This article first appeared in Football.com
“Sometimes you just have to get over the pain barrier.”
That’s how Thierry Henry summed up his crucial return from injury.
A fitting remark, considering the Frenchman’s 80th minute goal had just guaranteed a first win for the New York Red Bulls, in a season that up that point could only be described as painful.
The X’s & O’s
As expected, Mike Petke made very few adjustments to his strategy, with the only real changes coming in the form of player selection.
The Red Bulls back four saw yet another realignment. Spared against Montreal because of the turf field, Jamison Olave returned to the center of the defense where he partnered up with Markus Holgersson; and similarly to the game against DC United, it was the Swede who was assigned man-marking responsibilities, while the Colombian remained on clean up duty. On the right, Kosuke Kimura started in place of the suspended Brandon Barklage, and Heath Pearce returned to the left side.
New York’s midfield saw no changes, with Juninho and Dax McCarty holding the middle, while Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander were employed on the left and right, respectively. Finally, with Henry on the bench, and Espindola injured, Tim Cahill was pushed forward with Peguy Luyindula.
The game plan continued to center around the midfield’s ability to quickly spread the ball wide, since the Red Bulls have looked the most dangerous when whipping the ball into the box. A perfect example of this was when Luyindula, Junhinho, and McCarty linked up in the midfield in the 21st minute, with the latter spreading the ball to Steele, who in turn found Luyindula with a low, darting cross that the Congolese failed to convert.
The move reflected much of what has been missing from New York’s game. Although, the Red Bulls have been able to maintain possession, and find their wingers in their previous games, the combinations were too slow, allowing opposing defenses enough time to organize themselves.
Curiously, though, it was the forced tinkering up-front that proved the most influential. Cahill and Luyindula showed a very good understanding from start, with both men taking turns coming in deep in search for the ball. Their quick triangulations with the midfielders, as well as the fact that their markers followed them into the midfield, caused the Union’s defense to open up, forcing the wing-backs to pinch in, and giving more room for Steele and Alexander to exploit.
Luyindula’s movement was particularly disconcerting for Philadelphia’s defense, since the Congolese roamed throughout the offensive third, and seldom held on to the ball, opting to pass-and-move, instead. This was the case when he and Henry combined to create a chance for Steele in the 79th minute, and more importantly, when he assisted Henry on his game-winning goal.
The first win of the season will do much to raise the team’s spirit, and relieve some of the pressure Petke must have been feeling. However, Saturday’s performance still underlined some problems that the coach will have to deal with.
Even though Juninho has shown gradual improvements, it’s hard to imagine the Brazilian being very effective in Petke’s 4-4-2. Juninho has never been known for his pace, but at thirty-eight, it’s plain to see that its absence is a problem. Against Philadelphia, Steele and Alexander routinely pinched in the middle in order to provide more cover; yet, when they failed to do so the Union managed to string dangerous counter-attacks, primarily through Michael Farfan, whose speed afforded him plenty of space in the center of the park.
The same can be said about Fabian Espindola. While he didn’t feature against Philadelphia due to an injury, the Argentine’s inclination to drift wide suggests that Petke may have to rethink his formation if he’s to get the best out of his forward. Luyindula’s unexpected early success might also exacerbate that problem. One doubts that Luyindula was ever a key player in Petke’s mind; nevertheless, it would be foolish to drop the Congolese in light of his performances.
Player Ratings (1-10)
Peguy Luyindula (8): He should have scored; thus, detractors may point to his wastefulness, but Luyindula’s movement, passing, and ability to hold the ball were fundamental to New York’s success. Against Montreal, Luyindula never got on the same page as Espindola, but with Cahill and Henry, it was a completely different story. The Red Bulls’ best chances went through his feet, and his assist to Henry was impeccable.
Robles (7): Didn’t have much work to do in the game, and there was little he could do to prevent the goal. Incredibly, Robles stayed in the game after colliding with Conor Casey, and taking a nasty fall.
Kimura (7): Barklage’s red card may have given the Japanese player another chance to get back the spot he lost after a poor game in Portland. Kimura was steady defensively, and always an option when the Red Bulls attacked.
Olave (8): The defense is just better when the Colombian plays. Mostly on clean-up duty, Olave never gave Philadelphia’s forwards much time to breathe, let alone think. Just ask Sebastien Le Toux, who was rendered useless for most of the game.
Holgersson (6): The Swede kept Jack McInerney quiet for most of the game, although the forward did cause him some problems. Holgersson was affected by Casey’s physical play, and was to blame for the conceded goal.
Pearce (7): Switched to left-back once again, Pearce had his best game of the season. One could argue that he should have been in a better position during the throw-in that led to Philadelphia’s only goal, but apart from that, his play was free of mistakes, and his long balls down the left a constant source of danger.
McCarty (8): Fittingly, scored the first home goal of the season with an opportune volley on one of his rare forays into the box. McCarty worked tirelessly for the ninety minutes, doing most of the midfield’s defensive work. His partnership with Juninho is slowly becoming more fruitful.
Juninho (6): The Brazilian is starting to find his form, but his pace is suspect, and leaves the team open to counter attacks. Juninho had a tough time keeping up with Michael Farfan, but he fed Luyindula a beautiful through-ball in the first half, and played a big part in the team’s first goal.
Steele (7): Assisted McCarty on the first goal. Steele’s influence on the left side of midfield is imperative to the team’s success, particularly with his crosses. He links up well with Pearce, and his defensive work rate is commendable.
Alexander (6): Less influential than in the previous two games, perhaps due to a less familiar partnership with Kimura. Alexander still threatened, especially when cutting in from the right.
Cahill (7): A surprise inclusion in the first XI at forward, Cahill worked intensely for sixty minutes, linking up well with Luyindula, and causing all sorts of havoc in the box with his dogged playing style. His energy and leadership are vital to the team’s identity.
Henry (8): Scored the winning goal with incredible finesse, slotting the ball in the back of the net with his left foot after controlling a pass from Luyindula with his thigh. Nevertheless, it was his spectacular bicycle kick in the 75thminute that stole the show, even if it ended up going wide. Like Cahill, Henry also showed a very good understanding with Luyindula.
Sam (6): Came in for Alexander and immediately caused problems with his physical play on the right.