Warshaw: The Red Bulls are struggling this year. Here's how, and why

The reigning Supporters’ Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls, have lost two in a row. I know what we’re all thinking.

They shouldn’t have let Aurelien Collin go.

No doubt. There’s also a second talking point at the moment.

At halftime of RBNY’s home loss to Orlando City on March 23, head coach Chris Armas stated, “We just have to keep the ball more, and make better decisions, and not be so jumpy.“ It felt like a very… un-Red Bulls comment.

The words “keep the ball more” have never popped up (as far as I can remember) in the Red Bulls’ handbook. Here’s a summary, roughly, on what the Red Bulls have built their success on over the last four years:

  1. When the other team has the ball, apply intense pressure to force turnovers or 50/50 balls
  2. Recognize the 50/50 balls as pivotal moments and be better prepared to win them
  3. After winning the loose balls, use the transition moment as a goalscoring opportunity

Now, there’s a clear omission in those plans. What happens when you have the ball? Well, for three and a half years under Jesse Marsch, the plan was largely to play the ball forward and not worry too much about the completion percentage of the pass -- even if the pass didn’t get to its target, it’s an opportunity to start back at 1 or 2 on the aforementioned flow chart.

The plan certainly did its job, helping RBNY to a pair of Supporters’ Shields in four years. But there’s a natural place for improvement: If you have the ball, why not try to use it? Keep everything else the same, and just learn to use possession as well. Why not press when you don’t have it, win the duels when they are there, transition when you can, but also possess when you need to?

RBNY had previously decided to focus all of their attention on items 1 through 3, but Armas has put an emphasis on a potential number 4 this year.

Why try to add something to a machine that had been working well? I think there are four events that got us to this point.

The first came in April of 2018, when the Red Bulls hoisted 20 shots against Chivas Guadalajara in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals, but failed to score. Chivas didn’t have much interest in having the ball; they solely wanted to frustrate RBNY, and it worked.

The second came in September. Atlanta United visited Red Bull Arena and tried to pass out of the back, and Red Bulls crushed them 2-0, a decisive result in the Shield race. The Red Bulls pressured the Five Stripes into mistakes, then won the subsequent duels in Atlanta's half. It was a clear statement that New York held the upper hand.

The third came in November, when the two teams met again in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. This time it was Atlanta who showed no interest in passing out of the back, a tacit acknowledgement that they couldn’t play the Red Bulls in their normal way. Any duels that were going to happen were going to take place in RBNY’s end, with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron facing Luis Robles’ goal.

Like Chivas nine months prior, Atlanta’s main intent was to neutralize the Red Bulls’ plan.

Two big games, and twice the opponent didn’t allow Armas’ side to force turnovers in the attacking half. And twice the Red Bulls came up short. There’s now a very clear template for facing RBNY.

After Saturday’s loss at Chicago, Armas explained the Fire’s game plan as “trying to turn our backline around, and ultimately giving us the ball. We knew what was coming.”

The fourth event came in January, when the team sold Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig. Adams was the best balling-winning midfielder in MLS. Before Adams, the team had Dax McCarty, perhaps the second- or third-best ball-hunting midfielder in the league. For the entirety of the pressing era, the club had one of the center midfielders most suited to the pressing system.

So even with that, they failed to win MLS Cup. What would make us think they would be able to sustain those losses and be more suited to win the trophy they’ve missed most?

This brings us to the 2019 edition of the New York Red Bulls: A team intent on using possession to create scoring opportunities. Keep Steps 1 through 3, and add the final dimension. This logic makes perfect sense to me.

With that said, we are clearly seeing that there are road bumps in the adjustment period. While the logic, in and of itself, makes sense, there are other factors to consider. Armas needs to ask himself three big questions  as he moves forward with the plan:

  • Does attempting to pass in the middle third limit the number of duels and potential transition moments in the attacking third? Every pass made on the middle is one less ball played forward to the final third. Does the attempt to “keep the ball more” mathematically hamstring the team’s original asset of transition moments?
  • Do the players that make the pressing system work have the skill set to make a possession plan work? For example, is Bradley Wright-Phillips’ tool kit more suited to pressing than passing?
  • Can the players balance the mental demands of the divergent concepts? It’s incredibly difficult to mix the emotions of possession and pressing. In a possession mindset, you’re reminding yourself to stay calm when the game moves fast; in a pressing mindset, you’re constantly getting yourself to make the game as fast as possible. It’s difficult to move back and forth between the two in a game. It’s not impossible to do both, but it’s not a seamless transition.

Here’s Robles from after the loss to Orlando: “Looking back at what we gave today, I think if we’re being honest every person knows that that wasn't their best and they can be better...We didn’t win enough second balls. And those hustle plays, they got the best of us.”

That comment doesn’t surprise me when paired with Armas’ words at halftime. It’s difficult to have the composure to possess one moment and the intensity to press the next.  

What’s interesting about the Red Bulls so far in 2019 is that the numbers haven’t actually changed that much from 2018. They haven’t attempted more passes in 2019 then 2018; they haven’t attempted fewer passes forward this year; they haven’t held more possession; they have a lower pass-completion percentage. The only metric that I can find that shows “more possession” is that they attempted about 10% more passes in the middle third. Whatever the Red Bulls hope to do this year, it’s still in the very early stages.

I’m okay with Armas’ decision to adjust the way Red Bulls play. I think that I think that it’s even the right decision. I’m fairly certain it’s not the wrong decision.

The Red Bulls have come up short in knockout situations against excellent teams for four years. Their best player who maximized the system has left. And teams have honed in on the pressing plan’s kryptonite. RBNY could try to do the exact same things again, or they could try to find an antidote.

They are clearly somewhere in between. It’s a perfectly fine thought process from Armas. Executing it, like most things, will be another matter.

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