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Bigsoccerhead: RBNY Weaknesses Exposed in Chicago

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HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 16: Thierry Henry #14 of New York Red Bulls heads the ball in front of Marcelo Saragosa #11 of D.C
HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 16: Thierry Henry #14 of New York Red Bulls heads the ball in front of Marcelo Saragosa #11 of D.C

With four out of six games having been played on the road, the Red Bulls can rightly complain about an unbalanced early season schedule, but Sunday’s loss against the Chicago Fire exposed virtually all of the team’s weaknesses.

In a season of inconsistencies, Mike Petke’s short tenure has offered one: his tactics.

With the game in Portland as the only exception, Petke has opted for a fairly traditional 4-4-2, and for the most part, the Red Bulls have grown from game to game, and have perhaps suffered from an absence of fortune. Ironically, one could argue that the team’s only win of the season (against the Union) evidenced some shortcomings after steady improvement.

Tactical consistency is certainly a plus when developing a team identity, especially if that team has gone through extensive changes; however, consistency can quickly turn into inflexibility when a game plan falls short of expectations.

That is exactly what happened in Chicago as the Red Bulls hoped to turn the page on a winless streak in the windy city that stretches back to 2005.

Whether or not it was Petke’s plan to surrender much of the possession to the Chicago Fire, the home team controlled much of the game’s tempo. New York threatened on the counter, mostly through Luyindula, who found space behind Chicago’s defense, but continued to squander scoring opportunities, the most blatant when Juninho found him in the 31st minute. Had Luyindula converted that chance, the rest of the game may have unfolded very differently. New York was already up one goal, and Chris Rolfe had missed a penalty. The Fire would likely have found a two-nil deficit insurmountable given their inability to score.

Alas, while Chicago’s goal-scoring drought may have subsided, New York’s inefficiency in front of goal has certainly been their most obvious vulnerability. In their first home game against DC United, the Red Bulls fell short of a win when none of their twenty-four shots translated into goals, and it was only a moment of magic from Thierry Henry that sealed a win against the Philadelphia Union.

New York’s stuttering offense is a serious problem, but its genesis may say more about Petke’s reluctance to change his tactics than anything else.

Petke’s current system relies greatly on the team’s ability to create offense through its wings. So far, much of that offense has come in the form of crosses, which have delivered mixed results. After all, their success is dependent on a striker’s ability to put the ball in the back of the net – usually one that makes a living in the box - and the Red Bulls are lacking in that department.  Thierry Henry might be a cut above everyone in the league, but he’s never been an out-and-out striker, even during his Arsenal days, when he was at his very best. Tim Cahill, who has been moved up the field to compensate for Henry’s recent knee troubles, is excellent in the air, but his finishing during open play pales in comparison to his knack to pounce on the ball on set-pieces. The Australian is also a more capable midfielder than a forward. Fabian Espindola, the team’s big off-season acquisition, and the man brought in to replace Kenny Cooper, is a player very much in the same vein as Henry, and far happier hugging the sidelines than crashing into the box. As for Luyindula, the last three games have demonstrated that he’s more adept at creating dangerous situations than finishing them off.

That’s not to say that the men up-front are solely responsible for the team’s poor form. Petke’s midfield also manifests strategic dysfunction. The team boasts very talented individuals, but the sum of their parts is just not adding up. The recent pairing of Juninho and Dax McCarty works well when both men get on the ball, as neither is prone to giving it away. Without the ball, though, it’s another story.

It’s becoming apparent that whilst Juninho’s fitness is improving, at thirty-eight, his ability to cover as much of the field as is required in a 4-4-2, is questionable. As a result, McCarty has to either be more defensively disciplined, or has to over-extend himself. At home, against the Union, McCarty seldom pushed up the field, choosing instead to sit back and allow the Brazilian to do a lot of the creative work. On the few times that McCarty did get caught up-field, the Red Bulls became susceptible to counter attacks, especially when Michael Farfan was on the ball. It was a similar case against Chicago, although the problem only presented itself when the Fire went ahead, and the Red Bulls were chasing the game.

Obviously, a team’s midfield problems tend to put more pressure on the defense, which is only exacerbated by the fact that the Red Bulls have lined-up five different back fours in six games. The constant changes have prompted a number of miscues – primarily due to a lack of chemistry between the players – but the biggest challenge facing Petke is the lack of speed, as evidenced by the struggles New York has faced against teams with fleet-footed attackers who look for space behind their markers. Markus Holgersson, who has been entrusted with most of the man-marking duties, has been the most obvious victim. The big Swede even looked off the pace against Marco Di Vaio, who at thirty-six, is hardly the league’s fastest forward.

Considering that the Red Bulls will in all probability avoid making many more changes to the roster, it is up to Petke to adjust his tactics in order to better suit his players. That adjustment will require courage from Petke. It certainly isn’t easy to relinquish tactical philosophies that have in all likelihood taken years to develop, and perhaps more importantly, it is even more difficult to experiment with strategies that are both foreign, and don’t guarantee success.

Still, changes are in order, as a continuing unwillingness to make them will anchor the Red Bulls to the deep end of table, and ultimately cost Petke his job.

Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny