Formation change has Red Bulls looking much more like their old selves

HARRISON, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls are finally beginning to look like the side that has won the Eastern Conference each of the past two years and it is likely no coincidence that a reversion back to the formation used those last two years that has been the catalyst in this return to form.

First half goals by Alex Muyl and Daniel Royer from the penalty spot led to a 2-0 win over Columbus Crew SC at Red Bull Arena. It was a thorough and comprehensive performance from the Red Bulls, posting their second straight shutout and looking efficient in the final third. They now have an 18-match unbeaten streak at Red Bull Arena in regular-season league play and it is their twelfth shutout in that span.

Against the side that came into Red Bull Arena atop the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls looked far more comfortable and complete than the visitors. Head coach Jesse Marsch called the result “another big step forward.”

A step forward that resembles ones taken by the strong Red Bulls sides from the past two years under Marsch.

“So it's not about one result, or two results, or five results or one year,'' Marsch said. "It's about, over time, having a process of understanding how to commit to getting better. And we have that here. It's not just one or two players; it's literally a whole group, and you can go down to the USL team, the commitment that we have as an organization to find ways to grow and get better.

“Still early stage of the season, but, eight games under our belt, I feel like now we're getting to the point where we're starting to see ourselves get better every day,'' the coach continued. "And listen, this was always going to be a good game. It was always going to be a tough game. When we play Columbus, they stylistically challenge what we do. They are good at what they do. The challenge for us is to be really good at what we do.

“What we did do – when we were tactically sound and when we did press together – we were able to create many chances. But when we were a little bit off, they started to put little plays together that would exploit our pressing.”

In the opening five games of the season, the Red Bulls tried a variation of the 4-2-2-2. influential players such as midfielder Sacha Kljestan and forward Bradley Wright-Phillips did not appear entirely comfortable.

Wright-Phillips didn’t have as much space to operate and Kljestan was drifting wide onto the wings, which took him out of the flow of the any build-up. Both Wright-Phillips and Kljestan were league MVP finalists a season ago, and neither looked that way at the start of the season.

But working out of their old formation the last three games has seen both players look increasingly dangerous. Marsch said that formation switch allows his team to get “best out of Brad and Sacha, who are our two best players and two of the best players in the league.”

In the last three matches the Red Bulls have started in the 4-2-3-1, they’ve put more shots on target, had more corner kicks and won more duels than their opponents. They’ve also had a decided edge in possession and crosses as well.

“I think that was an important reason why we went back to the 4-2-3-1. Brad and I are two of the more important players on the team and if we can be in the best position to succeed, ultimately it will help the team,'' Kljestan said. "Brad’s been good the past few games; I think he feels more confident and more consistent in the way he plays when he’s by himself, moving along the backline and trying to get on the end of plays. Overall, yeah, I think the switch back has been pretty good.”  

“There’s the comfort level of me just being a player who has played in the center of midfield for most of my career. Then the fact that I get on the ball more, I think in the last few games I’ve had more touches than I had in the previous games when I was playing in the [4-2-2-2]. That helps the team I think; me being on the ball is important for us. The more I can see of the ball the better I think we can be.”