Saturday’s New York Derby was over after the first half. After an up-and-down start to the season and Concacaf Champions League disappointment, the New York Red Bulls put in their best performance of the year so far in a 4-0 drubbing of rivals New York City FC.
The Red Bulls achieved a memorable victory thanks to their signature high-pressing system, which had them comfortably in the lead after four minutes, with two goals.
In a perfect scenario, this tactic is used to create turnovers in the opponent’s half. The more turnovers you can produce, the more chances you have to convert into goals. It works best when a team is able to have dominant ball possession in the attacking half, making the other side chase the game while tiring them out. But when you do lose possession, your team must be prepared to have every player apply relentless pressure on the opposing team, with the objective of forcing them to make untimely, costly mistakes and hopefully a dangerous turnover close to their goal.
A high-pressing system is most effective when the other team is known to play out of the back, which NYCFC does, meaning that the other team's defenders are on the ball more. Defenders aren’t typically known for being playmakers or confident on the ball, so as a striker the very thought of a defender trying to dribble you in their own half is a scenario where you like the odds.
Not even a minute into the match, the Red Bulls executed the high press to a tee:
It all started with a throw in deep in NYCFC’s half, where City eventually gained possession just outside their box. Due to the pressure from RBNY’s wingers (Danny Royer and Florian Valot), City defender Maxime Chanot had but one option – to play a long ball which, to his credit, found the feet of David Villa. Looking from above, the Red Bulls had all 10 field players in the left upper quadrant of the field committed to regaining possession.
In NYCFC’s case, this was the instance where you can either find the outlet pass (a streaking Medina down the right flank) to break the pressure, or where you lose possession and it comes right back down your throat. Unfortunately for Villa and City, it was the latter, with Tyler Adams intercepting his flick and playing a one-touch pass to Sean Davis. Facing City’s goal, Davis cut out five NYCFC players with one simple pass and put Bradley Wright-Phillips in a dangerous 1-v-1 situation, where he was able to take the shot as two teammates made runs into the box. Kaku was the beneficiary of the Sean Johnson save, with his far-post run giving him an easy tap-in to open the scoring.
Kaku, a technically gifted Argentine midfielder, showed his importance to RBNY’s success not just by scoring the opener, but by playing a part in the team's next two goals as well. Tactically, he's a player who understands where he needs to be and when he needs to be there.
On the second goal, just prior to the start of the above highlight, he won an aerial challenge vs. Alexander Ring. He continued his run, got the ball back and played a beautifully timed through ball to Valot, whose deflected shot found the back of the net.
Leading up to the third goal, his pressure caused NYCFC’s left back, Sweat, to play a ball out of bounds. On that possession, he found himself 1-v-1 on the right wing, drawing three defenders to him, and played a perfect cross to BWP for the goal.
Kaku’s awareness was on display throughout his 71 minutes on the field, as he consistently found space between NYCFC’s lines and sparked the attack.
But at the start of the second half, NYCFC found ways to break this pressure. In the 46th minute, Villa flicked a throw-in on to Jesus Medina, who took two touches and sprung Jo Inge Berget into space. The Norwegian played a cross that Red Bulls center back Tim Parker managed to clear for a corner kick. Had that cross been more accurately executed, Villa – the 400-goal man – was unmarked on the far post.
The high-press system does come with its challenges. It’s very difficult to sustain the intensity for 90 minutes. As a whole, your fitness levels have to be superior. If one player doesn’t fully commit, the whole plan can go awry. Therefore, as the game goes on and players get fatigued, there must be tactical adjustments, such as dropping more and choosing when to press as a unit.
Implementing this high-press system is demanding from all 11 players physically and mentally and is difficult to sustain. But if executed in the right way, it delivers results, as we saw Saturday and have seen plenty times before from this Red Bulls team. Jesse Marsch is not backing down from his way of playing and Kaku and his teammates are clearly buying in. Now the question is, can the high press take them all the way?