If you missed my recent analysis of FC Dallas vs Real Salt Lake, I mentioned that I think taking a closer look at the tactics employed in MLS is not a sign of a charlatan, but just another opportunity to learn from mistakes and ideas. MLS should not be the epitome of tactical analysis, but it should not be totally neglected either.
I recently watched NYCFC vs New York Red Bulls played at Yankee Stadium. Not the 7-0 game the Red Bulls won, but the 2-0 game NYCFC won. The pitch at Yankee stadium is an extreme variable and external factor for anyone that plays there, which of course, makes for a very interesting analysis and approach the game. One thing we can all take from this game is that the tactics in this match are quite scalable. I can’t tell you how many college games in college soccer and youth soccer in the US that are played on pitches that are less than ideal in terms of condition and size. In fact, the NWSL just played on something that can’t even be considered a football pitch.
From a formation standpoint, not much of interest here. 3v3 in the central areas doesn’t allow for any interesting overloads so we must look at the patterns, positioning, and movements of the teams to see how overloads are created and in which areas.
The first thing I noticed was that the Red Bulls came out in a high press. They pressed NYCFC high up the field with the intent to win the ball back closer to NYCFC’s goal. Now, in order to employ a successful press it is vital that a team creates access to the ball in order to be able to press the opponent. Red Bulls did well to accomplish this by creating compactness in the attacking half (NYCFC defensive half). By preparing for the press through their movements and positioning, Red Bulls had initial success winning the ball back. Grella and Muyl began most of the presses on the NYCFC center backs. Their plan seemed to be to force NYCFC towards the center of the field by having Grella and Muyl press with arching runs towards the central defenders taking away passing options into wide areas.
Red Bulls obviously took the size of the pitch (68 x106) into account when deciding on their press and where to force the passes. Obviously by taking away wide options, they took away the threat of the ball from the outside back into depth behind their outside back, which is the run Villa likes to make.
Kljestan had an interesting role in the press. He would take away vertical passing options while staying very close to Pirlo or Iraola depending on which CB had the ball. Anytime the ball was played into these players by NYCFC, to relieve pressure, Kljestan would press them immediately which led to the Red Bulls winning the ball in central areas close to goal with numerical superiority on a number of occasions.
One of the more interesting things in the game, which I think can only be possible on a pitch that is 106 yards in length (53 yards per half) was that when NYCFC did play wide to their outside backs, the Red Bulls had their outside backs press. Yes, outside backs from Red Bulls pressed the outside backs of NYCFC. This would normally be a huge risk on a normal pitch, as the Red Bulls gave up space into depth, but because the outside backs on Red Bulls were able to get to the outside back so quickly, there was never enough time and space to play the ball into Harrison or Villa. The Red Bulls during the 1st half started to allow that pass to the outside back knowing that they could win it back nearly every time (call it a pressing trap, if you will). Additionally, the Red Bulls Center Back would slide over to fill the space vacated by the pressing outside back which created a back 3 capable of creating superiority against Villa and Harrison.
NYCFC struggled to break the press of the Red Bulls early in the match, but managed to break their press on 2 occasions, in particular. When the press was broken, the Red Bulls quickly got everyone behind the ball ready to press again. There were no real assignments during their press, their strategy was that whichever player was closest to the player in possession, they would press them. I often saw Grella press from one player to the next without regard for positioning, again probably dictated by the pitch size.
The Red Bulls seemed to employ a tactic of counter pressing in their high press in the sense that they chose to run directly at the ball carrier at maximum intensity. In this type of press, the opponent is pressed as aggressively as possible with the goal of eliminating time and space as quickly as possible. There is no slowing of the feet to defend, just 100% intensity running straight at the opponent. This resulted in NYCFC ball carriers having less time on the ball, but when combined with a smaller pitch size to begin with, this was very effective at winning the ball back.
However, the danger in a tactic like this is that when playing against skilled players, such as Harrison, Villa, and Lampard, it is easy to get eliminated off the dribble, which happened on a few occasions, which led to fouls and/or Lampard/Villa/Harrison running at the Red Bulls back 4.
