Another day another disappointing draw for the New York Red Bulls. It seems like a familiar script that Hans Backe and Company can’t escape. On paper this team is not just a winner, but a force to be reckoned with. Yet they find themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference, which is mostly due to having played 3-4 more games then most Eastern Conference teams.
Today’s draw highlighted the huge mistakes management has made with this team, so here’s a quick analysis of the mistakes that have spoiled a promising season.
The problem the Red Bulls are facing seems very reminiscent of two early defeats Everton encountered early last season in the Premier League against Blackburn and Aston Villa. In those two games, Everton held more than two-thirds of the possession, but lost 1-0 twice. In those two games Everton took 43 shots, but only managed to place 9 of them on frame. Blackburn and Aston Villa took only 22 shots combined in the two games, but put 7 of them on target including the 2 shots that found the back of the net.
The moral of the story is that possession means nothing if you do nothing with it. I watched both these games and can tell you that for all Everton’s possession they were never able to break their opposition down and get in good positions to score.
This is the greatest problem facing the Red Bulls and a huge tactical flaw in the way that they play. The Red Bulls are very slow moving forward and as a result they rely on their midfielders to make plays, while their strikers have to play with their backs to the goal. Now this is partially due to defensive tactics used against the Red Bulls, playing 10 men behind the ball and hoping to catch them on the counter, but it is also due to a tactical philosophy employed by Head Coach Hans Backe. This philosophy has not changed even with the addition of Thierry Henry, which is startling.
It is even more puzzling when you consider that none of the three main strikers used by the Red Bulls are suited to Backe's system.
Both Agudelo and Henry look to drop back into space to find the ball and become playmakers. They are looking to use the space between the midfield and defense to establish possession. From there they want to find a killer pass or run at the defense and look for space to shoot, but when play moves too slowly there simply isn’t any space for them to operate.
Similarly Rodgers is looking for room behind the defense to run and take advantage of his speed. Yet in a slow game the defense has time to get back and eliminate that space.
Hans Backe seems determined to play a system that relies on wide players to bring the ball forward and connect with the strikers near the penalty area. One central midfielder holds, while the other looks to join the attack. This is the only way they play. When they go down, they simply push the wide players forward. That’s it and the system doesn’t change ever.
The Red Bull might play an attacking formation, but this is not Manchester United’s attacking 4-4-2. It is much more like Everton’s 4-4-1-1. Except Everton play that way because they have too. David Moyes, the manager at Everton, understands his team's strengths and weaknesses. They have strong midfielders and defenders, they are lethal on set pieces, they are good when the ball is in the air, but they have awful options at striker. It plays to their strengths to hold the ball and play an organized possession game.
The Red Bulls have a World Class striker and a young US international who want the ball at their feet. They want to run at defenders and create goals, but they are left waiting on the wings for players to get the ball forward. Perhaps the craziest thing is that they have two central defenders who are among the league’s best passers out of the back, but the ball moves through the wings anyway.
It is time for the Red Bulls to care less about possession and push the ball forward to their strikers. If that means giving away possession so be it. The Red Bulls have the best striker in the entire league in Thierry Henry and its not even close. He needs to be on the ball as often as possible. Hans Backe needs to change everything to make that happen.
Where are the Substitutes?
It has become clear that Hans Backe has no faith that his bench players are capable of playing. Now I’m sure I’m not the only one who is interested in finding out if this conclusion has any merit. I’m tired of watching other teams make substitutions and bring on players who make a difference in the outcome of the game while Backe sits on the sidelines and watches. The only changes the Red Bulls ever seem to make are injury related and that isn’t good.
Subs allow you to bring out underperforming players or tired players, and make tactical challenges when facing teams you are struggling against. Hans Backe wants 11 players and one tactic for all seasons. This is particularly frustrating when the team is struggling or one particular player seems incapable of making a positive impact, but nothing changes. It also has a negative impact when injury substitutions are needed and the replacement has had barely any playing time.
This is the most egregious flaw of Backe’s management of this year’s team. He doesn’t make in game changes, there is no other look. When the team struggles things stay the same, when they succeed there are no moves to consolidate their position by bringing on fresh players. Players aren’t even really rotated through the squad on a game-by-game basis.
Backe believes consistency is the most important thing, even if it means being tactically unwavering and refusing to use any players outside the best available 11. It would seem logical to me that in the summer when games are often played in very hot weather, replacing tired players and even allowing top 11 players to rest for full games would be extremely beneficial. Yet it seems required that every top player play every minute of every game, even if a bit or rest and a strategic substitution would make the team perform better.
