The MLS is in the home stretch of its 2020 Regular Season campaign as teams focus on qualifying for the playoffs, and securing a positive seed in the postseason tournament. With an expanded postseason format, including 10 teams qualifying for the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, teams will be looking to qualify and compete for MLS’s biggest prize.
The New England Revolution find themselves squarely in the playoff picture and were able to clinch a postseason berth for the second consecutive year after this match. Led by former US Men’s National Team Coach Bruce Arena, New England are well situated to compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs and are looking to finish in the top 6 to qualify for a first round bye in the playoffs.
Similarly, New York Red Bulls also find themselves in a playoff spot after an up and down start to the year that led to a coaching change, resulting in the hiring of Gerhard Struber, previously of Barnsley FC. With their 1-0 victory in this match, Red Bull also clinched a playoff spot in the 2020 MLS Postseason. Similar to New England, Red Bull are looking to continue to gain points and obtain a first round bye in the 2020 Playoffs.
This tactical analysis will analyse both the tactics of New York Red Bulls and the tactics of New England Revolution and analyse the effectiveness of these tactics. In addition, it will analyse which tactics played a key role in this match finishing with a one-nil scoreline featuring a late winner from New York Center Back Aaron Long.
Lineups and formations
Both the New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution were in play in the weekend leading up to this match. New York were able to steal a point with a late equaliser on the road at Chicago. Similarly, New England was able to earn a point on the road against Nashville. The flurry of games that MLS sides have faced in 2020 have presented managers with the opportunity to rotate the squad frequently and this match was no exception.
New York’s interim manager Bradley Carnell opted to keep the same goalkeeper and back four in his preferred 4-4-2 shape. Ryan Meara started in goal while Jason Pendant, Aaron Long, Tim Parker and youngster Kyle Duncan formed the back line. The midfield featured one change as teenage sensation Caden Clark, a product of the Barcelona academy in America, replaced Dru Yearwood. The rest of the midfield featured Jared Stroud, Florian Valot and Sean Davis, who all started against Chicago. The front line was entirely changed as Brian White and Marc Rzatkowski replaced Samuel Tetteh and Tom Barlow.
Bruce Arena kept with his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation in this match. Arena chose to keep the goalkeeper, back four and two holding midfielders the same as their previous match with Nashville. Matt Turner kept goal for New England with Alexander Büttner, Henry Kessler, Andrew Farrell and DeJuan Jones in front of him. Familiar faces Scott Caldwell and Thomas McNamara held down the midfield for the Revolution. Diego Fagundez was the only returner in the attacking corps for the Revolution as Tajon Buchanan was replaced by Kekutta Manneh, Lee Nguyen was replaced by Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury was replaced up top by Adam Buksa.
Red Bulls Pressing Structure
The Red Bulls are known as one of the most effective and intricate pressing sides in Major League Soccer and will no doubt keep that reputation with the appointment of Struber. The Red Bulls are adept at making slight adjustments to their press in order to maximise its effectiveness against their opponents, and this match was no exception.
Given how New England typically set up in possession (which we will discuss later) New York was able to make some distinct changes to their press and cause problems for New England when in possession. One of the most noticeable changes was the depth at which New York began to apply pressure to New England. Typically a side that presses very high up the field, at times up to and inside their opponents 18 yard box, Red Bull dropped much deeper than usual in this match. Given the shape New England use in possession, the hope was that by allowing them to build out a little more than usual, it would open up spaces for New York to expose on the counterattack.
Given the depth at which their defensive line began and the effectiveness of their 4-4-2 pressing shape, Red Bull were able to effectively apply pressure and often prevent New England from being able to possess the ball and progress it through the thirds of the field.
New York relied heavily on their front two players in Brian White and Marc Rzatkowski to provide pressure and effective cover in their pressing structure. Often faced with 3 Revolution players in front of them, White and Rzatkowski were selective about when they chose to apply pressure, and who they applied that pressure to. For the majority of the match, White and Rzatkowski chose to apply pressure to the outside players of the three in front of them, which were typically centre-backs. When this pressure was applied, the other striker would either move to the player in the center of New England’s back three, or drop into the midfield to provide a cover shadow to assist the New York midfield. A few good examples of this are below.
The New York Red Bull wingers also played a huge part in their coordinated effort to press New England. For the majority of the match, both Caden Clark and Jared Stroud were effective in causing New England frustration in possession. Stroud and Clark were both tasked with the responsibility of covering the advanced New England full-backs and denying them the ball. They most effectively did this through the use of a cover shadow that allowed them not only to block a passing lane to said full-back, but also slowed down the progression of the ball so that the Red Bull strikers could apply pressure to the ball. By doing so, Clark and Stroud were effective in forcing New England to either force passes into crowded central areas, or play long balls to the New England striker, which New York felt they could effectively handle defensively. A good example of this cover shadow is below.
