The most impressive aspect of New York Red Bulls’ 2018 season has been their ability to do what they want, where they want to do it, to whatever eleven players have the unfortunate responsibility of trying to stop them. New York City and Atlanta, the titans of the Eastern Conference for many (until Toronto gets their defense out of the medical tent), were left stunned by the Red Bulls’ ability to restrict the space of the game.
On Saturday night, Philadelphia Union had no such problems. The highest expected goals number any visitor had earned at Red Bull Arena this season was 1.20, courtesy of Portland and Minnesota in two early matches that saw New York keeping one eye on the CONCACAF Champions League. Chicago took three points home from Harrison, NJ while only collecting 1.05 xG (a penalty and an Alexander Katai would take the credit).
The Union rocked a 2.02 xG, and even if you subtract the penalty, that still leaves the Union with the best offensive performance by a visiting team against Red Bulls this season. Now the finishing just needs to catch up with the creation.
Make space, use pace
There were two big keys to the Union’s ability to work through New York’s vaunted pressing system and create chances. First, Philly’s midfield did an excellent job of owning the center of the field. Tyler Adams and Sean Davis have been imperious this season, and their Special Skill is cutting off the center of the pitch from the wings.
Above, you can see how Adams and Davis occupy the half-spaces, making it difficult to move the ball into and out of the center. To overcome this, the Union created more space to cover by dropping their center backs deep in possession, using Andre Blake early and often, and pushing two midfielders high to pin Adams and Davis deep. Additionally, Philly stuck to the one attacking must-do when facing Red Bulls: Play quickly in your own half.
Second, the Union were willing to take on the first wave of pressure in order to break the Red Bulls’ shape and force a second defender to commit to the ball. Over and over, the Union stayed calm as New York sprinted forward, and, most importantly, Philly’s three key buildup players were outstanding at avoiding the first man.
Haris Medunjanin has an arsenal of odd feints and tricks, and he used them to great effect Saturday evening to disrupt Red Bulls pressure. In the clip below, you can see how the New York midfield reacts quickly to close down the big Bosnian, while the rest of the team, assuming success at stopping Philly’s counter, does not begin recovery sprints (keep an eye on Michael Murillo at the top of the screen, for instance). By leaving the first tackler in the dust, Medunjanin draws in a second man. Additionally, he forces the center backs to begin dropping since now they have to respect Medunjanin’s passing range.
Similarly, Trusty used an exaggerated shoulder drop to open the far side of the pitch when receiving the ball. This allowed him to open his body and bring Gaddis into the play, creating a 3v2 when Gaddis involved Medunjanin. New York is sucked in and leaves the left flank open for Philly’s fullback to advance.
Finally, McKenzie’s calmness on the ball stood out, particularly because he retained that steadiness after Bradley Wright-Phillips got the better of him in the opening exchanges of the match. Below, you can see McKenzie split two defenders, draw in a third, and hit Sapong in space. At this point the Union have two extremely fast wingers with heads of steam, and that is a qualitative advantage they look to take advantage of each and every match.
Locking up the New York left
Last, the defensive work that McKenzie and Keegan Rosenberry put in must be highlighted. New York was determined to work up-back-and-throughs against McKenzie, with Wright-Phillips sliding in front of the young defender and Royer using his athleticism to beat Rosenberry up the pitch.
Below you can see a well-executed early example. There’s a lot going on here for the Red Bulls. First, as the ball rotates to the left, Kemar Lawrence pulls out wide to keep Epps out of the vertical passing lane to Royer. Next, Wright-Phillips rotates across but stays just out of contact with McKenzie. At this point, Bedoya is still in position to offer help defense when Royer inevitably checks back to receive the straight pass through the half-space, so Davis enters the play to pull Bedoya forward, ensuring that Royer will only need to deal with Rosenberry.
All it takes is McKenzie’s mistake to create a great scoring opportunity. But after this play, McKenzie made few errors. And by the 36th minute, he could see plays like this developing. Below, New York once again expertly times their quick, short movements to open a lane to Wright-Phillips, but McKenzie knows exactly what is coming and snuffs it out.
The Union survived an early spell of pressure from Red Bulls and have every right to believe they should have taken all three points. A similar performance against Chicago at home will be extremely important with powerhouses Atlanta and Toronto lurking before the World Cup break.