“We’re not changing it.”
Jesse Marsch sat defiantly and spoke harsh truths in the pressroom. His New York Red Bulls had just lost a rivalry match in lackadaisical fashion at home. Questions about his week abroad and lack of cohesion permeated the press conference. True to his nature, Marsch did not shy away from the questions, but the answers may unnerve a team already lacking confidence and execution.
Watching the game unfold Saturday afternoon, the problems dogging the Red Bulls this season were on full display. The Red Bulls have scored a paltry 17 goals in 17 matches this season with a -6 goal differential. The team prides itself on creating turnovers and looking to strike quickly, but to do so, they need a cohesive midfield and speed. They lack both.
Marsch doesn’t seem worried about the team, or their identity, and echoed those thoughts after the match.
“If we’re sharper in the attacking third, if we take some of our half advantages and they’re a little bit cleaner and create an advantage and go at a guy and set a guy up or find a way to get a lead and even with how physical the match is and how segmented it was with the referee and everything else, it could have been a different day,” Marsch said. “It wasn’t. We’re not going to make excuses. We’ve got to get better at what we do, and we’ve got to find it game to game and in a season-long situation.”
Marsch also seemingly threw down the gauntlet to his team.
“Well, there’s little things that we can do within the group,” he added, “and then I think that it’s clear that we need to make a couple of additions, to get some help specifically in the attacking part of the field.”
Sascha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips must shoulder some of the blame, but the writing on the wall for regression has been with the team since last season. Even before Dax McCarty departed, few players contributed to the Red Bulls attack outside of the two offensive leaders. The Red Bulls attack became too predictable and set in motion the events currently playing out at Red Bull Arena.
Looking over data from this season and last, a few patterns emerge. First, the shape of the midfield has greatly changed this season. Last season, a defined shape was paramount. This season, all three central midfielders tend to squeeze the side in possession. The imbalance affects the entire team. With Tyler Adams and Felipe playing on top of one another, the wingers must also pinch in to receive the ball. The narrow approach allows teams to remain even more compact then they have planned for the Red Bulls, and makes it much easier to negate their style.
Second, while looking to overwhelm a side can be effective for the counter press, it also runs the risk making the transition into attack nearly impossible. When the Red Bulls win the ball, they like to attack immediately. The narrow approach means that they cannot quickly spread the ball and open the field because there are fewer options to receive the ball.
This creates the third issue, which is deadly for the Red Bulls and their style: relying on the long ball. With the midfield failing to create chances, the quick strike of a long ball is becoming too often the route the Red Bulls have taken. Trying to find Wright-Phillips alone in the attacking third creates turnovers. Continually turning the ball over makes it near impossible for the dangerous midfield players to advance into the attacking third, while giving teams their own counter opportunities as the Red Bulls attempt to transition before the turnover.
The result is plain to see. The despite all of this, Marsch does not see a need for a change of style, only a change in personnel. After all, Marsch has continually blamed execution for the teams woes.
“We’re not sharp enough to build the next play, in order to create clear chances,” he said, “but we’ve got to find a way to fine tune some of these things and understand how to get better in some of the best games, but not get too down, not lose confidence in who we are.”
If the Red Bulls are lacking confidence, chemistry, cohesion, can a few midseason additions really solve that problem?