Hubris. It is a dangerous characteristic, as the New York Red Bulls acknowledged this week.
Defender Tim Ream copped to the team’s hubris to help explain Sunday night’s stunning loss to once-lowly Chivas USA. There is probably some truth to that. Teams can’t remain on a razor’s edge mentally for all 34 regular-season games; there will be peaks and valleys, of course.
But give Chivas USA their share of credit, not only for top-shelf effort in the upset, but also for expertly executing a bold tactical plan. Robin Fraser took his team across three time zones to face the mighty Red Bulls and their array of stars without even a smidge of intimidation. They came to Red Bull Arena intent on pressuring Hans Backe’s boys, and it worked splendidly.
(Whether it will work for the Goats in this week’s SuperClásico, well … we’ll get to that later.)
Well aware that the Red Bulls are best when stretching teams up and down the field and across the width of the park, the Goats removed one of those stretching devices by pressuring higher up the field than most visiting teams around MLS.
First, forwards Alejandro Moreno and Justin Braun did great work to immediately pressure New York center backs Rafa Márquez and Tim Ream, limiting their opportunities to lift their heads and survey the field.
Next, Nick LaBrocca, at the top of Chivas’ midfield diamond, defended up beyond the midfield stripe. He stayed close to Teemu Tainio, New York’s deep-lying midfielder, who always creates such an effective triangle with RBNY’s two smooth-passing center backs.
Last, the Goats’ back line was proportionately aggressive and high. Center backs Heath Pearce and Zarek Valentin were seemingly unafraid of either Luke Rodgers’ speed or Thierry Henry’s skill.
In short, the visitors compressed the vertical space.
The Red Bulls did make a nice little adjustment, pushing right back Jan Gunnar Solli higher up the field and asking Marquez to drift wide. It helped create the Red Bulls’ first goal. But generally Chivas’ tactics limited New York’s ability to move forward with any cohesion.
Yes, the Red Bulls still had a big edge in possession for the night. But some of that came as the visitors protected their lead. And look at these telling numbers: In the four matches prior to Sunday’s the Red Bulls averaged 485 passes, with about 80 percent accuracy. Against Chivas USA, those figures dropped markedly to 380 passes with a 73 percent completion rate.
Moreno and Braun harassed the center backs before possession could be established. When the Red Bulls could gain the ball in a favorable position, Moreno and Braun smartly backed off, although just a bit. In that case, one would drift toward the center back not in possession, eliminating the inter-passing between the two that always changes the angles and frees up passing lanes. But when anything was still being contested in the Red Bulls defense, Braun and Moreno were like rat terriers on the chase.
Key to any high defensive line is a tremendous discipline throughout the team. Only through reliable intensity from every player can the pressing game be effective. For instance, when Chivas midfielder Jorge Flores pressed along the left side, he could rely on Moreno, Braun and his two central midfielders to remain in close proximity. If the proper spacing isn’t maintained, then the gaps become too vast between the three lines (forwards, midfielders and defenders). When that happens, a high-pressure strategy becomes ripe for exploitation.
So, can the Goats do the same to Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy on Saturday (10 pm ET, ESPN2/Deportes)?
Maybe. But things are different with the Galaxy. Whereas the Red Bulls offense begins with long- and medium-range passing out of the back, the Galaxy rely on midfielders David Beckham and Juninho to link the defense and the attack. Most teams attempt to shut off the spigot into Beckham, et al., but the wily, former England captain knows how to move into favorable spots.
So Beckham’s balls over the top would be launched from more advanced spots compared to Marquez’s and Ream’s probing passes. Thus, a high defensive line is more vulnerable when the press is broken.
Fraser will presumably adjust. And then the Galaxy will adjust. And then…
After all, tactics are nothing if they remain static.