Mike Petke made a tactical alteration that helped the New York Red Bulls pick up a tough point on the road, but there's no guarantee the move will be one that sticks going forward.
The Red Bulls came out in a variation of a 4-2-3-1 formation in their 1-1 draw in Chicago on Sunday, a slightly different look than the tried-and-tested 4-4-2 they have deployed for much of Petke’s reign.
The main difference in the way New York came out at Toyota Park was how they used Thierry Henry. Against the Fire, Henry was dropped a bit further from goal and had more of a responsibility to help the midfield keep the ball than is usually the strategic norm.
The Red Bulls captain was still tasked with trying to create his own chances and shoulder the scoring load, but he did so as more of a faux No. 10 playing behind Tim Cahill than in his customary target striker role.
“All of a sudden, we were having problems with other teams penetrating through the middle,” said Petke when asked about the tactical switch. “Why not put Dax [McCarty] back to blockade that and bring Thierry back, so he doesn’t have to run back all the time?
“I think he did well. He was able to have the view of the field in front of him with the ball instead of checking back a lot and Tim battled up front. It was great.”
The direct result of having Henry play from a more withdrawn position was that Red Bulls won the possession battle by a large margin. They beat the Fire, 60.4 to 39.6 percent, in that category.
That’s an impressive stat when considering that New York were playing on the road in a venue in which they have never won and against a Fire team that reintroducied 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee back into its lineup.
“It’s easier for guys to run off of him,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles of Henry. “He’s also a great outlet, knowing that when he’s that deep, if you can find him, not only is he going to keep the ball, but you’re going to get the ball back.
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“I think him, Eric [Alexander] and Dax, that triangle in the middle was good. We had a bulk of the possession.”
Even so, the Red Bulls attack lacked some serious offensive punch in the final third as a result of Henry being further from goal and there being no pure forward to stretch Chicago's backline.
Far too many times, New York had either Cahill isolated up top or no one in the penalty area. There were even moments when wide midfielders Lloyd Sam and Jonny Steele were in most advanced positions for Petke’s side.
That explains why Fire goalkeeper Sean Johsnon wasn’t tested from the run of play until very late (New York’s goal came via a set piece) and why the Red Bulls seem unlikely to use this tactical move with any regularity in the coming weeks and months.
“I thought for today, on the day, it was great,” said Petke. “Going forward, we’ll have to reanalyze and look at things, but for me Thierry is a guy that drops back and likes the ball at his feet.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.