NYCFC chose a different approach to the match. They elected not to press the Red Bulls build up at all. Instead, they allowed Red Bulls to advance to their defensive half without contest on every occasion. They chose to drop very deep into their defensive half, which also turned out to be an effective strategy in the opposite sense. While Red Bulls wanted to impose themselves, have majority of possession, win the ball high up the field, etc. NYCFC wanted to sit compactly in their defensive half and look to counter using the pace of Harrison and the guile of Villa/Lampard.
On a smaller pitch, like Yankee Stadium, 11 players inside a 53 by 34 yard space made it very, very compact defensively for NYCFC.
OK, so what do we know? The pitch is small, the opponent is sitting into their half and space is hard to come by. Well, if my opponent is compact and space is hard to come by, I need to make my opponent not compact and create space to play and receive into. Well, what is important in accomplishing this is to circulate the ball and force NYCFC to shift their shape side to side, while all the time looking to penetrate vertically. The best pass in soccer is a forward one that bypasses opponents, but sometimes that pass cannot be played. Therefore, we play wide, in order to create a passing option forward that can bypass the opponent. Red Bulls were not patient enough in the attack to do this. Instead, they often resorted to forcing vertical passes into Kljestan and BWP which were intercepted by Iraola or Pirlo quite often. Now, what is the danger? You have a very compact team transitioning against a very spread out team. This is where both of NYCFC’s goals came from. They were betting on Red Bulls forcing vertical passes and upon winning those possessions, they looked to transition forward on the dribble and finding Lampard, Harrison, McNamara, and Villa in the half spaces forcing the Red Bull center backs to step to the ball and create space between them.
This was basically the tell of the tale. The Red Bulls employed a press high up the field and wanted to impose themselves in possession of the ball, while NYCFC chose to sit back and counter. When you look at the teams, both tactical plans make sense.
NYCFC is an older team with some players with pace and great movement up top. There is no way Pirlo or Lampard could maintain a high press for 90 minutes. However, given the size of the pitch, sitting in their own half reduced the space that BWP had to run into and the space that Kljestan could receive into.
Red Bulls on the other hand is a much younger team. They have a coach who wants to try to challenge what is possible in possession and in style of play. Therefore, a high press on a small pitch and a variety of movements and positional interchanges in buildup also make sense for them.
Some other things of note in this match were that the Red Bulls aimed to create superiority in central areas by pushing their 7/11 inside which allowed for their outside backs to overlap and push extremely high up the pitch. This created a 5v3 or a 4v3 in central areas.
NYCFC was struggling to deal with this at first because they were having Harrison and McNamara track Lade and Zizzo, the Red Bull outside backs, deep into their defensive half. This allowed the Red Bulls to play McCarty or Felipe in the half spaces who could then play vertical passes to Grella, Muyl, Kljestan, or BWP.
NYCFC quickly countered this issue by indenting their outside strikers (Harrison and McNamara) defensively. This created their compact shape I discussed earlier and closed vertical passing lines. This allowed Red Bulls to find Lade and Zizzo in deeper positions, but these players are not who Red Bulls want on the ball making decisions. In addition, these players were making decisions from wide areas, the furthest position from goal. So, this change allowed NYCFC to force the ball into the widest areas of the pitch with the least effective Red Bull players from an attacking standpoint. Simultaneously, they denied vertical passing lines and passes into their most effective attacking players, BWP, Grella, and Kljestan.
However, when the ball was played deep to Lade or Zizzo, Harrison and McNamara often sprinted wide to deny service. Although this is a tough sprint to ask players to do, it isn’t as tough on such a small pitch. Additionally, Harrison and McNamara didn’t have to win the ball or necessarily block the cross. The point of them going wide to defend the outside backs was more about keeping numerical superiority in the box for defending crosses.
Some interesting ideas in this match given the size of the pitch. I don’t know how much NYCFC’s decision to indent their wingers and force the ball to Lade/Zizzo was Viera, or more the leadership, experience, and knowledge of players like Pirlo, Lampard, and Villa to direct that change to Harrison and McNamara in game. NYCFC chose to reduce space and cover central areas which allowed them to take advantage of the Red Bull’s propensity to play vertical passes and take advantage of their inexperience and overzealousness to force passes into central passing options. NYCFC’s compact shape then allowed them to transition quickly with a lot of numbers that were close together, which in the end was why they won 2-0.