New York Red Bulls
- Meara / 62. Murillo, 26. Parker, 33. Long, 92. Lawrence / 4. Adams, 27. Davis / 22. Valot, 10. Gamarra, 77. Royer / 99. Wright-Phillips
- Blake / 12. Rosenberry, 4. McKenzie, 26. Trusty, 28. Gaddis / 11. Bedoya, 6. Medunjanin / 20. Epps, 10. Dockal, 9. Picault / 17. Sapong
The Philadelphia Union came with a plan to slow down the New York Red Bulls. The host couldn’t play its intimidating transition game and failed to break the deadlock.
The wins against the New York City FC and the Atlanta United have not gotten unnoticed. Everyone is keeping an eye on the Red Bulls. They are unique among the contenders; every team with more points than New York (49.6%) is possession-based, controlling more than 50% of the ball each game. The Red Bulls play one of the highest defensive lines in MLS: they are 1st both in forcing the opponent to play long ball from the defensive third and in preventing the opponent from finishing a pass in the mid-third. They use the high confrontation line and the transition to generate a chance and pin the opponent back: on average, the Red Bulls start their possession 45.31 yards from their goal, 5th highest in the league, per @AnalysisEvolved. They also force their opponent to start their possession 42.3 yards from the goal, 5th lowest in MLS, per @AnalysisEvolved. The Red Bulls bully the opponents with their high defensive line and transition game.
The Red Bulls’ transition game is a sword with two blades. Its high confrontation line pushes you to pass faster to bypass the pressure. The faster the game is, the more chaotic it becomes, and the Red Bulls will generate and concede more transitional opportunities. Jim Curtin knew that to beat New York the Union had to slow down the game. They needed to pass with a higher success rate to minimize the transition and make more successful long balls to bypass the pressure line. His teams managed to do both of these things.
The Union rarely looked to make a quick transition into the offensive phase, especially in the first half. When they regained the possession in the defensive phase, their players often aimed to make a horizontal or backward pass:
On average, the Red Bulls manage to limit the opponent from playing more than 29% of its passes backward, the lowest in MLS. The Union broke that trend; over 35% of their passes in this game were backward passes. This season, only three teams have exceeded the 32% mark against the Red Bulls, and only the New York City FC (34.3%) have come close to match Philadelphia’s record.
If they were too keen to attack before New York’s players returned to the defense, the Union might have caught them in the transition, but they would also lose their own structure; the distance between players would have been too large for them to collectively attack or defend. The game would have favored New York. By always passing it backward or horizontally, the Union slowed down the match. Everything came to a halt after the Union regained the possession. They didn’t catch New York by surprise, but they also maintained a stable structure around the ball. They avoided trading punches with the Red Bulls and kept them quiet for a long spell.
When they regained the possession, the Union often sought their best passer, Haris Medunjanin, to dictate the play. He played more passes than anyone and made up 13.7% of all of their passes. That percentage jumps to 24.6% when counted only the long balls. Good things happened when he made those passes:
The Red Bulls didn’t try to pressure Medunjanin in the first half, and his long passes created a few chances for Philadelphia. They kept the Union’s unadventurous offense alive in the first half.
The Union gave up the possession, but not the defensive pressure. Alejandro Bedoya and Borek Dockal always marked Tyler Adams, New York’s best passer, in the build-up. They didn’t let him dictate the play and forced the Red Bulls to forge a passing lane between the center back and the attacking player. That pass was difficult to make; it had to bypass the midfield where the Union had packed multiple players inside.
Although Adams was marked closely, Sean Davis and Alejandro ‘Kaku’ Romero Gamarra didn’t always come back to help. The build-up’s pattern was predictable; Davis and Adams always looked to pass while Kaku only moved up to try to receive the ball. The Union prevented them from connecting the defenders and the attackers. They allowed Tim Parker or Aaron Long to initiate the attack. But the distance between them and the forwards was too large for the center backs to consistently delivered. When the Red Bulls insisted on penetrating through the center, they would make too many passes just past the half-line that the Union could intercept and counter-attack with a lot of space in front of them. The inability to advance the ball in the middle confused the attackers and the fullbacks; they couldn’t decide when to move into the attacking positions. The Red Bulls could attack the flank, but once committed they didn’t have a player capable of switching to the other flank nor stretching Philadelphia’s defense. The long ball also wasn’t successful; Medunjanin was dominant in the air and won a majority of the air duels in front of the defenders. New York’s offense failed to break Philadelphia in the first half.
New York responded in the second half
Jesse Marsch changed two things in the second half to get back the control of the game; first, they stopped Medunjanin from dictating the play from deep. Every time Bosnian touched the ball, Kaku or Davis would now pressure him. Medunjanin didn’t have that freedom he had enjoyed in the first half. The Red Bulls stopped those dangerous long-range missiles that hurt them multiple times in the first half.
Offensively, Davis and even Kaku took over some of the playmaking duties. They and Adams now took turns to drop close to the center backs to help the build-up:
Florian Valot, Daniel Royer, and Bradley Wright-Phillips also helped to increase the success of Davis’ entry pass toward them by moving back to the midfield to receive the ball. The distance between the passer and the receiver decreased and the success rate elevated. They had a better connection between the defenders and the attackers.
The Red Bulls have a unique combination of positional play and overload. Most teams create an overload by putting the pass receivers on different passing lanes. Against Philadelphia, the Red Bulls placed multiple ball receivers on the same passing lane at a tiny area:
When that entry pass worked, the ball receiver could immediately pass to the nearby teammate. The odd positioning of the players facilitated the zigzag ball movement. The sudden change of the trajectory of the ball often overwhelmed and confused Philadelphia’s defenders. That strategy works best in an open end-to-end game; if every defender follows the attacker to the overloaded area, the defense gave up its structure. If the defender stays at his position, New York’s attackers will have the numerical advantage to counter press any loose ball.
But against Philadelphia, the Red Bulls couldn’t play an end-to-end game. The Union contended to defend deep and sit behind the ball. The Red Bulls managed to break Philadelphia’s midfield, but they just didn’t have the usual amount of space they would find in the other games. They didn’t have that final touch to handle a structured defense. They also found an extra defender that they would not normally see in a chaotic transition game.
Just like the Red Bulls exposed New York City’s and Atlanta’s weaknesses, the Union also revealed New York’s problem in the handling of a slow game with few transitions. Their most problematic opponent is Columbus, a defensive expert that can slow the game down at both ends.