To defeat New York Red Bulls, an opponent must overcome a system built on space reduction. The teams above Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference have collected a grand total of one point againts Jesse Marsch’s men in regular season play this season, and against Atlanta United and NYCFC, the scores were not close.
But Philadelphia Union went punch for punch in Red Bull Arena in May, and their own system, resting on a commitment to building out of the back and using their workhorse midfielders to spread the ball around, has proven to be a difficult matchup for New York.
Let’s take a quick look at two aspects of how the Union overcame Red Bulls hard pressure on Saturday night in the US Open Cup’s fourth round.
Red Bull pressing shape
After a midweek match against Seattle, Marsch rested key men Daniel Royer, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Aaron Long. Although the first two names appear more often in headlines, Long’s partnership with Tim Parker has been the backbone of Red Bulls’ ability to high press without conceding high quality chances going the other way. This tradeoff -- taking away space high up the pitch while giving up space in transition -- is fundamental in modern high pressure systems regardless of how they are executed. Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Ralf Rangnick, the mastermind of Red Bulls’ entire soccer playing philosophy, have all come up with different ways of responding to this risk/reward proposition.
Without Long, Marsch used three centerbacks flanked by wingbacks. This was meant to provide extra cover against the Union’s speedy wingers who were such a threat the last time these teams met. In front of that defense, Tyler Adams sat as a shield who could release and prevent Borek Dockal from playing long passes in behind. Beyond Adams, four players pressed high up the pitch in a diamond shape to prevent Philly’s buildups from creating space for Haris Medunjanin.
Union beating the first man
At the core of Red Bulls’ defensive philosophy is space compression. In order to make the field small and give New York’s midfield athletes to converge on a player receiving the ball and force him into quick, clumsy decisions, they must first reduce the number of options apparent to the passer. The simple analogy here is American football, in which a defensive unit will blitz the quarterback with the dual goals of either tackling him or reducing his time to make reads further down the pitch. This means the ball will end up in front of the defense so they can close on it or it will be thrown without adequate thought, in which case an interception is more likely.
By blitzing the ball carrier, New York looks to limit decision-making in a similar way, forcing smart player into unsmart decisions.
But if you can get around the first man pressing, Red Bulls end up in a conundrum of their own. If somebody else leaves their man, and that man makes an intelligent move to get into an open passing lane, there is a waterfall effect and the attacking team can either find a free man or, if nobody on Red Bull steps forward, play the ball into space on the opposite side of the pitch.
That space is the price New York pays for putting so many men around the ball, and they can usually pay it without consequence because they do such a good job of keeping heads down.
The Union, though, continually used body feints and pass fakes to send Red Bulls initial defensive pressure away. Here you can see Ale Bedoya’s body feint creating a lane through which he can carry the ball, inviting the next man to step forward while he scans the field for a more dangerous pass.
And below Haris Medunjanin creates a passing lane by looking off the defender.
In both cases, the Union are using Red Bulls’ anticipatory defending against them. All teams in the Red Bull ecosystem focus on reading defenders’ bodies and eyes in order to anticipate the next pass and quickly close before the receiver can pick out an option to relieve pressure. Philly’s midfield trio was excellent all night at undermining the New York aggressiveness with on-ball confidence.
Playing into space
The second tactic the Union used to great effect on Saturday was a simple one: Play into space, even if that pass is not the most vertical or dangerous. Jim Curtin likes to emphasize playing forward, but against Red Bull, sometimes a long square ball is every bit as attacking as one that travels forward.
This counterintuitive notion is a product of Red Bulls willingness to commit bodies to the ball-near side of the pitch. The logic is strong: Create numerical superiority around the ball and the opposition is more likely to struggle to contain you when you break forward after turnovers. Again, though, the cost of dominating one side of the pitch is leaving space on the other. And the Union’s midfield showed a dedication to playing long passes, and their success was driven by an intuitive, practiced understanding of where support would be even if they did not have time to look around and pick out a perfect option.
Overall, the Union’s ability to find open men to exit pressure meant Red Bulls system could not dominate the match as it has against numerous other opponents this season. Few teams have created as many chances in the box as Philly did against New York, and even without Marsch’s full strength squad that is quite an achievement; a far weaker Red Bulls side has already beaten Portland this year.