Backe’s lack of understanding of substitutes was at an all time high during today’s match, when he only used one substitute. It was Chris Albright for Mehdi Ballouchi in the 81st minute and it only occurred after Dane Richards was sent off causing Jan Gunnar Solli to be pushed forward into the midfield and Albright to right back.
Then in his post game conference he commented that they team couldn’t push forward aggressively because it was very hot and he was worried about fatigue. Yet there was no thought of being more aggressive and simply subbing tired players.
Bad Goalkeeper Handling
The underperformance of Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton forced the Red Bulls to clear cap and use a designated player slot to obtain Frank Rost. I’m sure that Frank Rost will live up to expectations and perform admirably, but his signing might not have been necessary if Backe had any idea how to manage a Goalkeeper.
Coundoul was the first choice keeper all of last season, yet Backe decided to change the more athletic Coundoul out in favor of the more sure handed Sutton at the beginning of this season. Sutton and Coundoul ended up being swapped back and forth as they each struggled. Neither seemed to have the confidence of the coach, the players, or the fans. That was perhaps a big reason for their failure this season.
Tim Howard struggled mightily with Manchester United, but is now established at Everton and is playing at an extremely high level. The reason is simple. Howard is the guy and knows he’s the guy at Everton. At Manchester United he was one mistake away from the bench.
Backe should have stuck with Coundoul because he was the established keeper, with a very good goals against average for a good Red Bulls 2010 squad. Instead the coach unsettled his goalkeeper and then didn’t stick with Sutton anyway. Confidence is everything to a goalkeeper. We’ll never know what would have happened, but my gut feeling is that with a little more support, Coundoul could have done the job, allowing the cap space to be used to get quality substitutes, since Backe doesn’t trust the bench anyway.
Musical Chairs is for Children’s Parties, not Soccer Teams
The Keeper situation also demonstrated a huge problem the Red Bulls have brought on themselves. At the end of last year the Red Bulls allowed former team captain Juan Pablo Angel to leave for Los Angeles in favor of creating a new team based around Marquez and Henry.
Erik Soler brought in Solli, Tainio,and Rogers alongside the two big summer additions to be first 11 players. There was very little carry over from the summer before; even Mehdi Ballouchy had been brought in via trade mid-season.
For all intensive purposes the Red Bulls were an entirely new team that needed to be molded and shaped in preparation for the new season. Then with that accomplished the team proceeded to wipe the board clean and trade Tony Tchani and Danleigh Borman for Dwayne De Rosario early this season.
This trade messed up the team for 3 big reasons. First, you are trading two players for one player limiting your depth. Second, you are bringing in another player in Dwayne de Rosario who demands the ball requiring a change in how the team moves the ball forward. Third, De Rosario wouldn’t be there for a big chunk of the season on international duty, a fact that everyone with the Red Bulls organization seemed to forget. Possibly they assumed he simply wouldn’t play, but that seems like a pretty big thing to assume.
Then with De Rosario and the Red Bulls keepers struggling the team decided to trade De Rosario for Dax McCarthy, who was far more of a holding midfielder. In laymen’s terms a role player who wouldn’t cause waves. McCarthy also had a significantly smaller salary allowing the Red Bulls to sign new goalkeeper Frank Rost.
However, the team also needed another international slot to allow Rost to sign, so they traded Austin da Luz, their 2010 first round pick, for an international players slot and only an international player slot. The Red Bulls traded away yet another player that Backe trusted enough to use in a game, for essentially a whole lot of nothing. If they had traded an international player, like Mehdi Ballouchy, they could have gotten a serviceable American player and kept da Luz instead of losing more depth.
Soccer is a team sport and particularly with how the game is played today, it is a squad sport. You need to use every player available to you. You need to ensure every player has a role on your team. It is true that there are less games for MLS teams then European teams, but MLS teams play during the height of the summer. That means they are more prone to being worn out. In hot summer conditions, rotating players and using subs is vital. Yet the Red Bulls continue to trade depth and complain that the back ups they have aren’t as good as the tired first 11.
There are some extremely big questions to be asked of Hans Backe and Erik Soler. This team should be performing better. The general manager’s solution so far has been to trade away his cards and hope for a better hand. The manger’s solution has been more of the same and hoping that different faces allow his antiquated tactics and methods to succeed. The Red Bulls look to be a team needing new management. They need a General Manager who can build a team and a Head Coach who can run it.