fortitude, Backe said the team still needs Márquez’s technical ability in the back. And the manager said the Mexican international will definitely be in the back, rather than in midfield, where we saw him last week.