*But were afraid to ask.
It’s derby day! We don’t have much time before kickoff and a lot has changed since the last time these teams met (remember Eloi Amagat?), so I sat down with a noted soccer expert (me) to get some answers about What to Watch For or whatever they say on those pregame shows.
Are the Red Bulls still good?
Debatable! On points per game they’re fifth in the East, comfortably above the playoff line. But by home-adjusted expected goal differential per game, which is better at predicting future performance, last year’s Supporters Shield winners are sitting in negative territory, one spot below last year’s Wooden Spoon recipients, the San Jose Earthquakes. That said, the Red Bulls have spent a lot of this season without key players like Bradley Wright-Phillips (injured/old), Aaron Long (injured/bailing out Tim Ream), and Kaku (drama), so I mean who knows.
Are they still, you know, the Red Bulls?
More or less, yeah. There are signs that Chris Armas has had them trying to play more with the ball, but an excellent breakdown over at American Soccer Analysis shows that while their longer possessions have gotten more dangerous, they’ve actually gotten less frequent, suggesting that maybe this team’s just not built for possession. The biggest stylistic difference from last season is that the Red Bulls are starting to discover that soccer fields have a left side, too.
Wait but what if Jesse Marsch had a reason for overloading one wing?
Right, so that’s the thing. For a team that’s all about playing direct and counterpressing, it makes sense to squeeze the game against one sideline where you can win the ball with numbers. Not surprisingly, the stats show Chris Armas’s more diffuse Red Bulls aren’t pressing quite as effectively they used to, especially in the highest third. But that doesn’t mean they’re not still very good at it.
Uh oh that clip looks bad. How will NYCFC adjust?
They might not have to. Notice Atlanta’s playing from a four-back set with their fullbacks barely a third of the way up the field. The Red Bulls have zero qualms about pushing seven or more players across the halfway line and trapping the buildup as it swings slowly from sideline to sideline, which is how they dismantled NYCFC’s 4-3-3 last May when Patrick Vieira insisted on building from the back.
But for the last few months Dome Torrent’s team has mostly preferred a 3-4-3 with wingbacks that can drift upfield to break the lines of the Red Bulls’ preferred 4-2-3-1 defensive shape. Expect Armas to keep his fullbacks tight on Rónald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm and force NYCFC to play through the middle. That’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition: the Red Bulls can be vulnerable to fast breaks, especially with Tyler Adams gone, but Alex Ring will be the first to tell you that trying to play “flick-ons and shit like that” through the middle of their defense is a dangerous game.
Hmm, any other options in possession?
Yeah, so one thing NYCFC’s done a lot lately is to enter the final third with long diagonal switches. That might not be a bad idea against the Red Bulls, whose heavy horizontal press has left them vulnerable to switches in the past. But it actually hasn’t been that effective for Dome this season: according to American Soccer Analysis’s Cheuk Hei Ho, NYCFC possessions that enter the final third via a switch of play are about 33% less likely to score that possessions that get there some other way. With Aaron Long back in action, the Red Bulls’ back line should be pretty sharp at picking out those cross-field aerials, so NYCFC might be better off relying on Héber’s holdup play through the middle.
Okay so what about when the Red Bulls have the ball?
Speaking of Alex Ring, he’ll be pretty important here too. In addition to spreading the buildup, Dome’s 3-4-3 sticks an extra defender in between the center backs, which is the first place the Red Bulls look to put the ball when they recover it. It’s probably not a coincidence that the only two opponents who’ve played three-back formations against the Red Bulls this season, Montreal and Orlando, both won at Red Bull Arena while holding the hosts to 0.67 and 0.65 expected goals, respectively.
But Ring is no James Sands: he’s noticeably less comfortable playing as a hybrid center back, and in the last few weeks it seems like just about every game has featured a halftime formation change to bump him back up to midfield. If Dome wants to start in a 3-4-3 today, there’s a decent chance we’ll see Ben Sweat or Sebastien Ibeagha (who spent some time at right back (!!) against Orlando on Wednesday) as the third center back.
Who else might start this one?
Your guess is as good as mine. NYCFC is basically a bunch of shapeless flesh sacks full of lactic acid after playing four games in less than two weeks, culminating in Wednesday’s crushing 120-minute loss … in Central Florida … in July. (I need a shower just typing that sentence.) Alexandru Mitriţǎ is definitely out (although that might not be that big a loss) and new signing Gary Mackay-Steven is probably in, at least as a sub (although that might not be that big a gain). Other than that, it’ll be a lot of gametime fitness calls.
Speaking of fitness, Bradley Wright-Phillips played his first minutes in three months last week. If he’s ready to start this one, that’d be a huge offensive upgrade from the Red Bulls’ rotating cast of random white guys from safety school Ivies.
Scary, right? But still not as scary as the possibility that Jesús Medina might see the field. ❧
Image: Pablo Picasso, Dying Bull