Bigsoccerhead: RBNY's Tactical Blues in Montreal
By Eric Krakauer
Only the most brazen of fans would have expected the Red Bulls to stage an inspired performance against the undefeated Montreal Impact.
Without Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Jamison Olave, the Red Bulls were missing much of the backbone that propelled the team to a dominant, yet ultimately fruitless, display versus DC United.
If anything, though, there was the expectation that Mike Petke would continue to build on the lessons that have been learned so far this season, and more importantly, that he would replicate the strategies that were effective in the home opener.
After the second half collapse in Portland, Petke immediately identified an inability to maintain possession as his team’s biggest weakness – a surprising development given the midfield talent at his disposal. Accordingly, the game against San Jose saw a noticeable improvement, but a reluctance to push men forward meant that an increase in possession never translated into many goal-scoring opportunities.
Having dropped four points on the road, and feeling the pressure, Petke had little choice but to be more adventurous against DC United, at home. Unquestionably, possession remained the cornerstone of Petke’s strategy, but with the added emphasis of moving the ball forward more quickly, especially through the wings. A key feature of the new game plan was to also allow Brandon Barklage and Heath Pearce to support the attack, which meant that Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele would have more freedom to drift inside, and push into the box. The new focus proved successful, and only a magnificent Bill Hamid prevented New York from collecting all three points.
Thus, even with noticeable absences, the Red Bulls had a solid blueprint to follow in Montreal. And for the most part they did.
The Impact’s tendency to sit back and absorb pressure ensured that the Red Bulls saw plenty of the ball, and dictated much of the pace. However, unlike DC United, Montreal never afforded New York much space in, and around, the penalty box, and was able to string dangerous counter-attacks every time New York lost the ball, by constantly trying to feed Marco Di Vaio, whose runs were a major headache to the back four. Additionally, the fact that Montreal lined-up with three center midfielders ensured that one was always left unmarked, and more often than not, that tended to be Patrice Bernier, who assisted Di Vaio in the game’s only goal.
Had that problem been addressed – and had newcomer Peguy Luyindula found his finishing shoes - the Red Bulls would probably have fared better at the Olympic Stadium, but Petke never made the necessary adjustments, and Bernier continued to have an enormous influence on the game, which only increased when Barklage was rightly sent off after receiving a second yellow.
Petke’s only changes came in the form of substitutions, and those did little to alter the fact that Troy Perkins’ goal was seldom threatened. As a matter of fact, Petke’s substitutions are starting to establish a pattern: none of them are made in attempt to change his strategic approach.
Against Montreal, Steele, Luyindula, and Alexander gave way to Connor Lade, Josue Martinez, and Lloyd Sam, respectively. All the substitutes slotted in exactly the same positions as those players they replaced. It was only against DC that the subs prompted a tactical shift (the initial 4-4-2 turned into a 4-3-3, to be exact), but Petke later admitted that the players made the changes themselves – which is another issue altogether.
It’s still very early in the season, hence, there’s no need to hit the panic button. Yet, with only two points out of a possible twelve, and perhaps more worryingly, stuck in a scoreless rut that has stretched to 253 minutes, the Red Bulls are left with little margin for error. Therefore, while Petke’s tenets are starting to solidify, and there are signs that the team’s form will improve, the coach will have to start tinkering with his tactics if the results don’t start to appear.
Player Ratings (1-10)
Robles (7): His best performance of the season. Robles prevented Di Vaio from adding to his tally, first by quickly coming off his line in order to anticipate one of Helgersson’s mistakes, and then by parrying one of his shots.
Barklage (6): A second yellow is a blemish on what was a good game. Spent a lot of time pinching in the middle when either Holgersson, or Pearce were caught out of position. Averted a Di Vaio goal in the 38th minute by making a last ditch clearance.
Holgersson (5): Assigned the duty of marking Di Vaio throughout the game. The big Swede was tortured by the Italian, and was responsible for the conceded goal. Holgersson never seemed comfortable partnering up with Pearce.
Pearce (6): Had the best opportunity to score off a header. Continues to look uncomfortable in defense, but remained free of any major mistakes.
Kimura (6): Put in a steady shift at an unfamiliar position. Played conservatively in the first half due in part to Andres Morenos’ right wing forays, but had to attack more in the second when the team was looking for an equalizer.
McCarty (7): Captained the side with another steady performance. McCarty found himself picking the ball up very deep into his defensive third, and rarely contributed offensively, leaving the creative work to Juninho.
Juninho (6): It was from the Brazilian’s set-pieces that the Red Bulls threatened the most, namely when one of his free-kicks found a wide open Pearce in the 37th minute. Had more license to roam than McCarty, but wasn’t able to really influence the game from open play.
Steele (6): Hardly touched the ball in the first twenty minutes, since the Red Bulls attacked mostly from the right, but did manage to put Montreal’s defense under pressure with a couple of crosses. Was substituted once again with over twenty minutes to go.
Alexander (6): Benefited from his team’s insistence on attacking from the right, and continued to show a good understanding with Barklage. His deflected shot in the first half was one of the few scoring opportunities.
Luyindula (6): A good introduction to the MLS. Employed next to Espindola, the Congolese had to drop into the midfield often in order to get more touches. Did waste a few opportunities, but chalk that up to early-season rust.
Espindola (5): The Argentine ran his socks off once again, but made little impact on the game. One has to wonder whether Espindola will be an effective forward in Petke’s system. His penchant to sit wide suggests that a 4-3-3 formation would suit him better.
Lade (2): Spent twenty-five minutes on the left wing, where his right foot made his movements predictable. Contributed with a few misplaced crosses.
Martinez (1): Replaced an exhausted Luyindula, but wasn’t able to contribute offensively given New York was already down a man. Had enough time to attempt a flick, which resulted in a Montreal throw-in.
Sam (1): Subbed in to provide some speed on the wing, Sam hardly saw the ball come his way.