Philadelphia Union have transformed themselves into a possession-oriented team, and recently that possession has started to lead to goals. New York Red Bulls want little to do with possession unless they are using it to drive forward at a frightening pace. Only about 914 passes occur per match when the Red Bulls are one of the competitors, and no team in the league has a larger gap between the percentage of passes their opponents are expected to complete (74%) and the number actually completed (69%). As Joseph Lowery pointed out recently, teams complete far fewer passes (about 23 per match) than a statistical model would predict they would complete when playing against Red Bulls. New York City, holding opponents to about 12 fewer completed passes than expected, is the next closest to that number.
That is a big gap.
The Union are both more possession-based and less aggressive with defensive pressure than this weekend’s opponents, and they have treated fans to about 1070 passes per match, third highest in the league. The contrast in styles will make for an interesting matchup, particularly since Philly’s speed and width may pose a challenge for the Red Bulls compact pressing system.
It is, however, important to be cautious when announcing that anyone or anything will cause problems for Jesse Marsch’s side this season. Bradley Wright-Phillips prolific, consistent production has been married to new signing Kaku’s unnervingly Kljestanesque creativity, and backed up by sneaky-good defending from Aaron Long and Tim Parker. Since turning their focus from CONCACAF Champions League to MLS play, Red Bull has dispatched heavyweights such as New York City and Atlanta with relative ease.
And even when Marsch’s men have come out on the wrong side of the scoreline, they have evinced a dominance that pointed toward future success. Chicago Fire’s high pressure and long diagonals frustrated New York in April, but not as much as the Red Bulls own inability to finish the chances they created. The Red Bulls had four shots on goal in the first 35 minutes, 11 total shots on frame, and 22 shots in the match.
Chicago, in contrast, took four total shots, a number equal to the number of shots the Red Bulls took below the penalty spot in the second half.
But no system is invincible, and one way to undo a compact pressing team is to play quickly and spread the field. This works particularly well when you have speed on the wings.
And the Union most certainly do.
The Power of Energy
The recent evolution of soccer has moved the game away from trequartistas -- creative, attacking midfielders with few defensive responsibilities -- by emphasizing the importance of controlling the center of the pitch. Paired holding midfielders and 3-5-2 shapes both tend to place a defensive focus on the middle third of the field, taking away space from creative players and forcing the ball to the wings where it is less directly dangerous. As Ted Knutson recently noted on Grant Wahl’s podcast, poor shot angle, greater distance from goal, using the head, and shooting off a cross are all variables that can negatively affect the likelihood that a shot will go in. Thus, there is a big advantage to be gained from prioritizing central space over wing areas defensively.
The next question is: How best to defend the wide spaces once the ball is out there? There is a saying in chess that ‘knights on the rim are twice as dim’ which describes the limitations placed on a chess piece when it is on the edge of the board. Similarly, players caught against the touchlines in soccer have a more limited geographic range into which they can pass. The flipside, however, is that a player on the touchline can also be relatively certain that no defender is lurking in his rearview.
Red Bull, then, seeks to push the ball wide and then exercise control over where the ball can travel next. They may win it back on the wing, but the greater priority is often to prevent the ball from returning to the middle. Considering their goal, the Red Bull solution is somewhat ironic: They will often leave open a passing lane to the center, but only a lane to a player they feel they can quickly dispossess. This is, as Admiral Ackbar memorably informs us, a trap.
The key is that once the ball is on the wing the attacking team has a limited number of options, and if the ball is pressured, it is difficult to look for a long outlet. This makes it more likely the ball will be moved to the place Red Bull wants to trap, and then they use superior organization after turnovers (and Bradley Wright-Phillips’ stellar anticipation) to wreak havoc.
Control the Chaos
One tactic that Marsch’s team has used to great effect this season is the creation of chaos in a half-space and a quick counter off the second ball. Tyler Adams and Sean Davis have the mobility to follow long punts upfield, and New York is completely fine losing the initial aerial challenge as long as they can shape up around the resulting midfield mess and quickly move play into an area where they have a numerical or positional advantage. For instance, when the central midfielders collect the ball, they may drop it back to encourage the opposition to press forward as New York sends players forward and switches fields. Alternatively, they may quickly find their playmaker, Kaku, dropping off the back line.
Above, New York plays the ball high and long into the right half-space, and they end up with a 4v2 advantage around the second ball. Even though Colorado wins the ball in the end, Marsch will live with that outcome provided his team has created the numbers near the play that he wants.
