After a fairly mediocre season for the New York Red Bulls, where they finished 6th in the eastern conference and were eliminated from the MLS Playoffs in the first round, Chris Arnas and his team are looking to bounce back and perform at a higher level. As the current season is underway, the Red Bulls have collected four points and sit in third place in the Eastern Conference.
The New York Red Bulls registered an exciting 3-2 victory during their home opener against the league’s lowest-rated team from last season, Cincinnati FC, as well as a 1-1 draw, surrendered to Real Salt Lake in the dying moments of the match. In both of these matches, the Red Bulls showed great determination and ability as they looked to employ many different tactics that would make it difficult for the opposing side. If it wasn’t for a last-minute header, the Red Bulls would have walked away from the trip to Utah with two wins out of two.
While these results are certainly a great start, Arnas will be demanding more from his team that are looking to have a stronger showing this year. This scout report will take the form of a tactical analysis, examining how Arnas sets up his team tactically, as well as key areas of the New York Red Bull’s play.
One of the biggest areas to analyse tactically is Arnas’s decision to go with a 4-4-2 formation. In the past, the 4-4-2 was the go-to formation. Teams like Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning team showed an exemplary way to operate in the 4-4-2 formation. However, in the modern game, most managers prefer to utilize one striker with a role-specifically assigned to a playmaker (or a number 10) that sits just behind them. This would constitute a 4-2-3-1 formation, a formation that is incredibly common yet effective in the modern game. Additionally, the 4-3-3 formation, with three attacking players, is another common formation as teams look to employ creative players.
The 4-4-2 usually gets a reputation for not being dynamic, however, the New York Red Bulls had an incredibly dynamic start to the season. Against Cincinnati FC, the Red Bulls registered 15 shots with six of them being on target and an xG of 1.80. Out of the 52 total attacks during the match, 27% of them ended with a shot on goal. This performance proves the dynamic nature of the New York Red Bulls despite being in a 4-4-2 formation.
The reason for this dynamic nature is because of the positioning of the left and right-midfielders (see below the average positioning map, specifically #22 and #10). Alejandro Romero and Florian Valot would pinch in for most of the match, make a very compact midfield. This would allow the Red Bulls to press quickly while in a defensive transition phase and well as create lots of quick passing options while attacking. Furthermore, the tactical decision would allow freedom for the left and right-backs to go into space.
One of the most critical aspects of having a 4-4-2 is the two central midfielders having to cover lots of ground. Against Cincinnati FC, who played against a 4-1-4-1, a formation that allowed for an extra man in midfield. When attacking, this would cause congestion in the middle channels of the pitch, however, the Red Bulls tactics focused on getting the ball out wide and playing creative balls into their active strikers (as you will see later in the analysis when highlighting Kyle Duncan’s activity).
In order to make sure the passing lanes were covered, the Red Bulls had to keep the 4-4-2 shape perfectly to stay effective, which is what they did when successful defensively. The goals they conceded would be a result of a breakdown in shape, especially in the match against FC Cincinnati.
In the analysis below, you can see the shape Arnas demands of his players. Everyone is in harmony moving together as Real Salt Lake look to find openings. The midfielders, Sean Davis and Cristian Cásseres Jr. are staying compact and scanning the passing lanes. The back four holds a line that is consistent, hence not allowing balls over the top. The two strikers, Brian White and Daniel Royer are poised as they plan to press the ball, yet another highlight of Arnas’s tactics. This analysis shows how Red Bulls were effective in stopping Real Salt Lake from developing play.
The High Press
Another key area of the New York Red Bull’s success was in the work done from the two strikers. As stated earlier, White and Royer would play a key part in the partnership and development of play on both sides of the ball.
The high press has been a staple of Arnas’s tactics during the first two matches. As highlighted earlier in the analysis, because there is less of a presence in the midfield, it is imperative that passing lanes are covered by good defensive shape. This all starts for the two forwards, White and Royer.
Because they are a pairing, one striker can press while the other striker covers the pass laterally to the other centre-back. This takes away the most common options that centre-backs go to when pressed by a striker. Since they have two strikers instead of one, the New York Red Bulls can effectively stop opponents from switching the point of attack.
In the analysis below, you can see this defensive press taking shape. As the Red Bulls press the opposing right-back, the midfielders are covering the pass that would be the easiest option. Meanwhile, Royer and White were covering the other centre-backs (the only other option for the player in possession other than the long ball). This allows for the midfielders to confidently step up knowing that the press is on and will be effective. In this environment, the New York Red Bulls recovered the ball regularly.
Important Role of Kyle Duncan
A final trend in the Red Bull’s play is the importance of right-back, Kyle Duncan. The young American has proven to play a key role in the Red Bull attack. While this may seem counter-intuitive considering his starting position as a right-back, he is incredibly important when Red Bull have possession of the ball. His role is similar to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s role as a right-back while playing for Liverpool in the Premier League. Just like TAA, Duncan’s positioning leads to him being an advanced attacking player. The reason he has this freedom is due to Romero’s role as a winger. While in possession, Romero will pinch in, as highlighted earlier in this scout report. This allows for a channel of space to open up for Duncan.
If we revisit the average positioning map from the Cincinnati FC match, it shows Duncan’s advance positioning as being level with Cásseres Jr. Additionally, in the match against Real Salt Lake, Duncan is even higher up the pitch (average positioning below). This shows clearly that his tactical instructions are to push high in the channel to look to drive into space and create chances.
Furthermore, Duncan uses his great athleticism to dominate the right side of the pitch, something that Arnas has made a focal point of his side’s play. His high energy, pace and strength in duels makes him a very attractive player. These attributes and tactical instructions resulted in a goal and an assist in the first match against Cincinnati FC, further proving his ability and Arnas’s awareness to get the most out of his players.
This analysis below shows a primary example of Duncan bursting into space as Romero pinches inside. The action portrayed in the image resulted in a goal for Red Bulls, and Duncan even missed an identical chance of this nature earlier in the match. Here, Romero receives the ball after the Red Bull’s feed the ball into the centre of the pitch from the left-hand side. Duncan notices the space and interjects his pace to beat the opposing player (although not pictured, the arrow indicates Duncan’s run). Another beautiful part of this tactic is that the left-winger from the opposition is typically not defensively sound and has tendencies to switch off, allowing Duncan to get behind them. This is exactly what happens in this scenario and another reason that this tactic is so dangerous.
While the New York Red Bulls have experienced a fairly successful start to the season, there are certainly some improvements that can be made, specifically on the defensive side of the game. As discussed in this season thus far report, the tactics used by Arnas have been effective. However, where the New York Red Bulls can improve is in their consistency throughout the match. The shape of the 4-4-2 is imperative while defending, and in the attack, they have to be careful as the wide players pinch in. If they give the ball away, it will be difficult to regain defensive shape while in transition.
Overall, it is a great starting point to build off of as they look to implement a formation that not a lot of sides in the MLS are employing. With their talented and willing players, energy and commitment to the tactical system will be important as the fixture list piles up and form becomes a factor as the next phase of the MLS season commences.
You are going to love what Total Football Analysis are bringing you this weekend.
Starting with the Reiverderby in the German Bundesliga this coming Saturday, May 16 – Total Football Analysis will be bringing you live match commentary and analysis of Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke, kicking off at 14:30 UK.