As you can see, the effectiveness of both the Red Bull strike force in Rzatkowski and White, compiled with the effectiveness of Clark and Stroud’s cover shadow played a huge part in frustrating New England in possession for the entirety of the match.
New England’s Shape in Possession
Under Bruce Arena, the Revolution have most often utilised a 4-2-3-1 formation. As is common with teams who set up this way, when in possession the team takes on a much different shape and utilises players in different parts of the field than commonly associated with that position. This part of the analysis will focus on how New England set up in possession against Red Bull and how they looked to exploit New York in their attack.
When in possession the Revolution shifted to a 3-5-1-1 or 3-5-2 shape to try and counteract the Red Bulls pressing structure. This shape has become common with sides who line up in a 4-2-3-1 and is achieved in several different ways. For the Revolution, the back three shape is achieved by a central midfielder dropping in between the two centerbacks splitting wide.
In this match, Scott Caldwell was typically the midfielder that dropped between the centre-backs, however at times Thomas Mcnamara helped achieve this shape if Caldwell was already higher up the field. The Revolution chose to create this shape in this way because it allowed for New England to put some of their best passers in Caldwell, Farrell and Kessler on the ball more frequently. An example of this is below.
This shape also allowed for New England to use their pace and attacking ability in the wide areas. As is typical with most 3-5-2 shapes in possession, there was a huge emphasis and reliance on the New England outside backs in possession. In this match this role was filled by Alexander Büttner and DeJuan Jones. When in possession, both Büttner and Jones pushed higher up into midfield areas to provide a wide passing option. In doing this, the New England wingers often tucked into the midfield to provide advanced passing options in the central part of the field.
While the Revolution midfielders most commonly were the ones to occupy this space, there were times when the wingers would stay in the wide channel and the outside back would invert into the half spaces. This was most commonly done on the right side of the field given the speed and attacking ability of Jones and Kellyn Rowe. This also allowed for New England to consistently occupy the half spaces in possession. A few good examples of this are below.
Given the Red Bulls pressing structure, having advanced central options was important for New England to be able to progress the ball. As we have already discussed, the Red Bulls press had a huge focus on denying the New England outside backs the ball. Knowing this, the inversion of the New England wingers allowed for them to be able to receive the ball through the passing lane that was vacated by the New York winger denying the outside back the ball. It also allowed for New England to create several numerical superiorities in the central part of the field, which led to a multitude of dangerous attacks, as you can see below.
Upon receiving the ball in these areas, the Revolution wingers often had many passing options, including the near side outside back who was pushed higher up the field, the central midfielders and the lone striker. This enabled New England to successfully launch attacks with speed when they were able to find players in these positions.
Red Bulls Narrowness in Attack
In addition to their prowess in defensive pressing, the New York Red Bulls have also become known for the narrowness they use in attack. As is typical, in this match the Red Bulls held a very narrow shape when in possession of the ball.
Red Bull employs these tactics for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, New York uses this primarily as a way of creating numerical overloads in attacking areas of the field. By creating these overloads, New York allows these attacking players to combine when in possession of the ball. As you can see below, there is an emphasis on having the attacking players in the field combine in central areas. This shape also allows for quick ball movement, deft passes and through balls that are tough to defend against. In addition to this, it also allows for interchangeability of attacking runs to be made. The closer players are together, the more players have the freedom to make different attacking runs, with faith that they will have support and balance from their teammates close by.
In addition, it also allows them to use their numerical superiority defensively to counterpress upon their loss of possession. Lastly, it also allows for interchangeability between their attackers. With many players in a compact area of the field, the Red Bulls are able to allow interchangeability between the positions of these players and attacking runs these players can make. The closer players are together, the more players have the freedom to make different attacking runs, with faith that they will have support and balance from their teammates close by. A few examples of their narrowness in attack can be shown below.
In this match, Red Bull were able to create these numerical advantages by inverting their wingers, as well as dropping one of their strikers into the midfield when in possession, as you can see below.
To conclude this tactical analysis, both sides were relatively effective in implementing their respective tactical game plans. The Red Bulls effectively disrupted New England in possession and were effective in creating numerical overloads in their attack. New England was able to manipulate their shape on the ball in order to try and counteract the Red Bulls defensive pressure. Given that New England accumulated 1.22 xG compared to New York’s 1.06, New England was not ineffective in their attacking efforts.
Since this match, both sides have clinched their spot in the MLS Playoffs in 2020. That aside, each side will surely be looking to continue to amass points to secure a bye in the first round of the Playoffs. With three games to go, each side will be presented with ample opportunities to do so.