How to Attack
There are a few tactics the Union can use to cause the Red Bulls problems. First, they must be able to exercise some control over the space around second balls. This means being aware of New York’s desire to send both holding midfielders after a long ball and trying to win aerial challenges by putting them out of play or by hitting them high enough to give the team time to track Red Bulls’ big engines in the middle. Below, Colorado plays a low longer pass to the front line then attacks the second ball and quickly switches fields to create space that prevents New York from setting up their compact defensive shape.
The word “quickly” is key when facing NYRB. The Rapids are not the most technically proficient team, but they spent the first half of their match against the Red Bulls playing the one or two touch passes that let them move the ball faster than New York’s compact shape could respond.
In the clip below, watch how quickly Colorado circulates the ball after New York’s initial clearance. This grants them the space to play a long diagonal over top of the Red Bulls shape.
Third, the Union need to recognize where the Red Bulls want to trap them and either play quickly out of it or use that space as a decoy to create time for Haris Medunjanin when he drops deep. Below, you can see Red Bulls leave a lane open to the square man in the near-side half-space when the ball is on the right wing. Specifically, look at how two retreating players and Sean Davis (#27 in the center) are all preparing to converge on the pass into the half-space. Instead, the Rapids play backward and quickly start to rotate the ball toward the opposite side of the pitch.
Additionally, Colorado then dribbles the ball toward Wright-Phillips in order to freeze him and create time once the ball is played to the far side of the pitch. By taking Wright-Phillips out of the play, the Rapids prevent the Red Bulls from accessing the ball-carrier. This means that the man with the ball has time to pick his head up, and as long as this is the case it’s more dangerous for the Red Bulls to initiate pressure since they have to respect a long cross-field pass and can’t get as compact around the ball as they would like.
This last tactic points to a key method of throwing off the New York pressure. Throughout the Red Bull soccer program (they also run successful clubs in Austria and Germany), there is an emphasis on reading and responding to an initial pass that puts the receiver in a position that limits the options for the subsequent pass. If a player receives the ball with his body shape facing his own goal, for example, that restricts where his next pass can go. Even if a center back receives the ball without opening his body up to allow for multiple options for the next pass, Red Bull will quickly react and press forward.
Thus, the Union can prevent these dangerous situations by changing the nature of that initial pass. One way to do this is to ask the center backs to advance forward with the ball until a Red Bull defender has to commit to stepping out of shape.
Above, Colorado’s central defender attacks the middle of the pitch on the dribble. Since New York prioritizes protecting the center, they collapse and leave the wings open. A better pass would create a chance for the wide player to run at Kemar Lawrence in isolation.
Similarly, Colorado brings the ball forward out of defense in the clip above, but this time New York holds its shape. As a result, they are holding a high line as the ball carrier has time to pick out a runner in behind. Once again, a better ball would create a good opportunity for the Rapids.
Parker and Long Going Strong
The last area of focus for the Union will be getting a runner at the far post when they enter the final third. In the six games those center backs have started together in back, the Red Bulls have given up two goals from open play: One to Colorado and one to Atlanta United. These goals share a few qualities. First, the opponent is able to collect the ball with space on a wide area. This pulls a fullback out of the Red Bulls’ compact back four and means the center backs are vulnerable. Second, movement along the front line makes it difficult for the New York center backs to lock onto a single man in their zone.
The play above does not end in a goal, but it shows the movements needed to break down Red Bulls defense. The ball moves wide to pull the fullback out, a midfield runner makes an underlapping movement, and an extra man moves high on the blind side of the fullback on the far side of the pitch.
In the goal, above, the Rapids force the Red Bulls’ fullback to choose between staying on his man inside or stepping up. He stays, but gives up inside position, and a backside runner is there to finish the play.
In the end, New York is unlikely to do much to surprise the Union strategically. But they will almost certainly catch Philly off-guard at some point in the match with their quick traps. The Union’s ability to respond to these moments when they have to play scramble defense, and their willingness to play the ball at speed and hit long diagonals into space will go a long way toward giving them a chance to compete with a team that has been a terrifying opponent to all comers this season.
And, of course, the Union must take their chances when they come. The Red Bulls do not give up many shots, so when the Union create an opportunity they need to make the most of it.
Because they can be certain that leading MVP candidate Bradley Wright-Phillips will make the most of the chances he gets. After all, he and the Red Bulls have done it against the best teams in the league all season.